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The Native Hue of Resolution

by Devon Pitlor
And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment, With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.
---Hamlet, Act III, Scene one

Prologue: In 1954, during a glacial Alsatian winter night, two boys, miserable and pitiable orphans, ripped a third, an acknowledged fiend, from his holding cell and without explanation or preamble pushed him down beneath the ice of a frozen cistern and held him there until the last bubble of his breath broke on the water's surface and they were sure he was dead and would never return. But he did. And that is the sordid backdrop of my story. I. Absurdity Rajendra slipped into bed and immediately curled up as close as she could to me. It was our honeymoon, and Rajendra being much younger than me wanted the kind of cozy protection that I was never quite sure that I could offer. Her body felt tight and silken

against my flanks. "I want to know everything about you, Kevin," she whispered. It was not the first time she had said it. How absurd, I thought. It is totally impossible, even between the most intense of lovers, for one to know everything about another person. Besides, as I had often assured Rajendra, there was not much to know about me. I was thirty-one years old to Rajendra's barely nineteen, and already there were numerous questions in my mind about whether our marriage would work. Rajendra repeated her soft words. "Everything, Kevin. Everything about you." I rolled over and pulled myself away from her ever-tightening embrace. "I can't tell you everything," I said staring into her wide opaque eyes. "No one can. You can't even tell me everything about you." "Yes, I can. I love you, and that is all I need to say." "I like that," I responded, moving back again closer to Rajendra and kissing her lightly on her full and pouty lips, lips that had always seemed made for kissing, ever since the first time I had seen Rajendra sitting in my Freshman English 101 class. Ever since I had broken the old college taboo and dated a student. I remembered that night. It was not far from campus. We sat over glasses of Turkish coffee and discussed Shakespeare, another absurdity. I had assigned Hamlet to the class, an unwise choice. An absurd choice.

And now six months later we were on our honeymoon in my late parents' old cabin on Mountainside Lake, and that for so many reasons was the greatest absurdity of all. Why had I a chosen a venue of my childhood for our honeymoon? Why had I not taken Rajendra elsewhere, somewhere not so pregnant with memories---absurd memories. It was early October. My leave from the university was brief, and the cabin belonged to me and it wasn't far from our home. Besides, it was buried in the woods, and the woods, as well as the lake, were gorgeous in early fall. But absurdity was everywhere, and some of it I needed once again to confront. Perhaps Rajendra and her persistent question was the greatest absurdity of them all. Perhaps it was my unfinished critique of Hamlet. After all, literally billions of words had been written about the play since its first appearance in 1603. Who was I to.... "I want to know everything about you, Kevin," sighed Rajendra again, pressing herself even closer. "After we make love." II. Mountainside Lake The next day I wanted to talk about absurdity. I wanted, as usual, to say something about Hamlet, the play, about the absurdity of Hamlet's predicament. Rajendra was unflaggingly fascinated by that. We stood on the wooden porch of the old cabin where I had spent a large share of my youth and looked at the shimmering blue waters of the lake, now free from summer boaters and their annoying motors, now undulating gently in the

slight fall breeze. Rajendra rubbed against my side and squeezed my hand. "I know," I said. "You want to know everything about me." "Sometime," said Rajendra looking across at the very slightly rising hillside at the opposite end of the lake. "Sometime." Multihued autumn leaves were doing what they do in autumn: fall. In fact, a veritable shower of vibrant leaves began tumbling down around us, an auspicious sign perhaps, but no doubt an absurd one. Did the leaves symbolize the first signs of the passage of my youth? Someday, I knew, I would have to answer that question. But not now. "Absurdity," I said, glancing at my lovely bride. "Absurdity." "Go on," said Rajendra. "I know you want to talk about it. It is all so absurd like Hamlet. I know that is what you want to talk about." I gazed at Rajendra in the splendor of her youth once again and sighed. Then a somber mood overtook me. I knew that the cabin had already been sold and that one of the chores that Rajendra and I needed to undertake on this honeymoon was to clear out the last of my possessions, which by that time had mostly been packed in trunks. Long before Rajendra, I had foreseen the sale of the cabin. It was an absurd place. I told Rajendra so. "It is so beautiful," she said. "I fail to see any absurdity at all."

"Look across the lake," I said. "Look in all directions. Do you see any mountains? No. And did you see any mountains as we drove down here. No. Just pine trees and forests. Beautiful to be sure but no mountains. And the town, Mountainside, where I went to school. Did you see any mountains there? No. This is a flat, wooded part of the state. We have even had flooding here in the spring. Yet it has always been called Mountainside, the town and the lake." Rajendra smiled indulgently. "Absurdity," she said. "They give places funny names. Maybe some pioneer was expecting a mountain that he never got." "Mountainside," I said with some disgust. "I'm tired of it. I'm tired of some of the memories, but we have to deal with that too." Rajendra pressed against me again and wound her bare arm around my shoulder. "And that is why I am here for you, Kevin. We can do whatever needs to be done. That is what a partnership is all about. Marriage, our marriage, is a partnership. All good marriages should be." More leaves fell near our feet, and some wispy gray clouds began to weave across the sun. A distinct feeling of impending winter sudden came upon us, and Rajendra, like a weathervane, immediately began to feel cold and reached for her knit sweater. "Winter is coming," she said abstractly. "We'd better get to the graveyard. And then we have some sorting to do. And you wanted to write some on your Hamlet book..."

"Forget that," I snapped annoyed. "I'm spinning my wheels. I have nothing to say about Hamlet that hasn't already been said." "Yes, you do. And you will find the words." "Absurdity," I repeated. "Absurdity in Mountainside where there is not nor ever has been any sort of mountain." "Let's go," said Rajendra, turning toward the open cabin door. "Let's do what a partnership should do." III. The town graveyard of Mountainside It was around noon when we drove down the main street of the settlement of Mountainside, past the tiny high school where I and my brothers had graduated. Past the tiny concrete block elementary school where my mother had once taught. Past the courthouse where my father, as county prosecutor, tried cases of illegal hunting and cottage break-ins. Past the old stockyards, now emptied of the scant cattle that were brought there each August by the farmers for sale to the abattoirs. Past the rosy, festooned sundry shops that were specifically designed to trap summer tourists. Past a summer-only steakhouse called The Buck's Head, which, characteristically, featured a moldy buck's head, complete with a seven point antler rack, nailed to the entrance.

We then drove into the newer section of the street, a part of town that thrived only because of the tourist trade. A Dollar Store and a modern, but unnamed, supermarket heralded our arrival in a brighter stretch of Mountainside that looked more like the world we were used to. "Oh, look," exclaimed Rajendra, "a McDonald's. I've been wanting..." "Forget it," I said with some determination. "We can get all of that we want back home. We came here to get away from that kind of nonsense." "Okay," said Rajendra, somewhat showing the impatience of her youth. "I was just saying that afterwards..." "Afterwards we can go back to the lake and grill some kielbasa and take in a last breath of fall before we pack up my stuff and get out of here forever tomorrow." I accelerated beyond the somewhat anomalous McDonald's which, as always, seemed too dazzling for its small town surroundings. I held my breath for a second while I waited for Rajendra to ask again me to tell her everything about my life. She did not. So I said almost under my breath, "Damn franchise has been there for years. Ever since they started McDonald's. It is totally out of place here. But when I was younger a bunch of us used to sometimes hang out there." "You and who?" said Rajendra with a petulant little moue. "I want to know everything

about your life--whether it was boring or not." She placed a particular emphasis on the everything that told me that she would never let go of the question. Not until I had either acquiesced or grown old or both. I accelerated more. Before long we were turning into the tiny, ill-kept county cemetery and navigating down one of its backside asphalt lanes toward what was my family plot. Coldwell, read a worn wooden sign marking the name of my family. Under some mossy stones adorned with faded plastic flowers, lay my mother, father and two brothers---all neatly arranged in a row. Leaves and mounds of unswept gravel rose up near the markers. Obsessively, my thoughts turned to Hamlet, the character. I was Hamlet. In fact, I had once been worse than Hamlet, and therein, unbeknownst to Rajendra, lay the wellspring of my obsession with the play and its enigmatic central character. Rajendra had visited my family's gravesite once before when we were only dating. I had rambled on something incoherent about Hamlet on that day, and I knew she was expecting me to do it again. We exited the car and began to mechanically clean up the grave plots with little rakes and brooms. Rajendra, seeking no doubt to please me, worked with a greater determination than I did. Each grave was marked Coldwell with the first names of my dead family, the various years they were born and the year they all died, which was 2000. I suppose that is what a first-time visitor, as Rajendra had once been, would have been struck by at once. On our first visit, Rajendra had noticed it, of course, and had asked me what killed them. I made a lame and half truthful attempt to reply. "Poison," I had said. "Poison, all except one."

That naturally had not been enough for my then fiance, and I knew it would never suffice for my now wife. I watched Rajendra work and waited for her to ask again. In the lawful intimacy of marriage, she would expect more. But when she stopped raking, she looked at me and asked if I was going to cry. "Not this time," I answered. "I'm over the crying. All there is left is the...." "Absurdity," she finished, and then resumed the clean-up. "You are never going to tell me the whole story, and I'm not going to ask you any more. When I say I want to know everything about you, I'm leaving this out. I want to know about your friends, your girlfriends, what you were like in college, like as a boy. I'm never going to ask about your mom, dad and two older brothers again." "Good," I mumbled and went on throwing the plastic flowers and dead leaves into a nearby ditch which seemed to be there for graveyard refuse. "Good." Then catching myself in an overly gloomy mood, I dropped my broom and went over to Rajendra's side and suddenly took hold of her shoulders and kissed her. I was as in love as anyone could be. More in love than the accursed Hamlet had been with the equally accursed Ophelia. More in love than I had ever been in my life. I wanted to punctuate my sudden burst of emotion with something special. "You know what?" I said with a happy face.

"What?" "I'm going to give in and take you to that goddamn McDonald's on the way back through town. I know you want to eat some garbage, and I'm giving in." "You don't have to." "I don't have to do a lot of things, but I want to. For instance, I don't have to clean up these graves or even visit them for that matter. I don't have to slave away on the millionth book on Hamlet, either. And I don't have to keep harping on absurdity. I have you now and better things to occupy my mind with." The sun sudden clouded over and cast strange shadows on the graves of my family members. I watched as a meek shadow crept over the name Coldwell. The accursed Coldwells, I thought. And I am one of them. The living one. IV. McDonald's Rajendra, predictably, was pleased to get a Big Mac and fries. The plasticky fast food emporium contrasted with the town in its fake luster, just as it always had. I glanced around. The fixtures of the franchise had been modernized in the past ten years, but other than that the place was still the same. Of course. All McDonald's are the same. That is a large part of their attraction. Even in a woebegone dump like Mountainside, where there

was no mountain, a McDonald's was reassuringly familiar, at least to a city girl like Rajendra. I ordered a coffee and sat down beside Rajendra as she munched on her hamburger. It seemed to take so little to make her happy, and when she was happy, she was totally devoted to me. In my own guilty way I liked that. A pretty wife twelve years my junior. A clean, modern icon of the America we would inhabit. In a very short time we would be shed of Mountainside forever. We would live in a larger, more up to date town close to campus, a town where Rajendra could satisfy her craving for fast food whenever she liked. A town where the shadows of the past would not haunt me. As Rajendra became more involved with her meal, I chanced to glance around the restaurant. It was impossible to stop the flood of memories that began to overcome me, and I began to wonder whether some of these might still have to spill from my mouth. In this very McDonald's already twelve years in the past I had sat with another girl---a girl who today as a vague figure in my memory personified absurdity at its most intense, a girl that I would some day have to talk about. A girl who had saved my life and probably lots of other lives too, but one that was so alien to any of the usual touchstones of reality that the mere thought of her made a part of me tremble that had not trembled for years. Then her name involuntarily rose to my lips and I mumbled "Shaylan Frack," as if talking to the wall. Why on Earth had I said it? What good was there in.... "Shaylan who?" said Rajendra raising her eyebrows.

I was trapped and knew I had to make some sort of answer. I raised my fingertips from the plasticated table and started to make a sort of explanation when...when the absolutely unforeseen happened. The blast of a loud muffler split the relative fall quiet of the parking lot, and a huge gravel hauling dump truck rolled up next to the front window. In seconds, the slamming of doors rumbled through the still atmosphere. And without even seeing who issued from the truck, I was paralyzed with the dread of a somber panic that I had not known for years. Two husky men dressed in checked cotton long-sleeved shirts swaggered away from the crudely parked truck. I knew one of them at once. And then I saw his name written on the side of his noisy vehicle: Rudy Balgan -- Hauling. The worst part of my past in Mountainside was coming back to haunt me. Rudy Balgan, a huge hulking hunk of a yokel, strode directly to the order counter and banged down his meaty fists to get the immediate attention of the server. His bloodshot eyes rolled around the restaurant looking no doubt for prey, for someone else he could intimidate, because it was evident within seconds that Rudy, who had once been the town bully was still just that: a thirty-one year old tyrant, thankfully confined to the region of his rearing, hopefully restrained by age or maybe a wife and kids, or maybe an aging grandmother. But no. My fleeting hopes were in vain. As soon as his gaze settled on Rajendra and myself, he forgot whatever he was planning to demand of the counter girl and pushed past his equally lumpy companion yokel and walked with a crude sneer over to the little, uncomfortable table we occupied. His fists were already clenched. His

predatory aura extended far in front of his already threatening browbeat. Eyes glaring with an aggressor's comportment, he strutted like a gamecock in front of Rajendra and me. So threatening was his person, that Rajendra immediately dropped her Big Mac and edged closer to my side. The very visage of fear itself was upon us. "Hello, Kaltbrunnen," he sneered mockingly. "Had a gun in your hands recently?" With a sense of true ridicule he curled his twisted lips and ogled Rajendra. "And who is this pretty little piece of fluff you have with you, sissy boy? Somebody we all can fuck? Somebody you brought from upstate? Where's the party gonna be, Kaltbrunnen? I want to get in on this one first." Rajendra gasped audibly at this sudden display of vulgar rawness. The brutality of Rudy Balgan's words came from an elemental world that she was wholly unfamiliar with. "What's going on?" she stammered. "I'll tell you what's going on," said Balgan, placing a heavy hand on my shoulder and spilling my coffee. "I'm going to beat the shit out of your boyfriend here---just like I used to do---and then I'm going to enjoy you to my fullest. And his hot little delinquent babe won't be here to defend him this time." Suddenly, Balgan's loutish companion appeared at his side and poked him in the ribs, rolling his eyes toward the restaurant door. Two state patrolmen in uniform were entering. Not noticing Balgan, they removed their brimmed hats and went to the counter.

"Saved by cops again," snorted Balgan. "Well, we see about this later. I'll be out at the lake. You can count on that, Kaltbrunnen, you piece of spineless shit. I'll be visiting before the sun sets or maybe before it rises, Kaltbrunnen. Take care, you cowardly bastard. Go find your gun again. You don't have Shaylan to show you how to use it any more." With that, the two hulking intruders turned sharply and left Rajendra and me stunned and sitting in what I was starting to think was my own urine, although it turned out only to be a cold but plenteous sweat that seemed to flow from every pore of my skin. Rajendra's jaw dropped as she watched them leave without ordering. Balgan punctuated this departure with a final obscene gesture of his thumb aimed at Rajendra. "Later," he grunted. "What on Earth?" began Rajendra. I silenced her with a roll of my eyes. "Not now. He is a beast, and he means what he says. We need to get back to the cabin. There is a revolver there. And I won't fail to use it this time." "This time?" said Rajendra, still stunned. I realized that anything I would say from that moment on would have to come in the form of an explanation, but it was an explanation that I wanted my own time to develop.

V. Back at the lake "Kaltbrunnen? Hot little delinquent babe?" "Not now," I snapped once again. "I'll explain everything to you later, Rajendra. Right now we have three priorities: pack up the last of my stuff, find that old revolver, and get the hell out of here." "So, the man I married, the man I love is going to find a gun and shoot the town bully. Don't you people have police for that down here? I mean he threatened to beat you up, maybe kill you, and rape me. Why can't we just call the police?" "Good question," I said sinking into a chair with the .45 revolver, a token of years past, heavy in my hand. I checked the chambers for bullets. All six were loaded. I suppose they had been loaded for years. Rajendra, exasperated beyond herself, dropped into a chair beside me and attempted to stroke my shoulders. "You can't just shoot the fiend," she said. "We're civilized people." For a few seconds I reflected on her exact term civilized. I was a respected college instructor in a well-know accredited university. She was an undergraduate with a promising career in front of her. We had plans for a family, a house, for kids. And yet, we were in Mountainside visiting a grave plot that I really didn't want to visit and meeting up with a phantom from my past. Yes, I was a coward. I had always been. But cowardice is a hard thing to explain and not always what it seems to be. Hamlet came to mind. The

famous third soliloquy, so often quoted, so difficult for any actor to accurately deliver. "Hamlet," I whispered. Suddenly Rajendra flew into a rage. "Fuck Hamlet," she screamed. It was the first time ever that I had heard her curse. "Call the goddamn police." "Hamlet may have more of the answer to our problems than they would," I sighed, knowing that I needed to furnish some sort of at least partial explanation to my young bride. "The cops are no good here. Not against the Balgan family. They would never protect me." "Protect you against what? Balgan must be at least thirty like you. A tough dude like that just doesn't keep tyrannizing a whole county. If he used to bully you, that was in the past. What gives him the right to pressure you now and panic me with a clear threat of rape?" I rolled the heavy pistol around in my hand and felt the bulk of past years weigh down upon me. "Things are not always as they appear, Rajendra." "I know. Absurdity. I suppose you're going to discuss that now... I mean before you shoot him and his buddies." "Yes, absurdity. A greater dose of it than you have ever known." And then I quoted Hamlet's enigmatic pronouncement from the third soliloquy: And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pitch and

moment, with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action. "And how does that fit in when we are waiting to be killed and raped by a thug?" "It does. I admit I have some enlightenment to give you. It will come. I was---after all--humiliated right in front of you, called a coward, gutless, weak-willed...and most of that is true. Balgan was and is a swine, but our best plan is just to get away from him." Rajendra stood up and started throwing some sheaves of old papers and photo albums into an open box. She slammed my possessions into the container with a kind of forced abandon. "So we run away? Great plan. We run away from your own hometown and cabin, your lake, your childhood home. I wanted to know everything about you, but now I am not so sure. I'm starting to get afraid of what I will find there." "With good reason," I conceded, standing up to assist in the packing. I tucked the gun into my belt, knowing full well that I could never use it---not now as not before, its mere weight reminding me of my own debility. Hamlet's words once again echoed in my mind. "To be or not to be," I mumbled. "That is the motherfucking question," retorted Rajendra with unvarnished disdain. "Largely misunderstood," I continued. "You see that was Hamlet's famous problem. It's right there in the third soliloquy. He could not act directly, even when everything and everybody around him was giving him the green light. He could not avenge his father's

murder because he could not stop weighing alternatives. The "pale cast of thought." Everything balanced perfectly in the intellectual mind to the point of total inertia. I need to overcome that, but I doubt I can." "Again your talking in enigmas. They were fine in your classroom, Kevin, but this is real life. We are under a threat. All you have to do is call the police. Or maybe stand up to him. If you can't do it, maybe I can." Rajendra's last words cut into my chest like a blunt stiletto. That was what Shaylan Frack had done, and done for me, but it wasn't about Balgan, not directly. There was so much I needed to tell Rajendra. I knew I needed to find the words and ways later. And then the wall phone, an ancient plastic landline that we had not discontinued, rang. It was, of course, Rudy Balgan, his booming voice audible far beyond the telephone receiver. He was coming. And he was not going to beat me up or rape my wife. He was coming with gasoline and torches, with shotguns. He was going to burn both of us alive in the cabin---and this very night, and there wouldn't be anything left to investigate. The county was his. The sheriff's office was his. Vengeance was his. It was a crude and violent threat, and, unfortunately, Rajendra could hear every word of it. "And don't try to leave," Balgan concluded. "I've got the road watched. I can blast your ass and kill you in your car just like at the cabin. Your number is up, Kaltbrunnen. Get ready for some rumbling." And then the phone went dead. I touched the .45 revolver again in my pocket. Rajendra stared at me with reproachful eyes.

"Okay, the state patrol," she said. "If the local sheriffs won't...." "Forget it," I snapped. "Things are not always as they appear to be." "As you keep saying, Kaltbrunnen... What is this Kaltbrunnen, anyway? You can at least tell me that much. Some kind of nickname you had?" I continued to pack. "Not really," I said, still musing over Hamlet and his renowned problem. "It was my father's name once in a far away place." "Cold something," said Rajendra still staring. "I remember that much German, and it sounds German." "Again, things are not always what they appear to be. The name is German, but my father wasn't. What do you think Brunnen means? Did you study enough German to remember?" "No." "Think for a moment. What is your new last name?" "Coldwell."

"Well?" "Kaltbrunnen, Coldwell? Then your father was some kind of Nazi war criminal or something, but he wouldn't have been old enough. The grave said he was born in 1941." "Yes, I came late in his life. My brothers were older. My dead brothers. You know what? They used to bully me too. And my mother, she hated my arrival. My father was lost in his indifference. So there you go. Not quite a happy family. There's a part of your explanation about my life." "That and Hamlet and absurdity and the hot delinquent babe. Who in the hell was she? If we're going to die, isn't this as good a time as any to fill me in?" We were almost done packing, and darkness was starting to descend. We could have just driven off. Maybe Balgan wasn't watching the road yet. Maybe we could get past him. The cabin was already sold, but I knew I would probably need to come back for the turnover to the new owner. Maybe I could avoid that too and say goodbye to the ghosts of my past forever. But then Hamlet intruded into my thoughts again. "The pale cast of thought." I was thinking too much. Balgan had confronted me, just like he had done years before on the playground of an elementary school when I backed down and decided to live the rest of my life as exactly what Balgan took me for: a craven, groveling coward. Hamlet had at least done his duty but through the sheerest of accident, and he had lost his own life in the mle, something I suppose he was grateful for anyway. Balgan needed to be out my life for good---maybe dead, maybe just confronted and backed down. But there

was something else, something that I did not want to tell Rajendra, something that she had not seen. I decided on directness. Little by little my version of the truth about things was coming out. It was a bold decision. And then it was punctuated by fate. As Rajendra lifted one last picture album to place it in a packing box, a loose photo fell out and landed on the cracked tile floor of the cabin. It was, of course, Shaylan Frack. I knew I had a picture of her somewhere, and fate would have it that it appeared right on time to strengthen my resolve. "The native hue of resolution..." I mused. Then once again "sicklied over by the pale cast of thought." Was Shaylan still with me telling me to quit thinking and act? I hoped so. "Who's this?" said Rajendra retrieving the fading polaroid photo from the floor. "Looks pretty in a weird sort of way." "Very weird," I said abstractly watching Rajendra examine the face of a girl I had not seen for twelve years. "And I'm going to tell you about that later, since you want to know everything, but first..." "But first let's get the hell out of here." "Run?" I said. A resolved change was coming over me, and I patted the awkward .45 stuck in my belt. I motioned for Rajendra to sit down in an armchair near the mantel and did the same. As

soon as the words began spilling out of my mouth, I realized with dismay that I was now doing the exact thing that Hamlet had warned me against: Providing alternatives. But there were some... Why did Rajendra need to know? But I continued. "There was another family grave up there in the town plot that I didn't show you, and you asked me why I wasn't going to cry. I'm going to tell you why in each case. We can stay right here and confront Balgan. In the meantime, I can fill you in little by little. And remember both the absurdity of life and the fact that things are not always as they seem to be." "So you keep repeating. You were called a coward, but you're not acting like a coward now. You're acting stupid and full of swagger. That is the absurdity. Your sudden change of personality." "Blame Hamlet," I said, trying to stiffen my resolve but knowing that I was heading exactly in the wrong direction. "Okay, I said. I didn't cry because I hated my mother and father. My father was a drunk. That is all you need to know. A blackhearted drunk who beat my mother and encouraged my older brothers to beat what he called some "manhood" into me. He wanted me to stand up to Rudy Balgan even back then, do him some damage, maybe kill him. I could never muster up that strength, even though Balgan once in his own way tried to help me by trying to get me to hit him and fight back." "Fighting back is not always the answer."

"Sometimes it is. Balgan knew that. He knew that I would live my life shirking the world if at that moment in the fifth grade I did not try to stop him." "So he tried to do you a favor by beating you up?" "Yup. And that is all I am going to say about that. He failed and I became the kicking post of not only Balgan but my own family as well. And as far as I'm concerned, they don't deserve any tears. Far from it." Drawing a deep breath, I persisted. "Next subject. The other family grave site. It is Balgan's. A sister and his father. His mother had died years before. His sister raised him. They died or were killed, however. He was devoted to both of them. That is all I can say right now." "So Balgan, the monster swine who wants to kill us, is really rather human, not just your ordinary town bully? That's real comforting. As we go up in gasoline flames, we can remember that." "And so the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought," I mumbled. "Damn, there's no escaping this. You wanted to know." "If you're trying to talk yourself out of killing Balgan, I can give you better excuses than that. Like me, for example, us, our lives, our future, our unborn children...not to mention

the fact that if you shoot the fiend you'll be arrested and spend the rest of your life in jail." Some gravel crunched in the cabin driveway and we both bolted from our chairs. I grabbed the .45 and ran to the door, shoving Rajendra behind me. It was late afternoon, so late that the sun had already said adieu and had been replaced by a spiny scarlet band of evening clouds. It was a beautiful sight, to be precise, and in the midst of this crepuscular beauty my heart pounded ferociously in my chest. Surely the arrival was Balgan come to shoot or torch us. But no. It was a smiling man with a tool box and a hard hat. He glanced at me through the screen and tipped his hat. "Sorry, I have to do this," he said in a pleasant yet professional voice, "but the power has to be switched off to this cabin. You sold it, I presume? The new owners will..." "Yeah," I cut him off, exhaling. "Go ahead. We can use candles until tomorrow." The electric company man turned abruptly and climbed up the lone utility pole outside the cabin. Within seconds, we were in semi-darkness. I lighted a kerosene lantern and Rajendra found some candles. I noticed as she lighted them that she worked fast and with initiative. She didn't need to be told to do things. Something like Shaylan Frack, the next page I would have to turn. VI. Shaylan Frack

"The first time I met her was in the same McDonald's where we saw Balgan. It was a little over eleven years ago. I was in college and on vacation down here on what was a duty visit to my parents. I stayed away from them as much as I could." Then the whole absurdity of Shaylan Frack came plummeting down around me as I sat in the candlelight trying to discern the expression on my new wife's face. I needed to convey the senselessness more than anything else. The absurdity of Shaylan Frack. No, she had never been my girlfriend, and I had never attempted to sleep with her. She was far too scary for that, and she wanted it too bad. In fact, she let me know that by age sixteen, as she was at time, she had slept with lots of guys, and I had heard something about that from my former friends and classmates. They had all had a bad experience with Shaylan, the kind of bad experience that men have. Hard to explain to a woman. Men, boys can be overcome and broken down by the sheer aggressive exuberance of female lust, and that is what Shaylan had, a raw sense of unleashed libido. She charged after and overwhelmed guys she liked, and for a time I was one of them. I mean like right after that chance meeting, which she had engineered, in McDonald's. I was scared to death by her aggression, her animalesque sense of sexual predation. But that is far from the whole story. She was wearing an ankle tracking bracelet when I met her. As a condition of her homebound probation. She lived with her grandparents behind the McDonald's in one of the oldest houses in town. The range of the tracking device permitted her to go no farther than the main street where McDonald's was and is. She sat across from me and wagged her leg over her knee, proud of the dark machinery that kept her tethered to the law.

Oh, it was lots of little juvenile crimes. Sex at fourteen with another underaged guy, some kind of dreaded offense in this state I guess. Then she and some other guy fitted a 4x8 to the front of the little army surplus jeep her grandparents had given her. They crashed through the front display window of two stores in Marleyville and snatched thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, some jeans, some jewelry, some other crap. Hell, she still had stolen jeans for sale--in all sizes to boot. She had some ruby lockets and necklaces stashed away somewhere too. Then there were her break-ins. She boasted about "liberating" stuff from the summer cabins when the owners were back upstate. She loved to climb through windows and even down chimneys into cold fireplaces. And oh, did I mention that she was as sleek and athletic as a panther? Did you see it in her eyes in that photo? Pretty, yes, but well-built and tough. She was a match, she said, for any door lock. And did I want to buy a pair of designer jeans? And did I need a shotgun? And did I want to climb up into her bedroom window with her and make furious love? Her story came that day at a table in McDonald's like a waterfall, episode after episode. Her days in detention and how she fucked the guards. Her first day with a tethering device and how she disabled it within hours with a hammer and chisel. Her sexual conquests. And finally her hatred for the weak and worthless of the world. For polite society. For rules. For school. For the decency people were meant to show to one another. For dress codes. For institutions like church and marriage. She hated all of the commonplace, hum-drum world, as she called it. She was a being apart. Stronger, more passionate, more full of the primal life force. The laws of society were not made for her. She was above them and forged her own way. If she wanted something and had the means of taking it, she did. If she

wanted feral or rowdy sex with someone---anyone---she got it. People were there to be scorned, used and abused. Citizens were all to the one hypocrites. Everyone was as great a criminal as she was, and no one could hide behind any kind of faade of respectability or righteousness. That was all the guise of a world she ridiculed and held in the darkest contempt. People needed to act, to actualize their native sense of aggression and predatory passion. That was what living was. "And thus the native hue of resolution..." interjected Rajendra. "Was never---repeat never---'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' And she never read a word of the Bard, either." And so my frenzied monologue continued: She liked to prove things. She grabbed the town newspaper from a nearby table and spread it open to the obituary page on the table in front of us. Smiling faces, mostly of well-respected and sometimes locally venerated seniors, beamed out at us. It was crap, she said, all these benign faces and church affiliations and lifelong memberships and accomplishments. Everyone of the dead ones beyond a certain age was a villain just as much as she was. That was how life went. Disguised, small town hypocrisy. Who gave a fuck how many grandchildren they had? Who cared under which grief-stricken and sorrowful circumstances they died. And yes, they died. They did not 'pass.' They fucking died, every

last one of them. All the old smiling farts and fartresses on the page. And her finger dropped down on an example. Hunter Balgan, aged 60, taken to the Lord too soon. Member of the blah, blah, blah and fervent Christian, leaving behind shithead, and shithead, and shithead and finally his son, the biggest shithead of them all. And Shaylan was going to prove it that very day. Hunter Balgan, hiding something in his past, was as big a criminal as she or anyone else was. And it didn't matter how neat his tie was or how wide his final smile. Hunter Balgan was a felon, somewhere in his life. She didn't know but she would find out. She would do it just to prove her point to me. That very night she was going to fuck his youngest child, a town football hero, a tough named Rudy. Rudy would crawl in through her window and she would tear him to pieces in bed. And why did she pick Hunter Balgan, father of the town bully who had backed me down in the fifth grade and sealed my ongoing fate as an incurable weakling? One reason only. Because he had the widest smile and the most condolences. Because he had lost some kind of 'loving wife' years before. Because so many people loved him and he was such a staunch Republican, Mason and churchgoer. That was reason enough. And because his son was such a pussy-faced asshole. She closed the newspaper and smirked at me. 'Wait and see,' she said. 'Meet me here tomorrow, and I'll tell you all about it.' "And this juvenile delinquent babe," said Rajendra eyeing me suspiciously, "I suppose she did meet you." "She did just that," I said in a kind of conclusive tone that said in effect I'm finished for

now. We have bigger problems. The night was by now pitch black, and like in a classic story of horror, Rajendra and I sat by the lantern light, waiting for a animal with a can of gasoline and a torch. VII. The brute doesn't arrive, so the story goes on. "Sure, she came back to the same McDonald's the next day, and, despite my fears--which were many--I was there to see her. I could not do otherwise. It's hard to explain." "Moth to a light bulb," said Rajendra quietly. I reassured myself, touching the revolver, which gouged into my side. She was right, of course. Right on both accounts. Rudy Balgan turned out to be a 'whimpering limp dick,' and Rudy's father had a past. A past in a foreign country. He had, it seemed, killed a boy there when he was a boy. The boy's name was Crotale. Hunter, whose real name was not Hunter, for that matter, had drowned Crotale in a rain barrel outside of some dreary orphanage in France in 1954, when he was thirteen and just before he was adopted by some benevolent American charity and brought to this country. He and his companion came together, both killers at thirteen, both convinced that they had done the right thing in killing this kid named Crotale back in post-war Europe. And the charity plunked them both down with families in this state where they took on new names and became God-fearing Americans and later upright citizens. Rudy knew that much about his

father, and Shaylan, probably lying naked in bed, forced it out of him. Rudy also knew the strange and unexpected way which his father had died, but that was something that Shaylan would only get out of him later. So there. Proof. Proof that a smiling dead man picked at random from an obituary, a man whose funeral had not even taken place yet, was little more than a repackaged killer. Shaylan was more than pleased with herself. She had proven her thesis. And no, I did not want to try to best Rudy Balgan in her bed. It would be better, I said, if we both went our separate ways. She reached into her jeans pocket and gave me a stolen brass ring. I put it on my finger to please her. It would not be long before I saw her again. "Balgan's father came from France," said Rajendra pensively, the candle light at her side flickering in her face. I could sense the thought process. "Balgan doesn't sound much like a French name." The racket of some large animal alerted us again. I sprang up, but it was clear that whatever was outside was too small and scratchy to be Balgan. "A raccoon," I said, trying to comfort myself and bolster my fleeting resolve. I returned to my seat as if the discussion had never ended. "It isn't," I said. "No more than is Coldwell or, as you heard it, Kaltbrunnen. My father knew and feared Balgan because...well, because of something that I did not let on to Shaylan that day, something the drunkenness of my father had opened to me years

before." "And what was that?" said Rajendra. "Listening to you now is like peeling an onion." "And not crying when you do it. Because that other thirteen year old boy who had helped drown Crotale in 1954 was my father, and it was no coincidence or not much of one that they both got adopted and placed by the same American agency. It was post war and the place where they came from was filled with orphans. The war had taken its toll." "Peel the onion more," said Rajendra. "We're just going to die anyway because of your need to overcome some weakness in the fifth grade. A monster is on his way, right?" "Right, " I added. "Where was this strange place where they lived, anyway? A place where thirteen year olds in an orphanage could drown one of their own in a rain barrel?" "Alsace," I said serenely, remembering the long and slurred autobiography my father had once offered the family after a night of debauchery through every bar in Mountainside. "Alsace. A place where people have French nationality, speak the French language but most often have German names." "Like Kaltbrunnen."

"Yes. A country of bleak horror that had been traded back and forth between France and Germany for centuries. A graveyard of sorts. A shadowy borderland where national identity is something worth dying for. A place where the unreal---the absurd if you will--lives daily in the lives of people who have seen almost everything and lost even more. My father and Balgan-senior killed that kid just like Shaylan said. Rudy had probably heard the same story as I did numerous times, and Rudy knew that his father both hated and feared mine." "Boyhood partners in crime," said Rajendra. "Want to tell me that story too while we wait?" VIII. Province of Alsace, Dpartement du Haut-Rhin, city of Colmar, from November 12th 1945 to December 29th 1954. As an icy wind swept down from the ravaged peaks of the barren Vosges and swirls of dark tinged snow raced through the German Gothic and Neo-Baroque ruins of what had once been the great architect Bartholdi's hometown, the same Bartholdi who gave us the Statue of Liberty as well as the Lion of Belfort and so many other massive monuments to a more glorious and hopeful past, the vengeful Alsatian Maquisards went from house to house, cellar to cellar, shambles to shambles searching for straggling remnants of Guderian's SS Hauptfuhrer Occupation Division. Germany's war was over. Alsace was liberated and once again French. Thousands of homeless lined the devastated streets waiting for British or American food handouts, some starving before same arrived, all angry, dislocated and ravaged by the worst catastrophes of what had been a war that

neither Alsace nor Germany could ever have claimed to win. And when some of these were found, scarecrow wraiths of what had once been the most puissant force in Europe, they were summarily lined up in the central town square and shot by a makeshift firing squad without prologue nor trial. Many of these were native Alsatians, who for one reason or another, had either been drafted or had volunteered with the Wehrmacht. Many wore German uniforms, or what rags were left of them, and had wives and families in Colmar or elsewhere in the province. And the children. The Maquis wanted to make a lasting impression. Regardless of a child's age, he or she was summoned by whatever means possible to witness the executions. Orphans were marched out from the heatless quarters of the alabaster and concrete structures that housed them. Their heads pulled backwards, they were forced to observe the final agonizing moments of the Nazi oppressor, who bereft of eye cover looked into the pitiless rifles of the liberated as the final seconds of their lives were siphoned away in a hail of bullets. Three of these children were native, French-speaking, Alsatians. One was named Balgan, another Kaltbrunnen, and a third had a name that had not yet been disclosed. Later he would become known only as Crotale, and for a very good reason, which we shall presently see. All three were only four years old, but they saw and witnessed and remembered. What Crotale saw was the most wicked of all because his father was in the line-up, his father who had partnered---or so the Maquis said---with the Nazis. Already the angry Colmar townsfolk had found a name for his son: Crotale, a word which in French means rattlesnake. And the life of Crotale, whose real name was Olivier Sermenot, became the life of a

despised rattlesnake, the child of a traitor who had betrayed France, and, above all, Alsace. In the grim Orphelinat de Colmar, Crotale as he was known to all, lost all other names, and scorned and oppressed by staff and residents alike, in effect became a rattlesnake, both physically and mentally. He adopted the derision of his many tormenters and began to transform little by little into a virtual viper. Yes, it was next to impossible to believe, even in the drab and barren years following the great war, but the fact still remains that as a sole means of defense against the unrelenting tyranny of his boyhood peers, Crotale began to resemble the viper of his namesake. He grew hard scales in places where skin should have been. His teeth became jagged and hollow, and gum pockets behind them began to fill with lethal venom, which the beleaguered child would eventually learn to use against any who came close enough for him to bite. And he did bite. At first, his bites were not lethal, and he was only confined to reclusion in some dark room for his aggression, but later when a taunting attendant was struck after poking at the child with a stick, the venom dispatched the adult intimidator immediately to his grave. Crotale's seething hatred began to boil into dangerous proportions, even as the irises of his eye began to narrow into those of a reptile, even as his teeth---now yellow and sometimes dripping with poison, became longer and sharper, even as he began to assault those who in trepidation avoided him. In all, he sent more than fifteen orphan children as well as adult attendants to their deaths. All of them poisoned with some unknown toxicant. All of them displaying fang marks on their bodies. All of them dead and buried without ritual beneath the troubled soil of the ancient and beleaguered province. Dead Alsatians, especially war orphans, were not news in the early years following the war, and Crotale,

now feared and shunned by all, managed to live in forced seclusion behind the high walls of an orphanage that knew, like the rest of Alsace, how to guard its secrets. And, given the rattlesnake persona and the ulcerating hatred that boiled in his mind, it was indeed amazing that Crotale, the rattlesnake, managed to live until the age of thirteen, an age where he had seen very little of the sun and had lost nearly all of his fingers and toes due to the frostbite he endured in heatless isolation by winter. He became the stuff of local legend, a horror hidden away from all visitors, and when by 1954 when nearly all the children of the orphanage had been tagged for removal by wealthy Americans and benevolent British families, Crotale remained sequestered in the same dark cell that he had inhabited since the age of six. One day, just before their conveyance to North America, two boys---one named Balgan and the other Kaltbrunnen---decided to rid the world of a fiend, and they did so. With the assistance of a guard, the two husky thirteen year olds stole the unfortunate snake boy from his cell, bound his face in a cloth bag to avoid the poison of his slashing fangs, and plunged him beneath the icy top layer of a huge cistern barrel used to catch water outside the dreadful institution. As Crotale disappeared beneath the dirty water and floating ice, he vowed to return and kill anyone and everyone he could. His bite was lethal. His mind was primal and reptilian. But now his body was dead. But such a burning animus against the world could not and did not completely die. The sheer coincidence of having been adopted by the same society brought about the

displacement of both Alsatian war orphans not only to the same U.S. state, but to families in the same county who lived within miles of one another. Both boys from the age of thirteen on became virtual Americans. Later in life, provided with new papers and automatic citizenship, Kaltbrunnen, not wanting to appear German, changed his name. Balgan did not. Both came to be aware of the existence of the other. Both hid the same secret. Both avoided one another whenever possible. Colmar and the dreary orphanage became part of a purposely veiled past. Balgan and Coldwell were Americans now. And both had sons. Sons that for reasons not altogether dissimilar heard the story of their fathers' actual lives. Sons that came to believe in the possibility of humans, through the utter passion of their hatred, becoming something other than human. And, finally, sons who themselves became aware of one another---because in a town like Mountainside everyone knew everyone else, and the mutual awareness was inevitable. One son became a bully and a brute. The other sought only to escape the horrid tyranny of the former as well as the perverted abuse of an alcoholic father and older siblings with a liking to browbeat the "family brat." A winning lottery ticket took the aging Coldwell back to his native land. He was dying, but dying slowly, and for some reason beyond Earthly ken he wanted to see the scarred face of his native country. He went alone. Colmar, now redecorated in the joyful garments of France's postwar rebound, stretched before the old man like a fairyland that in no way resembled the necropolis of his youth. But one old building, now a forgotten ruin, still stood. And the dying man went there, and although seeing nothing, he brought,

unbeknownst to himself, something back within him. And that thing was Crotale. And thus Crotale, given a uncanny chance to live again in the body of his former oppressor, came to the U.S., to the insignificant town of Mountainside. In this new life, this new venue, Crotale sprang forth and began to do what his troubled essence had waited through forty-six years of death to do: kill. IX. More absurdity and more coincidences After I finished what turned out to be a rather long monologue mostly concerning spooky things that happened long before Rajendra and I were born or at least adults, I realized that Rajendra, being progressive and full of modern spirit, wanted to rejoin the present, stressful as it had become as the blackest of forest-bound nights circumscribed us in only the dim glow of our faltering lantern and guttering candles. For some reason, I had taken the .45 out of my belt and held it in my hand with the barrel carefully aimed at the floor just in case I hadn't gotten the safety right. We listened for sounds. We waited for Rudy Balgan to come and kill us. What more could we do? There is a certain absurdity in this sort of waiting, the feeling that all things must be divulged in an enormous tide of words before the final hour strikes. I wondered if the fatally ill felt the same way. Death is on its way, so I must get this out. So then I was treated to more of my favorite life's theme: absurdity because Rajendra had, apparently, no problem with a boy in Alsace becoming a venomous snake and biting

people to death. Likewise, she had no problems with the idea that this maligned boy harbored enough animosity for the world that he never really died but came back in the body of my father after the latter's rather pointless visit to his forsaken homeland. And likewise again, she had no trouble believing that someone called Rattlesnake, who had apparently sprung from the grave, had continued to kill. I had expected some disbelief or objection, but Rajendra had none. For a few minutes in silence that bothered me. I am not sure why. The sudden wing flap of some sort of large bird, probably a barn owl, broke the silence and gave us both enough of a start to catapult us up onto our feet in a paroxysm of terror, which drained away only after we both assured one another that what we heard was too small to be Rudy Balgan. "Let's stay on our feet and pace," said Rajendra, oddly. "We've been sitting too long. Isn't that what panicky people are supposed to do, pace?" I sat back down and set the heavy .45 at my side on the floor. Rajendra owed me, I thought, more of a reaction. It came with a question and was immediately followed by another illogical coincidence which will most likely sound unreal, but I assure all reading that it was exactly as I will report it. "So I know all about snake boy and Alsace and Balgan's father, and I know how much you hated your father. But it still doesn't explain either that delinquent ankle-tether girl or why exactly the town bully has decided to kill you. He and your father shared a secret,

which they made known to both of you. Is that a reason for just killing you because you came back to town? And what about snake boy? What exactly did he do once here in our cherished land?" "Lots of questions at once," I said. "I wonder if I have time to answer them. I wonder if you have time to hear the answer." "Let's try," said Rajendra. "I'm scared as hell, Kevin, but curious. Can one be scared and curious at the same time?" I picked the gun up and held it flat in my hand, again feeling its daunting weight. "I never shot this gun," I said. "I was too much of a coward. I should have used it, but I did not. The pale cast of thought and all that. I let five other people die while I thought and weighed alternatives. That is about as Hamletesque as one can get. Five people perished because I was hard at work in my mind wondering about right and wrong, truth versus fiction, and consequences. Yet, I tell you a snake creature came back from France in the body of my father, and you don't blink an eye. Don't you think a story like that should be questioned? I did. I did until I saw Crotale, and by then it was too late. And I still let it happen. I tried to point this same gun and shoot it, but my hesitation made me immobile. Killing someone is not as easy as it looks on television." "A dead scaly spirit with long fangs returned from the dead? Doesn't sound like something you just could have shot anyway?"

"You haven't figured that part out from my story?" But then the coincidence occurred. Implausibly, we heard the distinct crunch of automobile tires in the drive behind the cabin. Gripped as ever with panic, we both jumped up and ran to the rear window. Whatever had driven up the path to visit was totally veiled in darkness. But then some headlights blinked off and on, like a signal to us. I clenched the .45 wondering if I could use it, knowing that I could not. I realized that I might as well have given it to Rajendra. "It's me," said a female voice from somewhere beside the indistinguishable vehicle. "Me Shaylan." And it was Shaylan Frack. By the time we let her in and ran the lantern light over her to make sure it wasn't an hallucination, I could no longer deny that it was her, exactly as I would have expected her to look twelve years later, still lithe and athletic but somewhat harder in the face and eyes. What in God's name was she doing here, and how did she know we were about? That did not take long to explain. It involved, characteristically, telephones and the sometimes too cozy relationship between people in a hamlet like Mountainside. Barbara had called Kristara who had called Kale who had called Kinlee, etcetera. Rudy Balgan had been seen talking to me in McDonald's, and through the same network that normally conveyed mundane gossip, the whole drama had made its way back to Shaylan, who knew already that Rudy had plans to kill me and anyone with me. For Shaylan, things were

always so simple. Even her life story: A few more robberies. A baby or two with "whomever she damn well pleased," some more prison time, parole, more adventures that pitted her against civil convention and the normalcy of a society that she abhorred. "I still live in town," she said. "Condition of my last probation." "Rudy is going to kill me," I said. "He's coming." "I know," said Shaylan, ignoring Rajendra almost completely. "Too bad you had to run into him. If you shoot him with whatever that is you have in your hand, I can be a material witness for you and so can your girlfriend." "Wife," I added. Somehow it was reassuring in an odd sort of way to have Shaylan there, but my thoughts were clouded by another dark outline that involved myself and only myself. "Want a drink?" said Shaylan, pulling a silver flask out of her jacket pocket. "Might steady your nerves this time." Rajendra, tired of being overlooked, stepped into the pool of lantern light between Shaylan and myself. "This time?" she said. Shaylan glanced at her. It was a glance that carried a fair amount of contempt, and I hoped that Rajendra hadn't caught it in the dim light. "You two have been waiting since

when for Rudy? Since you left town? So I'm betting that your wife, Kevin, has heard all about Rudy's family and yours. I'm wondering, however, just how much she has heard about me." "Enough," interjected Rajendra. "Enough to know that it was I who was probably the last person to shoot that gun that I now can recognize in Kevin's hand? About twelve years ago, wasn't it, Kevin?" I understood at once that the rest of the story needed to come out. My incurable Hamlet complex: too much thought not enough action. Shaylan was all about action. She had killed at least one person too. "Did you shoot a snake?" said Rajendra. "Lots of them. We have rattlesnakes in these parts. You can eat them too if you don't shred them too much with your shots. But once we had a real big rattlesnake. It went over to the north side of the lumberyard in Mountainshit and bit a guy and his daughter on their outstretched arms, and they died almost at once. It planned to get their son too, and lots of other people, but instead it came back here. The coroner, a stupid drunken slacker, said the father and daughter died from rattlesnake poison, and that was that because, after all, this is Mountainshit where anything goes. Want to take it from there, Kevin?"

I realized I was trapped. My jaw dropping at Shaylan's raw frankness, I began to stammer then corrected my speech. "The son, Rudy, was my age at the time. Nineteen and already a brute. He was hiding in a closet and he saw the whole thing. A snake like being slithered out of a man, showed its scales and fangs, and then slipped back into the human body that hosted it. Rudy saw the whole thing and understood. His father, now dead, had once warned him. In fact, Rudy's father had warned the host a bar over drinks in a corner or whatever." "The host?" said Rajendra. "You or me?" interrupted Shaylan. I gritted my teeth silently and tried to square my jaw. "My father," I said morosely. "He was the host. It was he who had brought back Crotale, who was now Rattlesnake Sermenot. He headed straight for our house, which was behind this cabin on the hill. When he got there, I saw him go after my mother who was hanging laundry on the line. Before I could do anything, the snake thing came out of him again and bit her on the back of the neck. She hardly had time to put her hand on the wound before she collapsed. My older brother, Trent, saw it too. He ran and found this gun. I was hanging out with Shaylan, whom I had brought here that day. She saw everything too. My brother was fumbling with the gun when Dad, the former Bruno Kaltbrunnen, sprang onto him and gashed open his cheek with what had become long incisor fangs. Then he came after my other brother Daniel, bit him and dashed into the house looking for more of us to kill. I picked up this gun...this very gun...and ran behind him. By the time I found him, both my

mother, Trent, and my other brother Daniel were dead on the floor." "It was a bad year for rattlesnakes that year," said Shaylan flippantly. "The coroner figured he had learned about everything there was to know about them." "About that time Rudy Balgan appeared. He jumped out of his truck, but unlike today's Rudy, he didn't have any weapons. I guess he felt he could just overcome my father with his fists. I pointed the gun at my father. Shaylan watched me. By that time, my father was covered with clots of blood and foaming yellow fizz from his mouth. He was no longer my father but Rattlesnake Sermenot. Even his eyes became yellow, slitted and reptilian. Rattlesnake had totally annexed his body." I heaved a long breath and continued. "It was like a standoff. Me pointing this revolver at my father, the father I hated. Rudy and Shaylan behind me shouting to pull the trigger. I could not. I thought about consequences, alternatives, contingencies. The pale cast of thought...." "And all that Shakespearean bullshit," exclaimed Shaylan with undisguised disdain. And then the rest: broken sentences from Shaylan and me, competing for details. Shaylan came up behind me a ripped the revolver out of my hand, checked the safety (which I had not even released) and sent a bullet through my father's forehead. He reeled around for a minute then collapsed to the floor. We watched the body for the issue of a serpent. There

was none. Rudy said something like "The dumb sissy son of a bitch couldn't even kill a murderer." Shaylan coolly pointed the revolver at Rudy, and the two of us backed away, with Rudy threatening to kill me someday if he could. "It was your motherfucking father who housed that snake boy," he said. "He killed my father and sister---not to mention your own family members---and you couldn't even bring yourself to waste him. You had to let a girl do it for you. You're going to pay someday, somehow. Trust me." I went back to the city, to college. Shaylan went wherever Shaylan went. Cops and the coroner came and left. The gun disappeared---right up until I found it here yesterday, and I dont know how. Shaylan dissolved. There were no witnesses. Three more people dead of rattlesnake bites and one mysteriously shot through the forehead by a gun that wasn't there. The local sheriff protected the town's tourist interests by shelving the whole thing. "I was weak," I said in conclusion. "And I was strong," said Shaylan, "but then who cares?" "I do," I said almost whimpering. "I do because it affected all of my life. And tonight I may have to finally do something about it." "Other than quote Hamlet," said Shaylan, her wide opal eyes gleaming in the lantern light. X. Conclusion: "...their currents turn awry and lose the name of action"

There had to be a conclusion to our night of horror, and of course there was. But I do not feel that every episode that befalls one in life is simply an installment in some long chain of loosely connected events linked by the fact that they were experienced in the life of one or more related people. I believe it is important to add significance, whenever possible, to occurrence, although I have always found it very difficult to highlight the importance of what came of Rudy Balgan and the rest of the cast of characters that populate my drama. Rajendra, herself, has always tried to make sense out of the people and plots that were involved with this, and she has always run into the same ambiguity and absurdity that I have. Two and two do not always make four. The conclusion does not always spring from the details themselves. In this case ambiguity reigns, and I hope the reader will bear with me as I suspend the outcome long enough to ruminate on some of the elements that I have already unveiled. I would like to start with an ongoing discussion that my beautiful wife, now seven months pregnant, and I have been having in the cloistered safety of my university office between classes. Myself as a teacher of literature and Rajendra a student of literature, we have always puzzled over whether the events of that momentous night and the absolutely improbable steps which led up to them would make any kind of good fiction. After all, so many elements are there: the mystical in the form of an anguished viper boy coming back from the dead to inhabit the body of my late father long enough to kill five people. The eerie personas that haunted both the rising and falling action. My conclusion has always been no because fiction needs a point, and it is difficult within the clouds of farcical

nonsense that have always marked my life to find a definite point. It is likewise difficult to find motivation. For example, fictionally speaking, Rudy Balgan was what we who study literature can typically call a flat character. He was, seemingly, one dimensional in his bloodlust to avenge my cowardice and kill me. I have said little more about him except that he was an unrelentingly savage predator. But Rajendra reminded me that perhaps there was more. Rudy had a motive, a basis for his action. Because of my father, and thus by extension because of me, Rudy's father and sister were massacred in a grotesque and haunting melodrama. Maybe that explains, once again, the sickeningly Hamletesque role that I played at the end. Maybe I was starting to think that Rudy had a good reason for his lethal anger. Once again "the pale cast of thought." And then there was the recurrent Shaylan Frack, sworn enemy of society, who seemed to know everything and be capable of any feat. In the end, she became the classic deus ex machina, and the story would not have had a beginning, middle or end without her rather questionable intervention. If I were reading about her in fiction, I would reject her outright as an author's invention, an artificial means to resolve an irresolvable plot. But my saga was not fiction. Shortly, I will end this pointless musing and tell you what she did and how it affected me. But first, one has to ask whether she would ever make the first cut in a good work of fiction. I doubt it. And then there is me. In the end, all stories are about the one who relates them. This began and ended with an examination of my inability to take action, and all I have really

done is cover it with the fictional mantle of English literature's most profound, renowned and ambiguous character: Hamlet. But reality does not always match the expectations of fiction, and the haziness of ambiguity is far more human than the flamboyant scenes of bold and unrestrained deeds of so-called heroes, who my experience has led me to believe do not exist except on the screen or in the action-bloated chapters of thrillers. I needed to shoot my father---a monster. I wavered back and forth and could not. Shaylan Frack, deus ex machina, did it for me. There. I said it. Early on the morning of that ill-fated night of frantic anticipation, I needed to aim a gun and pull the trigger on Rudy Balgan because he did indeed arrive. He came alone as the first bars of morning light were breaking over the horizon of the far side of the lake. He came with a clatter, with a roar of an unmuffled truck engine, with shouts and threats, with a loaded shotgun in his hand as well as the can of the promised gasoline, presumably to burn all evidence of his planned deed. In the fictional rendition of my story, he may have been a flat character, but in real life he was authentic as a heart attack. Rudy broke into the morning like a storm. He kicked in the cabin door with some sort of huge, metallic boot and aimed his twelve gauge directly at me before I could say a word. He growled about my father bringing back a toxic ogre and my refusal to take action against him, which to Rudy was just pure sniveling debility which needed, in Rudy's simple, one dimensional world, to be avenged.

And once again, history repeating itself, there was a standoff because I had the .45, safety unclipped, aimed directly at him. Thoughts of Rajendra's safety coupled with images of my death raced through my mind. But so did the fear of consequences, which paralyzed me in my seat, conscience making cowards of us all, etc. What would happen to me if I missed? What if Rudy pulled the trigger first? What would happen to all of us if I succeeded and killed Rudy? Would I go to prison? Would Rajendra be alone? A rush of thoughts and misgivings. That was what Hamlet, the character, was all about---and Hamlet was me. I had every reason to protect my life and Rajendra's, but I could not. In fiction, I suppose this would be pure cowardice. But I have always preferred the realistic view that I was too frail and utterly human to act. Readers need to put themselves in my place. Or maybe not. Maybe someone should just assert my spinelessness and let it go at that. But how many of the people one passes daily have ever been in a position to actually kill? So here is what happened. Just as I was listening to Rajendra's heaving sobs begging for my life and hers, Shaylan Frack, deus ex machina, leaped up from the sofa where she had been sleeping, dashed to my side, grabbed the .45 and without prologue or pretense sent a round or two into Rudy's astonished chest. I say astonished because just before he tumbled to the floor---dead of course---he looked at the gaping holes Shaylan had made in his torso. They were probably the last thing he ever saw. And then what? For someone like Shaylan it was very simple. The .45 once again

disappeared, as did Rudy's shotgun, as did Rudy's body into the back of Shaylan's little truck, which itself disappeared with Shaylan and has never again been seen to this day. It was left to Rajendra and I to clean up any blood or other evidence of the murder---but there was no murder, as it turned out. Shaylan vanished for good with all of the evidence, a true deus ex machina, playing a role that only Shaylan could play. And I can give no other account other than that even now. I do not believe that I will ever see Shaylan again, nor will I ever see Mountainside or the lake. Like the coward that I am, I put these things in the past, and I wish ardently that they stay there. Any more loose ends? I suppose not. Some stories just stop abruptly and do not offer a follow up. And so I conclude. All I can do is underline the ambiguity of reality and once again turn to Shakespeare: "And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. And enterprises of great pitch and moment, with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action." Except for Shaylan. ________________________________________ Devon Pitlor --- January, 2012 /*/*/*/**~~*

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