Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Pit and the Permutation

"Murphy! Oi, Murphy!” The damned silhouette didn’t move. “Murphy you fool! Wave your arms if that’s you!” Still nothing. What was he thinking just standing there with his arms in the air? I walked a little closer and saw two silhouettes in the trees, both unmoving.

“Murphy I swear to you, if you’re over there, move or yell something so I don’t take you for an Indian!” The sun was setting and the wind blowing through the trees gave the illusion of movement. My mind had been playing tricks on me for the past few days, ever since I started up the blasted goat trail without one damned person to talk to. Finally I yanked on the ropes and the mules lumbered up behind me.

I tried to walk quietly just in case they were Indians, but the ground was covered with old leaves and seemingly with every step I kicked a pine cone into the loudest bush in the forest. If they were Indians, they were deaf or didn’t care about an old fool like myself. I walked a little closer and noticed that one of the silhouettes was green, from top to bottom; not just the skin, but the clothes, the hair, even the whites of the eyes. I let go of the mules and ran over to them, and only then noticed they were statues. What they were doing up in the forest like this, I did not know. Murphy had a lot of explaining to do.

I grabbed a stick and jabbed the green statue and felt it sink in a little. Then I gave it a whack across the head and the stick nearly cut it in half before springing out again. I poked it with my fingers and felt something like a lump of skin, soft and spongy. I looked into its eyes and I could swear they were at one point alive. All of the wrinkles around them were perfectly sculpted, all of the eyelashes in place. A small scar on the forehead ran from the hairline to the bridge of the nose.

The other statue, the one with its—his?—arms raised was brown all over, similar to the green one, but its face was locked in a grimace, its eyebrows forming a peak above sullen squinted eyes. I whacked it with a stick and a chunk of its chest fell off as if it were made of chalk. I’ve been around many mining camps and have seen some strange things men have dragged from this mysterious earth, and I’ve seen the most heathen of statues purported to do the most dastardly of things, but I have never seen them combined in such a form as this. In the fading light I spotted grooves in the ground where apparently they had been dragged—by Murphy or some other creature.

Down the grooved trail, the light from a campfire illuminated the tall red trees. I could hear a deep tone-deaf voice belching out an old church song. I knew I had found Murphy. He was sitting down, leaning against a rotten log, his head flopping back and forth on his fat neck with every verse.

“Murphy! Are you just going to sit there and sing all night?” His body jerked with surprise and his head swiveled round to see me.

“Is that you, Captain? Well, I guess a few weeks is short enough,” he said nonchalantly. “Be prepared for hell if you lost any of my bags.” He stood up and stomped towards me, never looking in my direction. The mule ropes dropped from my hands as I prepared for a hug, but he passed me by and went straight for the mules instead.

“I suppose that’s a fine way to treat your friend who you haven’t seen in two years, especially after I dragged my arse halfway across country and halfway up the sky just to see you.” Murphy paid no attention to my grumbling, but rather opened one of the saddle bags and rummaged through it.

“Dear Captain, we aren’t in the comforting embrace of civilization up here, so please forgive me if I’d rather focus on more important things than little niceties.” His hands dove in and grasped exactly what he was looking for. Out came a brown glass bottle and a package of something wet wrapped in butcher paper. He closed the saddlebag and marched right by me back to the fire as I stared at him in disbelief. Then he stopped and looked over at me for the first time.

“Alright then,” he said, “get over to the fire already. I suppose I owe you a steak and a drink for your troubles.”


The meal passed in silence. I demanded Murphy tell me about his supposed gold mine and about the two statues he set up on the trail, but he said the night was better spent in merriment—of which I did not partake—and that tomorrow all of my questions would be answered. In the morning I awoke first, only because of Murphy’s stinginess with the bottle the night before. Lying on my back, my vision was full of morning light and the trees. They were taller than ten houses stacked on each other and wider around as well. Deep ridges cutting through the bark reminded me of the scarred red wasteland I had to traverse only a few weeks ago. The branches were like normal trees in their own right. If it were possible for me to float up there, I could dance a little jig on them and never fear falling down.

After admiring the trees for a while I grew tired of Murphy’s snoring and mumblings. The days were long and I wasn’t going to have any of his excuses any more. I stood up and kicked his bedspread until he stirred. He awoke and looked up at me with bloodshot eyes. As silent as the day before, he stood up and cooked breakfast, eggs and old canned beans he had scattered about his encampment. He tried to uncork the bottle once more but I grabbed it from him and stashed it back with the mules.

“I answered your letter, Murphy. I spent all of my money on a train all the way to V—. I hemmed and hawed when I found out I had to drag your mules up with me into some strange mountains. I slept all alone amongst the grizzly bears and Indians. Now I demand you tell me about your damned mine so I can get what’s coming to me. Unless you want to sit around and keep eating while I go back where I came from.”

Murphy looked down at his plate, smeared with egg yolk and bean paste, rimmed by the crusted remnants of previous meals and fallen leaves. “You’re right, dear Captain. Follow me and we’ll see this damned mine,” he said.

We walked on a worn trail through groves of giant trees. I could only stare in wonder and run my hands over the thick red bark. I would have loved to know the names of them but I doubted Murphy knew they existed. As we rounded a tree I saw a small arc of what I expected to be a normal mining pit, but the arc extended so much that even at its half-way point the gaping maw dominated my field of view. There were no mining structures nearby, just a hastily constructed A-frame made of fallen branches with a rope dangling into the pit.

“Here it is O Captain. Our fortune awaits!” Murphy said triumphantly.

I had not yet fully grasped the situation and couldn’t find the right question to ask. “Did you dig this yourself, Murphy?”

“No no, don’t be silly, my boy. I paid an Indian and he showed it to me. The whole thing was dug already, all the way down to—well, I really don’t know how deep it is.”

“And we’re supposed to lower ourselves down in with a single rope and carry up the ore the same way?” I asked.

“Lower ourselves down?” He said incredulously. “No, my boy. No no no. You don’t want to go down in there. You lower things in, and pull up a fortune!”

“Don’t play with me, Murphy. I’m already angry enough that the real gold rush is hundreds of miles away and I was foolish enough to come to your damned pit.”

“If you’ll relax for a moment I’ll show you exactly how the pit works. First grab a branch and we’ll go over to the A-frame. Oh, and stay away from the sides. Like I said, you don’t want to fall in.”

I saw the first real smile on Murphy’s face as he stomped over to the A-frame. I leaned over the pit and tried to see the bottom, but saw only darkness and the occasional root sticking out from the walls. I have seen and worked in many mines in my day but never one like this. The pit seemed almost perfectly round and the walls went straight down, like the geometers of Egypt designed it.

“Get over here already, and don’t worry about the branch; I’ve got one!” Murphy was busy tying a branch to the end of the rope as I walked up, taking a wide berth to avoid the edge.

“First you tie up whatever you want to drop in,” Murphy said as he worked. “You have to make sure you have just the right amount of rope or else you’re liable to lose a whole length. Then, you drop it in and lower it down.” He threw the branch in and fed the rope down hand-over-hand, his child-like smile growing with every inch that disappeared over the edge. I could only stare.

“Now, once you’ve reached the end, you pull it back up, and wo-la! you’re in business!” Murphy pulled up the rope just as fast as it went in, his eyes gleaming as he waited for the branch to appear over the lip. Up it came, but the natural brownish color was gone; it looked bright purple now. Murphy untied it and threw it to me.

“What’s this, then?” I asked.

“Just feel it before you say anything.” Murphy said.

The surface was smooth and cold like metal, but it wasn’t heavy. I rapped it with my knuckles and heard a loud hollow knock. “What is it?” I asked again.

“I have no idea!” Murphy said. “Every time I lower something in, it comes up as a different material. I must’ve lowered nearly a hundred things in there and not two of them have come up the same.”

“Can you make things come up as gold?” I asked.

“Nae, you can’t control what it comes up as. Sometimes things will come up soft as butter or heavy as iron. Sometimes things don’t come up at all. One time I lowered in a tin can and it floated back up! I couldn’t pull it back down so I had to cut the rope. It floated straight up until I lost it in the blue.”

I threw the branch back to him. “So there’s no gold in here? No silver? What’s the damned good in coming up here if we can’t mine anything special? Do you think the assayers will care about that silly old branch there?”

“You’ve got no imagination, dear Captain. What if we lower something in and it comes up looking like gold? Then we take it back down and they won’t know the difference.”

“You think they’re as stupid as that?” I threw up my hands. “They aren’t going to melt it down or anything? Just hand us money and thank us kindly for it? Did you transform your brain along with all this junk?

“Ok, maybe not gold, but something else. What if we get a big red thing and say it’s a giant ruby? People in town are so ignorant they won’t know the difference.”

“Oh and I suppose you know what a ruby looks like?”

“Aye! When I was a lad,” Murphy’s old Irish accent leaked in, “a travelling minstrel came in with all sorts of beautiful jewels: emerald, just as green as the old country, sapphire, a diamond like me fist. Ten big Mussulmen straight from Arabia with huge scimitars in their belts guarded the whole setup so no one tried anything funny. He charged two pence to see them and me whole town must have passed through his tent twice. One time I even put one of the jewels in me mouth before anyone saw. I spit it back out of course.”

“Murphy, you’re raving mad. The Indian who led you here must have had a good laugh walking away with your sweaty money in hand. I swear to you I’m going back down as soon as—”

“Hold on now, just think of this: supposed we pay those dirty Dutch in V— to come up here and chop down one of these big trees and we lower it down? What if it comes up as shiny as a diamond? Eh? What then?”

“And if it comes up as mud?”

“Then we do it again, and again, until we get something perfect and we live like kings afterwards! Eh? Worth the effort, eh?”

“No, none of this is worth the effort,” I said. “If you weren’t such a dear friend I would leave right now.” My emotions became too much and I started pacing back and forth deep in thought as to what I was going to do next. How long would it take for me to reach the real gold rush, and would all the gold be gone once I arrived? I could tell by Murphy’s wide eyes and quivering lips that he too was deep in thought, struggling for a way to keep me here.

“Now just wait Captain,” he said. “Remember the place you picked up the mules? Remember the Dutch family’s daughter, the buxom one? The one that didn’t speak a lick of English?” I did indeed remember her glowing yellow hair made up in a bun and her delightful peasant dress, every night coming up the trail.

“Say we hire the town to come up here and chop down trees. She comes up with them, but instead of breaking her back on menial labor, she cooks our meals and makes our bed every night, eh? All the men folk would go to work all day and it would be only the two of us with her and maybe a few other women of our choice, living like sultans.”

I must admit this shut me up, and my eyes began to widen. Murphy saw this and fed off it.

“We’d have clean clothes, maybe a little roof over our heads; a real household amidst this savage land,” he said, his voice lowering to a whisper. “And the best part, she’d never speak because we don’t understand her infernal language.”

My eyes went out of focus and gazed off into the distance. He spoke about something I’ve fantasized about for my whole life. I wanted to kick myself for falling into his verbal trap, but my heart raced from the possibilities.

“Murphy, if we do this, and there aren’t any buxom women, or clean clothes, or piles of money, I will never talk to you again. Not even if you write me a thousand of your chicken-scratch letters. Do you hear me?”

“Aye, Captain, aye! There will be all of those things twice over. First things first though: let’s look through this pile of old stuff I lowered in and see if there’s anything we can pawn off for a little starting cash.” Near the A-frame was a pile of assorted trash of all shapes and colors. He had lowered in bits of anything he could find, and true to his word, they all looked and felt different. I found a banjo with no strings that was white as snow and crumbled into dust when handled roughly. A pile of tin cans looked as colorful as autumn leaves. Branches, stones, even flowers lay strewn about as if viewed once and discarded.

Most of the cans were lackluster—a slight color change here, a smoother texture there—and I tossed those right out. A few were colorful enough to distract me for a second before tossing them aside as well. Only a couple of the seemingly endless supply of cans Murphy had accumulated—the amount of beans Murphy must have eaten would satisfy even the most mightiest of giant’s appetite—were worth remembering. A piece of the first can I picked up chipped off and instantly turned into liquid. One acted as a mirror, except all of the colors were inverted. The black and white parts of my eyes were reversed, and the red veins streaking across now looked like vines creeping over a cooled lava bed. Some invisible shield confounded me before I realized it was a can almost completely see-through, save for the lightest pink hue when I held it straight to my eyes. One can whistled when shook, like wind going over a cave.

“Have you ever lowered in something alive, Murphy, like a deer or something?” I asked as we rifled through the pile.

Murphy paused, his brow furrowed in worry. “No, I could never catch anything,” he said.

“Not even a little squirrel? And you call yourself a mountain man! Maybe we should lower in one of your mules and see what happens.”

“No! Helga and Beverly aren’t going into any pit,” he said.

“And the two statues near the camp, I suppose you didn’t lower your guides in either,” I said.

Murphy’s brow furrowed more. “Those—uh—I whittled those when I was waiting for your lazy arse to get up here.”

“Whittled, eh? An artist and a mountain man! I’ll be! And how did you get the material? Did you lower in a few trees all by your lonesome?”

Murphy stood up and grabbed me by my jacket. “What are you trying to say, Captain? That I lowered them into the pit like a savage? Huh?”

I laughed softly and slowly as he violently shook me. His eyes burned brightly and a few beads of sweat appeared and ran down alongside a huge vein I had never seen before.

“No, Captain!” he yelled. “I whittled them meself and put them out there as guards against the Indians because you were taking so long.”

I continued laughing, louder now as he gripped harder and pulled me to him. Then in a flash he pushed me into the trash pile. He turned around and with steam rising from his head he walked in the direction of camp. He bent down and grabbed a random transformed can of beans—blue, hound’s-tooth texture—and with a great effort flung it out over the pit. The can nearly reached the other side, a true testament to the latent strength he possessed.

“Relax Murphy!” I called out.” I was only joking with you!” He paid no mind.


At first, it was only a joke. Never in my twenty-odd years of knowing Murphy has he ever attempted a murder of his fellow kindred race. His most egregious affront came in our younger days when he stabbed another man’s mule after a heated argument. The wound was shallow and the mule survived, but Murphy awoke the next morning not only with a pain in the head but also on various swollen and purple parts of his body.

As I shifted through the rubble, and recounted how lifelike the statues were, and then recounted his past history with the art of knives, the joke slowly transformed from playful innocence into an objective history. I avoided him for the rest of the day, choosing rather to munch on moist roots and berries I had been accustomed to for the last few days than risk a dangerous confrontation with him back at the camp.

I wondered who the two hapless statues—well, live-blooded humans at one time—were; his Indian guide, unlucky Dutchmen from V—, wild mountain men? How long did they live up here in fraternity conversing about grand plans and riches until Murphy lay his pudgy fingers upon them? Did he send me his letter before or after their untimely transformation?

Once night fell and I was convinced none of the tin cans could be passed off as any alchemic transmutation, I headed back to camp. The remains of a fire still glowed softly and an exaggerated snore emanated from Murphy’s bedspread. A quick glance at his exposed head was enough time to see the whites of his eyes illuminated by the coals before they shut tight. The unnatural snoring grew louder. I slid into my own bedspread, shifting it slightly to afford the perfect viewing angle of Murphy. We must have spent hours pretending to be asleep, catching each other staring before our eyes shut again and we resumed our faux-slumber.

I had trained myself—by way of vigorous pinching of the fleshy part of the thigh—to stay awake for nights upon end, and my self-discipline paid off when Murphy’s snoring lowered to a natural volume and his nocturnal battle with the incorporeal monsters in his bedspread commenced. I slid slowly from under my blanket, and with one healthy shake, adjusted myself to the night cold. My mind raced with ideas and unholy demons, visions of what could happen to me if I remained in this accursed forest. This temporary madness, coupled with a few lengthy pulls from Murphy’s brown bottle, conspired against me to commit a terrible act. Thus, with bits of grass and dirt jammed in my ears, I lowered my good friend Murphy into the pit against his best wishes.

I did just as he said and lowered him enough so that the rope itself did not transform. Despite my makeshift earplugs I could hear his moans grow softer and softer until they quit altogether. With the help of Beverly—or Helga—I pulled my rotund compatriot to the top of the pit and gazed into his transformed, unmoving, eerily alive eyes. The full realization of my crimes came to me at that moment and I wept bitterly. In an even deeper madness I fled to my bedroll and fell into a deep tormented sleep.

In the morning I awoke suddenly and tore my bedspread from me, thinking that the warm embrace was that of Murphy dragging me to hell. His frightened face flashed before my eyes and I ran to fetch the bottle of whiskey to extinguish it. But then a bit of optimism hit me, and I wondered if perhaps the bottle had simply infected me with a nasty nightmare. I walked—bottle in hand in case a peace offering were required—back to the pit, calling Murphy’s name softly. Maybe he transformed and was still alive, and was just resting. He certainly would be angry for what I did.

There he lay right on the edge of the pit where I left him, arms outstretched over the lip, as stiff as the trees. I called his name some more, louder now, trying to wake him if possible. His mouth was open, a look of extreme sadness and fright upon his face. I uncorked the bottle and poured a little into his mouth, thinking that might wake him. Then, a little more, until his mouth was a pool of whiskey.

I was convinced now. Murphy was no more. I had killed him with my paranoia and now all I had of him was an avatar made of—what, not even a body of ruby, which would befit his kind soul. Instead he was black as pitch and coarse to the touch.

There was nothing left for me in the mountains any more. I couldn’t stay in good conscience and carry out our plan. I couldn’t go back down to V— and look into the eyes of the Dutch and not have my soul pour out in tears. I couldn’t mine any more, knowing my best blood-brother sat lifeless on the edge of a pit surrounded by huge uncaring trees. I knew what I had to do now. I had to join him.

I gingerly untied the rope around his foot. It had been a while since I worked with ropes, but the standard harness came back to me and I tied it around my waist. I didn’t deserve to be lowered in. I should have jumped in and begged for forgiveness moments before I transformed forever, but I couldn’t do it. My hope was that someone would come along and hoist me up eventually and my body would be put on display right next to Murphy and the other two unknowns. I leaned over the edge, said a tearful goodbye to the mules, looked up at the gargantuan trees around me for the last time, and started to rappel down.

What was going to happen to me? Would my feet transform first, or would it happen all at once? Would it be painful? I knew nothing, only that it had to be done. I continued to rappel down, feeding out more and more rope. I was sure I passed the point of no return, but I felt nothing. The top of the hole grew distant but I still descended. Soon I was so far down in the pit that I couldn’t see the rope in front of me. Then I heard a snap and the rope jerked, then another snap and I was falling.

For the first few minutes of my fall I screamed. There was nothing below me and nothing to indicate I was even falling. I could reach out and feel the wall—still made of dirt—in front of me. It must have been hours before I started to see a little light below me; then I started to scream again. Was this the end? Would I perish falling on whatever the light was?

I shot through the light and saw ground below me. I slowed down mid-air, not too far above the ground and fell again. I landed hard in a rubbish pile, flopping around in pain. When I collected myself I got on my hands and knees and felt around; I landed in a pile of tin cans. In front of me were stacks of branches and piles of rocks. I looked around and found a stringless banjo just like the one before, but now it was its own self again. Everything around me felt as it should; metal was metal, wood was wood.

I looked up and saw two men squatting near me, their eerily familiar faces surprised at my sudden arrival, then I heard a rustle behind me. I whirled around, still on my hands and knees, and saw Murphy, bound tightly by ropes to the trunk of a gigantic red tree.

“Took yo u long enough to get here, you old bastard!”

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