What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
– T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland, 1. The Burial of the Dead, lines 19-30
NORTH AMERICAN CONTINENT – 141,983 BCE
Night. Rough stone. Sand. A nasty acrid smell of hydrogen sulfide from the mud volcano nearby. A little sirocco stirs this already ancient dust into a little dark twist of living grit. It snaps about the stones and whips against the cracked, eczema-fractured soil chaotically, living its entire existence – its specific dance, its momentary series of configurations – all at once, on a breath of dry wind.
And is gone.
There is one, long silent epoch of unmeasured time. No cricket stirs; even the wind is mute.
A moment more.
There is the hot bakrack! of not-quite thunder suddenly overhead, unexpected and instantaneous and Terrific beneath this inverted bowl of stars, unblemished by cloud and as dry as God’s own eye. Then a fireball spurts forth from the unseen, always strengthening its light, whitening and lengthening and flowing and behind it a fiery draconian tail, white to orange, then to red, tracing some hellish trajectory back into the night.
Great gouts of smoke blossom in the sky, borne of nothing but heat, a sudden and irresistible atmospheric lust for friction, spurring a chain of swelling vaporized pearls across the illuminating sky.
All is white.
Here at Ground Zero, surface temperatures briefly exceed 6000° Celsius, sterilizing the land to an ashy black-grey for a nearly two-kilometer radius. In an instant, the entire blast area becomes more sterile then the cleanest hospital operating room. The central crater itself is surprisingly small – just 300 meters in diameter and some 60 meters deep. It is in truth more of a puncture than a crater, and it will take only a few centuries for the sirocco-wind to return, and for water to flow over it and most of all for Time to banish it from the light.
But down there – in that sepulchral, solemn, seething dark – something sleeps.
Interstate 89 SOUTH, MILE MARKER 58.71, MIDDLESEX, VERMONT USA – 1:12:35.8 AM
Now, witness the scarred man there, naked and sweat-stained in cold Vermont spring night, curled like split prawn on his heaving side, dark streaks stripe vertically down his back; his hair is short and greasy and the color of dust. The scarred man doesn’t move, except to huff air into his lungs over and over again, one of the oldest human sounds, that of breath on stone. For a long time, there is nothing but this. The scarred man does not move, other than to breathe. He may moan once, very softly. The night birds have discovered him now and cluster in splintered, driftwood branches, cocked heads eyeing the scarred man closely – and with malicious interest – as he remains on his side and doesn’t move. Breathing dust in and out.
Hours later, shortly before dawn, the scarred man silently pushes himself erect; haltingly slowly at first but calmly and with growing strength and focus. The sun rises along with him and neatly slices the dark highway into bloody red gashes, severe and beautiful. The scarred man stands with his head down for a moment, then shrugs, looks up and heads toward the sun.