Forced Perspectives – Snippet 01

Forced Perspectives

Tim Powers

PROLOGUE, 1928: Before the Shadows Crept In

“It was on the south wall of the Pharaoh’s city.”

The man had to speak loudly over the onshore wind, and in spite of the rushing veils of sand he had taken off his goggles to see the dunes more clearly in the twilight.

Aside from the shivering figures of his four hooded companions, one of them dutifully blowing into a smoking coffee can, the only features in the desolate landscape were the black rocks that stood up here and there like islands in the infinite rippled expanse of sand, and the fragments of broken plaster that littered the area all the way down to the surf line. The random arrangements of the rocks were no good as landmarks — for all he knew, they had shifted during the five years since he had last been here.

“Boundless and bare,” called Mrs. Haas, the High Priestess of the coven, “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Wystan fitted the goggles back over his eyes and shifted the bulky knapsack on his back to a more comfortable position. His nearly-new 1925 Model T Ford pickup truck was stalled and stuck in the sand half a mile inland, and that was half a mile from the dirt track that led east to the new extension of Route 56 connecting Pismo Beach and Las Cruces. He wondered how he might find somebody in nearby Guadalupe with a truck and block and chains who would come out here at this hour. He didn’t need old women quoting Shelley at him.

The three other witches were talking among themselves, probably speculating that Wystan wasn’t a very effective High Priest, and that perhaps they didn’t need a High Priest at all — especially one who drank liquor, in blatant defiance of the Volstead Act. Mrs. Haas’ shiny new Model A sedan was parked way back there on the paved road, and the four old women had sat in the bed of his pickup for the last leg of the expedition until the truck had got stuck. They had all then walked the last half mile, with much grumbling.

“It’s unlikely we’re even in the right place,” said the witch holding the coffee can in her gloved hands. “One little movie set, out here in these miles of nothing?”

“Keep blowing on it,” said Wystan. Then, “It’s here — all these plaster fragments were part of it. It wasn’t a little movie set.” He waved around at the empty miles of dunes, and went on more loudly, “The Pharaoh’s city alone covered ten acres, and the walls were a hundred feet high! And DeMille built a whole city here, besides, with medical tents and kitchen tents — even a kosher kitchen! — for all the cast and crew, all 25,000 of us. Altogether the production covered twenty-four square miles! We took over the town — you’d see Egyptian chariots parked in front of the bars, and DeMille hired every local person and horse and steer for the crowd scenes.”

Wystan turned away from his tiresome companions, and he took the opportunity to pull his flask from an inside pocket of his overcoat. He quickly unscrewed the cap and swallowed two liberal mouthfuls of what his bootlegger swore was English gin, then twisted the cap back on and tucked the flask away.

The witch with the coffee can had resumed blowing into it; her face glowed with each puff, and smoke flickered away in the gathering darkness. The wind smelled strongly of the ocean.

“It was a fine movie,” allowed Mrs. Haas. “I never saw anything like when Moses parted the Red Sea.”

Wystan laughed, so softly that the women probably didn’t hear. “You should have seen us all wading into the sea one day to get seaweed. DeMille had put up fences to show where the walls of water would be matted in later, and he had to shoot at exactly noon, or the fences would throw shadows, and at the last minute somebody pointed out that the path through what was supposed to be the Red Sea bed was dry sand. So DeMille and everybody else went rushing into the surf to drag up kelp and spread it out on the path. And he got the shot before the shadows crept in.”

And a hundred people suddenly and spontaneously agitating the sea, thought Wystan, and them dragging a lot of living stuff out of the sea onto the land, roused my Ba hieroglyph sigil. It pulled its nails nearly all the way out of the Pharaoh’s south wall, and I had to hammer it back flat and repaint it to match the painted plywood wall before anybody noticed.

He took a few unsteady steps in a new direction across the sand, and his boot scuffed something that wasn’t a pebble or piece of plaster; and when he had bent down to pick it up and shake the sand off it, he held it out for the witches to see. It was a rusty metal disk, and by the fading light over the ocean it was possible to read Eastman Film stamped on the surface.

“This is the lid of a film can,” he said. “We’re in the right place. If the cameras were about here…the wall would have been east of us. Best we set up right here, between the wall and the sea.”

“Where is the wall?” quavered one of the witches. “Did it…erode away to dust? In just five years?”

“No.” Wystan shrugged out of his knapsack and set it carefully on the sand. “DeMille, interfering son of a bitch that he was, hired bulldozers to dig a big deep trench and then damn well knock down the whole Pharaoh’s city set and push it into the trench, and then bury it.” Wystan had got the knapsack open, and now lifted out of it a lantern, an unwieldy two-foot-square cardboard portfolio, and, after groping around, a pair of needle-nose pliers. To the witch with the coffee can, he said, “Bring that over here.”

When she had crouched beside him in the cold sand, he pressed the thumb lever to raise the lantern’s glass globe, and with his free hand picked up the needle-nose pliers.

“You’re going to light that lantern?” asked the witch. Wystan recalled that her husband owned an Italian restaurant in Whittier. When he nodded distractedly, she went on, “So why did I have to bring these coals?”

“Not coals,” he said, reaching into the coffee can with the pliers, “embers. And you brought them to light the lantern with.” He caught a glowing piece of punkwood with the pliers, and carefully held it under the bottom edge of the glass globe.

The woman sniffed and said, archly, “Watch you don’t set your breath on fire.”

Shut up, thought Wystan.

In the kitchen of the High Priestess’ house back in San Pedro stood a four-foot tall Paschal candle; it had recently been stolen from a Catholic church in Redondo Beach, but its wick glowed with a flame whose combustion had been relayed — via a long, difficult succession of torches, locomotive fireboxes, ship’s lanterns, and even, for one anxious half hour, the bowl of a briar pipe — from the eternal flame at Baba Gurgur in Iraq.

Wystan held the glowing ember of punkwood to the lantern’s wick, but the oil-soaked fabric didn’t catch fire. He bent down to blow on it, gently.

“But you could have lit the lantern back at Mrs. Haas’ house,” said the witch; he couldn’t see her face in the shadows under her hood, but she sounded irritable, “it’d still be lit from the eternal flame, and I wouldn’t have had to keep dropping bits of rotten wood into this can for four hours while we drove up here.”

“You noticed,” said Wystan tightly as he prodded the recalcitrant wick with the ember, “that Mrs. Haas had to send Cassie out to get coffee this afternoon. Her stove won’t work, with that candle flame pre-empting all the…flamehood in her kitchen. Smoldering, it’s what you might call asleep, but if it had been a flame in this lamp back in San Pedro, I doubt she’d have got ignition in her car’s cylinders. Ah, there we go,” he added, for a bright inch-high flare now enveloped the lantern’s wick.