Magus of the Ariegé

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Let’s call him the Magus. He never called himself that but his followers did behind his back, the ones who hung on every word in his Amsterdam glory days.

He was, in the years before the last century turned, the toast of the local underground, the man who led hundreds on exploratory trips into the unknown regions, the Prince of Astral Travel, “Out of Body” experiences which claimed, among other alluring and impossible things, to liberate a person from the tyranny of the Ego, provoke a psychic readjustment and sometimes deliver visions of far-away places, past and future. We were two unlikely cohorts who ran into each other at the Sunday afternoon poetry readings run by his acolytes in the back of a Nieumarkt café. The poetry was wild and wooly, full of contrary ideas and strange, suggestive caravans winding across deserts that existed on no map. It was the perfect setting for the Magus to sweep in like a cosmic maharajah in a star-spangled black djellaba.

To watch him enter, that was something. He parted the waters. He believed in his presence, and others followed suit. He projected, and to each their own what they saw. The Bedouin gear swirled as he worked his way to the front, dropping mystic signs en route, acknowledging the crowd before taking a table off to the side. I didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or study the guy closely. He had his act down.

The library looked like a black meteor riddled with quartz twelve stories tall, a totem from outer space crashed on the Oosterdokskade that if it ever tipped over, would take the neighborhood with it into the canal. Inside, there was a book fair full of people scurrying around, and somewhere, on one of the floors, a table for me. I was going to sell my collection of Brooklyn tales and try to convince the Europeans, Dutch publishers especially, that it was a great success d’estime with plenty of notice back in the States. All true, to a degree.

The Magus was wandering around in street clothes fastidiously done. Introducing himself after a brief chat, he slipped his card on the table and off he went to a nearby booth that specialized in aerodynamics. They were doing real business. I didn’t notice what was written on the little white rectangle until later. Running into him at the poetry reading threw me: it was a few minutes before I recognized who he was.

I had just arrived for a month or two, a European escape that would get America, meaning New York, out of my hair. What I didn’t realize is that one-way tickets are dangerous things and can cost more, in the long haul, than expensive round trips at twice the price. Amsterdam in late April was the place to land, interesting diversions at any hour. People were still free with their time in those days. I had a book out and was rethinking everything. The Europeans, or at least the Amsterdammers, were curious to see what sort of savage I was. I did my best not to let them down.

Over time the Magus and I got on better terms. I wasn’t an active participant in the fabulous evenings that took place in private, well-appointed apartments, so I saw things a little differently than his followers. My first impression was that he was entertaining and harmless. Ten years older than me, he could act the savant and instructor in my presence and be sure of an attentive, if skeptical, audience. Was that it? I wonder now. This world he dismissed with a wave of the hand: all dumbshow and hurlyburly, of no use to the individual seeker. “There are countless planes of existence. It’s up to you to get there, and choose.”

His weekend adventures unfolded something like this: someone knew someone who had a connection to a third party whose doddering relatives had an unrentable five-story fronting the canal in Jordaan or De Wallen; the elderly owners could be induced, for a small fee and certain promises, to rent the upper stories from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. Flights of stairs in the old Amsterdammers are steep—an eighteenth century precaution against flooding—and there’s no way up except on your hands and knees. Once you were on the top floor you could do anything you liked, provided your affairs were discrete. The Magus’s girlfriend, later his wife, found out about the places by word of mouth and a “session” would be discretely announced among his followers. Denise was a no-nonsense Dutch sort who towered over the slightly-built Magus; she saw to the details.

The first night there was a lecture, the basic terms laid out. Participants were beginning a life-long adventure. The mind has many chambers, and with expertise and experience, one could affect matter on this plane—but the dream body must be liberated first. Saturday was more intense, the dreamers stretched out on the floor in semi-darkness, undergoing rituals of “body release” and later, dancing, formlessly, outside their skin, merging into the Great Selfless Organon. Saturday culminated in an orgy on one floor while a flight up the Magus instructed his advanced pupils—this I was not permitted to watch. “Let the black arts begin,” he whispered as he led the select crawling up the last flight of stairs. What one crowd did on one floor, the others practiced “on a higher level” on the next.

By Sunday afternoon stragglers reluctant to leave were reminded that our dear old material world did in fact exist: they were gently coerced into cleaning up. Fresh into my European adventures, I was sure the Magus made a pretty penny off his initiations but that’s an American talking. He might have done it for free. It changes nothing. Experiences like that never come cheap.

That’s a few steps ahead of the game, after I became the Magus’s friend and had won a bit of his trust, whatever that word might mean in this upside-down world. It took him a while to lead me into one of the inner sanctums.

Robert Michael Einhorn was the frail end of the litter in a burgeoning clan whose Midlands fief dated back to the Normans. His father had inherited steel shares and being a shrewd man occupied in various government ministries, had the foresight to sell before the mills closed for good. No one seemed to notice the scrawny offspring; lying in bed with piles of books, he travelled to the far places the authors described, while scribbling extra details of his own into the margins, so that by his teenage years he’d come to the conclusion that this world was nothing more than the physical elaboration of what we are capable of imagining. Hadn’t many of the fantastic things Wells and Verne written about become everyday affairs? They were his oracles. If you could see it in a book where someone else had supplied the basic plan, then where exactly did the place exist in reality? A correspondence between two intelligences was set in motion, and what we agreed upon as reality was little more than a map for getting from point A to point B with as little friction as possible. By his late teens, Ouspensky, Crowley and Regardie replaced Verne and Wells. He read them cover to cover diligently and learned all the tricks. Mass hypnosis was easier than anyone suspected: it depended solely on the participants’ agreeing to enter into the trance. People saw whatever they were told to see, aided by the shadows concealed at the back of their minds. The Tree of Life, the emotional correspondence of far planets, visits to places with exotic, unpronounceable names, angels shivering with light bearing incomprehensible messages only he could untangle. Over the course of our late-night discussions, I tried to gauge how much he believed of what he was putting on. He, in turn, mocked me for having an underfed imagination, though he was willing to “plant the seeds of possibility,” as he put it, in an unbeliever.

“So there you are. My friend, the cynic.”

Sitting across from me over a Chinese dinner in the Zeedijkstrasse was a graceful, impish man, the hood on his djellaba thrown back to reveal a small, triangular face and a child’s inquiring eyes. He wanted to know my story in detail.

“Whose agent are you? Who do you work for? Whose reality?” he would ask, jabbing the air with a fork or a chopstick whenever I accused him of leading people into weird corners from where some could hardly find their way out. Only fifty or so and he was already wizening. Hitting his stride, he grilled me like an interrogator facing a suspect with a dubious alibi.

“Think about it. Your cynicism is a meaningless, pseudo-empirical defense against a vast spiritual terrain that exists regardless of your ignorance.” He glared at me, his cool blue eyes alight with a kind of holy fire that in the States we associate with preachers.

“Just asking,” I shrugged. I had never heard anyone talk like this seriously. “Define your terms. As for spiritual . . . Your parties are hardly spiritual in the accepted meaning of the word.”

“Spiritual because what I am showing people is innately in man as potential. The dark side has many names. The mysteries.” His fork continued to pry away at my metaphysical denials.

“But the thing is,” I said, putting my chopsticks down while his fork went on stirring the elements. “I mean, the thing I don’t understand is this need for a leader. You are the leader, aren’t you?” I wanted desperately to avoid the word cult and didn’t know if I could. “You lead them into the forbidden zones.” I hedged my bets. “They idolize you, don’t they? Some of them are a bit behind on the rent or out of baby formula but they show up every two weeks.”

“Comes with the territory.”

“Suppose,” I said. “You told them to do it. To go into debt, to borrow money, whatever it was, because they were getting close to the Promised Land where all would be revealed. Just suppose. They’d do it, wouldn’t they? In a hurry.”

He didn’t answer but kept his stare trained on me, his fork raised like a three-pronged question mark.

“You’re American, aren’t you? Always fixing things. You’re keen to pull things apart and put them back together again. Except you don’t really take things apart, you smash them and you don’t have such a good record at putting them back together again, do you? This is our culture: you study with a master. Like any other métier. Sacrifice is part of the game.

“You’re trifling with the human heart. You’re a writer, bit of anarchist, no structure, day-today philosophically. Fire moves upwards. It searches for something above, something it can latch on to, something to consume and purify. Of all the elements, it can’t stay still. It seeks out new material, it reaches. It wants contact with the elements and materials above. My students seek me out. I don’t go looking.”

 

 

I crawled up those precipitous low-country stairs my jaw scraping the treads and ended up face to face with a locked door. I pressed close. Was I trying to confirm my doubts or jettison them for good? Curiosity had gotten the upper hand.

I wasn’t sure what was going on within but something was. S&M? Old hat, rough punishment for losers with a Christian hangover, suffering as staged as that of the saints. Sadistic rituals? Cannibalism? The Magus’s own private harem? He seemed too serious for that. What I couldn’t see at that moment—because I was very far from seeing myself as I climbed the darkened stairway—was that I was on my way to becoming a follower, becoming everything I had been content to keep at arm’s length. What better reason for climbing a staircase on my hands and knees? Sheer curiosity? Of course. That’s what every initiate tells himself at the outset.

The light in the center of the ceiling threw a flicking penumbra over the head of a young woman sitting on a practice pony, a child’s toy, leaning forward and then back, talking the whole while. In English, the Magus said, so everyone will understand. The woman was slowly rocking back and forth, stroking the long hairs of the pony and telling her story. Telling, from what I could make out, how she came to be there. Her spiritual adventure. She wanted to go further, to experience everything, to embrace life. Her voice was innocent, plaintive, her head bobbing with each gyration of the pony. Continue, the Magus said. The revelations poured forth.

The room pitched off the tepid shores of spiritual confession and entered unseen territory. The woman, thrusting back and forth furiously under the Magus’s command, bared her life in the Osterwald in some small town half-sunk in the sand. A close family, everything proper. And then she screamed it out: abuse and even incest in her teenage years, and suddenly she was alone, surrounded by strangers. Her mother started a small trade in pimping her to the local boys.

Silence in the room. As if that wasn’t story enough, there was more. She ran away and hid in a church; entered a convent on forged documents so no one could trace her; a year later, one of the men who’d enjoyed her services helped her escape, only to turn her into his personal slave, and she was back where she began. Older and no wiser. She escaped but not before she had the chance to wallop her old man in the face with a piece of firewood. Six months’ detention, a yoga class for prisoners, the first glimmerings of a peaceful, spiritual life. She yearned for the chance to set her life in order. She wanted to put all of it behind her. Lost, she wandered to Amsterdam. She rocked back and forth on the pony, her story coming out in gasps, her language almost incomprehensible.

Who was she, this girl, woman, screaming child? Just a wreck riding the furies of her existence, the Janus-faced spiritual and sexual craving, determined to break out, to find something. The great cathedrals are empty but the attics are full of seekers, hopeful cases among the forlorn. Were all our questions to be unanswered and our spiritual quests to be unfulfilled? The Magus had more than once intimated that he had to break down a person’s resistance before they could enter what he called the sanctuary. Wanting was not enough.

“How did it feel to be treated like that?” Einhorn blurted out. “Why didn’t you resist?” The woman protested and broke into sobs. “Don’t stop now when you are so close! You must give yourself to the world, whether you like it or not! There is no escape. Accept yourself as you are. Everyone in this room accepts you. You must give yourself to the world before you transcend it.” There was the shuffling sound of bodies standing and moving across the old timbers of the top floor. A sobbing cry and then, “Yes, yes, yes,” in a little girl’s voice.

“It’s only the beginning,” the Magus said reassuringly. “There is much further to go.”

The woman was brave. Einhorn had worked a kind of sorcery, binding our spiritual loneliness to the sexual drive we live with every day. What would become of her in this environment of metaphysical juju?

Wild thinking, the Magus explained to the novitiates, was only a first step in the process. A taste of freedom, nothing more. There was no sense in attempting to assimilate the higher teachings if one was still a bundle of neuroses playing society’s game. You had to let others see it without shame because it wasn’t so different from what everyone else was carrying around. Was he entertaining himself? Who was I, a voyeur who contributed nothing, to say?

Einhorn’s voice came through the door plangent and slow. “There, there,” he said, consoling the girl after an ordeal he alone had provoked. I slipped down the stairs before the door opened.

 

 

A wiser man would have been content, but I was giving the Magus special consideration. His case interested me. I thought I could use it. What do you say to a man who claims to possess special spiritual knowledge?

The Magus and I had agreed on an early dinner. From the street the restaurant on the Zeedijkstrasse looked empty. I found Einhorn sitting alone in the back of the place where those passing in the narrow street wouldn’t have the chance to gawk at his odd appearance.

“It’s quite amazing what goes on,” he said, as if he too were only an observer. “Did you hear any of it? I imagine that girl’s outburst carried all the way to the street.”

“I heard some. I was—” and I explained how I had crawled up the stairs to listen. I thought he was a criminal and said so. True, I had no right to listen in but so what. What had become of the woman?

“Well then, you’re practically an initiate. An insider.”

“Afraid not. That was my last visit.”

“You have some objection to what I do?”

There was a long pause in which both of us pretended to be absorbed in the heaped eggplants glistening on the plate between us.

“You will admit that what you and I do are extremely similar?”

“Never in a million years.”

“Oh, come down off your high throne. You write about people’s lives, you make things up, you make every effort to enchant, weave a spell, you give people a framework for reality. Like you say, the word spiritual has as many meanings to as many different people. How could I teach her anything when she was a bundle of nerves?”

He was proceeding almost clinically. I didn’t have an answer, and who was I to be shocked? I was well aware that they weren’t exactly reading the hymnal on the third floor Saturday nights.

“So how does Wild Thinking feel? You’re a participant now, even if you did try to slip in sideways. It’s your stock in trade. You’ve been to Step One.”

Writers, like cats, are fond of being stroked. Maybe that’s why we hang around so much. I was, for whatever reason, a prize catch. The Magus wasn’t going to let me make an easy escape. I almost wished I was the credulous type. The Magus made me feel I’d been spoiled by the New World, that all its outrageous promises had turned me into an early cynic. Maybe it was true. I had to take the leap, didn’t I? When he got going, his piercing eyes, quite different from being handsomely deep set, gave the impression he was ready to leap across the table. Maybe it was the fork he was always waving at me.

“The mind,” he said, “is a beautifully crafted bell, but it has a hole near the top. That’s where we escape. Otherwise we would forever be prisoners of the timeworn grooves inside, intricate and perhaps infinite in their complexity. But outside that tiny hole is true infinity. Discrete systems of power that operate in different regions, free floating, none visible at the same time. Again, the crucial thing is that the student must approach, they must will it, demanding an escape from the old mind. You have to take the risk and know what you’re looking for.”

And then with little more than a word in confidence to his long-time students that he would be out of Amsterdam “for a while on business,” the Magus and his wife disappeared. A year passed and no sign. When I asked around, no one knew anything or if they did, they weren’t saying. Vanished in thin air. My guess was Morocco. I imagined a seaside villa overlooking the Atlantic, a mansion bought on the proceeds from his metaphysical investigations, where he entertained the local wisemen, all of them in djellabas fervently chanting songs of the higher realms.

The brick streets of Amsterdam tilting into the canals lost a touch of glamour and for all I knew the Astral Regions went into eclipse. Now there was one less wild character to boast of in that last decade before people got with the program, bewitched by computers and the information virus. It was inspiring to walk around Amsterdam in those days, the streets full of characters all of whom seemed to possess a separate existence, something self-created and defiant, whether in the queue with the cleaning lady to buy tomatoes or simply out for a stroll. Rembrandt could have made a go of it in those years. But times change when people are looking the other way.

The Magus and I fell out of touch. Our lives had intersected for a moment and then diverged. That’s all there was to it, I thought. I stayed in Europe, eventually settling in Paris. Writer and journo, just like old times. The States floated further and further away. I was forgotten there but there was nothing I could do about it. I went back to Amsterdam as often as I could but wherever I looked in the old spots, I never found Einhorn. His initiates, the few I stumbled on at the Sunday readings, gave me withering looks. I let it go. It was perfect in its own way. The Magus was wearing that silky djellaba studded with stars for a reason: it was the symbol of everything he believed and now that curious Englishman who thought so little of this world had finally slipped through his hood into the void. He could be anywhere.

And then early last summer a terse three-line message arrived in the mail. A telegram from anywhere. It began, “I saw that article about you the other day and wondered if it was the same person.” He remembered our discussions on the Zeedijkstrasse—but nothing else—and closed with the news that he and Denise were living in the Ariège, in the Pyrénées foothills.

His timing was uncanny: at that precise moment I was planning a bike tour starting from Foix or Pau—I couldn’t decide—crossing through Andorra and into Aragon, where “the bread is more bread and the wine, more wine.”

I wrote back an even shorter note mentioning my trip, when I was leaving, and suggesting we meet somewhere along the way for a meal. I didn’t have to wait long for the name of the café in Saint-Gerons, the day and the suggested hour. It was my turn to show up early. I wanted to be sure about him this time, I told myself.

Saint-Gerons is a river town in the Ariège, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The bustling café Einhorn proposed hovered over the river, down to a trickle at the height of the summer. The place was the social center of a sleepy county seat that comes alive for a few weeks each summer. I took a seat by the railing so I could watch the Magus sweep past the crowd of locals. With a bit of luck, I might be able to separate fact from fiction.

He materialized behind my chair, taking me by surprise—I had been absorbed watching the river. He was about to say something but paused to return my stare. He had the rosy, softening features of early retirement, with a silk or at least shiny dinner jacket that murmured Paris rather than Saint-Girons. I’d only just registered the blue suede shoes when his lips curled into a smile of victory.

“I pass inspection?”

“Ha! Tricked again. How’s everything, Robert?” We embraced and then spent the next few minutes chatting while the river rippled down below. He was insistent about finding out about me, my life, Paris. Was everything in the article true?

“Yes and no. Of course not. I juggle a few things, I publish, I’m not so much further along than I was ten years ago . . .” As if that mattered to him. Well, anyone can talk about themselves for hours. I was determined to turn the discussion the other way.

“So how sails the great ship Magus?” It was the first time I’d called him that. It felt like a misstep.

“Oh, well, very well, none too shabby. Full sail into the setting sun.” He was a little taken back. “I suppose you think my disappearance a bit odd. It wasn’t really. Oh, I suppose it was rude, but there was no way to break it to them. Denise and I had to make a quick departure.”

“Someone was after you? You make it sound like a spy novel.” He flexed his shoulders and starred into his glass of wine like a crystal ball.

“That’s good. Very writerly. Not at all. Denise had grown children at that time, one of them was in financial trouble and I got an offer that, as you Americans say, I couldn’t refuse.”

His father was in some ways responsible. Noticing at last that his dreamy offspring was coming of age with little interest in a career, he insisted on a trade. Necromancy wouldn’t do. The old man suggested law, telling his son that with his connections the life of a barrister was far from taxing—recreational even. Einhorn countered with art school, likewise unstressful. His father gnashed his teeth and spit into the fire. They couldn’t come to an agreement, his father insisted the family’s reputation was a stake, when off the top of his head Einhorn proposed aviation.

“It was all Verne’s fault, really: fantastic flying machines of all sorts. Man’s oldest dream, to lift off the planet. Aeronautics was developing rapidly, the latest designs were out of this world, anything seemed possible. There was plenty of money in it and it wasn’t so dull as the law.” He could keep up his psychic research on the side.

And so he had lived a double life, on one side a technical engineer and on the other a full-time shaman. But at just the moment he needed it, Airbus, the European consortium, came to his rescue, offering him an editorial position outside Toulouse on one of their monthly slicks, those obscenely glossy color digests, part science, all public relations: everything in English, the pay extravagant, benefits executive, advancement almost certainly guaranteed. Who could resist? It solved their money troubles straightaway. Airbus never heard the slightest slip of a rumor about his other interests. A smart move, keeping his Amsterdam clan in the dark.

It took the Magus awhile to adjust to his new life. His position was almost a sinecure, evenings were never without their appointments. He morphed and became part of the set, eager to be of assistance and learn his way around. During those gung-ho years before the Crash, he met no end of Ladys This and Sirs That until he felt awash in the lower orders of entitlement, something very appealing to an Englishman of conservative upbringing.

But what had become of the Magus? One doesn’t give up a calling like that because of an astronomical rise in salary. Or does one? Crowley always emphasized that the commitment to “the transformation of matter” was a life-long endeavor. Had my friend forgotten it all in the blurry haze of long evenings on the terrace? He was a chameleon. Einhorn was only too happy to accept the largesse while regarding the proceedings as a kind of blurry interregnum, a few years of forgetfulness. He saved for his retirement and with his wife bought a large, run-down farm in a remote corner of the Ariegé. The Magus of Amsterdam had gone to sleep inside his life, biding his time, waiting for the chance to escape. Prod and probe as I might, I couldn’t find a trace of regret on Einhorn’s part. He was no longer a marginal type on the streets of Amsterdam, a figure for children to point at, his eyes glancing from under his oversized hood. He was established, and content.

“You don’t get bored driving Lady Flange of Gloucester to the casino in Biarritz?”

“Certainly not. Nor by having to stay a few hours extra to meet the deadline for an incomprehensible three-page article on fuel consumption written by a Spanish engineer in approximate English. It doesn’t matter anyway. Almost over now.”

The nineties were long gone. The Magus was in genteel semi-retirement. I had the feeling Einhorn was holding out on me. Can one person really be two completely different impersonations?

“Who’s to say I don’t pursue my studies on my own time? I have a whole wing in the house to myself. Which reminds me, Denise said I should invite you over for dinner and a good rest before you set out on your journey. If you’d like.”

I didn’t hear from Einhorn after that. A year went by and then two. I wrote him a few times. No reply. And then the news came: carnage in the countryside, the kind of thing Parisians register for an evening but that grips the rest of the country for weeks. A houseful of inbreds warring over a hidden inheritance. A slaughter of vagrants somewhere in the Southwest. The French read these things and think the whole world is going to blazes. I’d flipped the pages of the regional papers too quickly so I went back to the bar on the corner of Sainte-Apolline to see if it was somewhere on the bottom of the pile. After a bit of digging I found a version three days old. It was the last coverage. Paris was busy with other travesties.

‘On a remote farm in the Ariège, the search continues. A team of national reconnaissance specialists joined by a regional forensic team are digging in fields and dismantling walls at an old farm owned by a retired English couple looking for bodies. One has already been found, a Spanish male in his late twenties, his identity known to the police but kept secret at the request of his family. The owners are not present and haven’t been seen for almost a week.

‘The farm near Massat, with the French hills on one side and the Pyrenees on the other, was a popular destination for helpxers, young people who volunteer their labor in exchange for food and lodging. The English couple, the Einhorns, were known to house as many as ten helpers at any one time during the warmer months, where they worked clearing fields near the grange, repairing the house’s roof and building a large, outdoor sauna. The owners have an extensive collection of animals including chicken, cats, geese and llamas, which neighbors are caring for.

‘Attempts to recreate events leading up to what some neighbors describe as a rebellion are ongoing. No one is sure how many people were staying at the house but events seem to have come to a head when the sauna was nearing completion. Apparently, a man fell off the roof and the owners refused to drive him to the local clinic, saying it was too late in the day for a doctor.

‘County prosecutors have announced a preliminary investigation into the legality of such quid pro quo work arrangements, which are popular on-line.’

That was all I needed. I jumped on my bike and headed for the train station at Montparnasse. It didn’t leave until ten so I only arrived in Massat late afternoon the next day. There weren’t likely to be new revelations any time soon.

A farmhouse just down from the Einhorn place had reopened as a hostel. A bike wheel was pinioned to the gables and dangling over the road, which was all tired riders needed to know. On some years the place was mobbed during the Tour de France. Eight rooms, all of them full up when I rolled in, rumors making the rounds. I had a quick shower and went to the deck for a meal. The field behind the hostel belonged to Einhorn, and the grange’s driveway was a little ways off, cordoned in tape, the entrance blocked by police cars. The whole scene was reflected in the shiny, intransigent eyes of the llamas.

I was in the south again, where things are a little more relaxed. The waiter—who I later discovered was also the cook, and maybe the maid, too—could tell I hadn’t eaten since Paris. He added a little extra to my omelet.

“And so?” I glanced towards Einhorn’s.

Standing there hands on his hips, he drew a finger across his neck and shrugged. He turned away, towards the kitchen. I stopped him.

“I’m sure you know more than that.”

“One minute,” he said before sweeping up an armful of plates from a table of cyclists. The real journos were in Saint-Gerons soaking up the nightlife.

It was five minutes before he came back and sat down at my table. “Mind if I smoke?”

“As long as you give me one.”

The story spilled out in admirable style, in no particular order, in a country accent that had me running behind. He’d seen what was going on and had had his share of run-ins with Einhorn.

“Anyone could see that it would come to a bad end.”

“Help me out. Explain a little.”

“The old man in his jeep, tearing around. He would come up to the field . . . To make sure they were working! Not to bring them food, no, or something to drink. To make sure none of them were taking a break!”

“You exaggerate.”

“He would lean there against the hood of his car, his hat pulled low against the sun, while his workers sweated away in the heat. Sometimes he watched for an hour. Not a word.”

“He’s an older guy, taciturn.” Although I’d never known him to be. “Your story proves nothing. How many were there?”

“Depends. Five or six, all of them young, women and men sweating in the field, working with sickles or machete as if it were still the nineteenth century! In an overgrown field, grasses and weeds five feet and taller. It hadn’t been cleared in a year. Who would volunteer for that? He only needed to buy a cutter and hoopla, done in an afternoon.” He added that Einhorn had cleverly seized the property from the owner of the hostel.

“What about the sauna?” I asked. “That seems to have set things off.”

“I was still on speaking terms with Einhorn back then,” the cook said. “I asked the local contractor about it, I told him I wanted to build one in here. His answer was filthy. Einhorn never bothered to talk to him. No contractor at all! Free labor. His helpers.”

“What do you mean?”

“They volunteered to do it! If this keeps up, we’ll all be serfs in no time.”

“And what the papers are calling a rebellion?”

“I don’t know, I wasn’t here that night. But if it were me, it would have happened sooner. You can always dig up a doctor in Saint-Gerons.”

“And now the police are out in the woods searching for bodies.”

“They won’t find any.” My source checked the tables over his shoulder and then turned to the sharp peaks of the Pyrenees. He lit a cigarette. “There’s some talk of magic, some craziness like that. Hard to believe. The man Einhorn surprised them in strange clothes, dressed as a magician. He threatened to cast all of them into the pit of hell. They laughed, grabbed him and threw him in the river. And then they fled back to wherever they came.”

That stream was flowing two hundred feet from where we sat. Nobody could drown in it.

“They didn’t kill him? What about the man who fell off the roof? Is he the dead Spaniard?”

“I’m only telling you what I’ve heard,” he said with a complicit smile.

Guests at the other table called out for the dessert menu. I had a few more questions but I knew anything he’d tell me would be his own contribution. That’s the way it goes. The Magus had dug up some old map that “proved” the field “belonged” to his grange? The two men hadn’t spoken since. The chef must have been at the hostel that night when one of the helpers ran over for assistance. That’s how the magician bit got around.

I could wait for the police to find something but I doubted it would be anytime soon. The helpers had probably dragged Einhorn and his wife into the woods—if they had a car the bodies could be miles away. I pictured the crew bent over in the hot sun of early August, all for the grand sum of a beer, a plate, and a bed. It was a malicious turn on the Magus’s part, making fools of people who submitted freely. He could claim that he did nothing more than advertise, and they came. He offered them mountain scenery, the chance to get away from the choking cities and the daily scrounge for bread: they formed their own picture of it in their minds. Could he really be blamed for that?

I took off the next day but not for Saint-Girons and Paris. I went the other way, up into the Pyrenees. I knew the route now. By late afternoon I was grunting like a tennis star, racing with the sun as it dipped behind the peaks. I wanted to get as far away from Massat, sleepy, grisly Massat as fast as I could and didn’t stop before I made Goulier. The sign announced “Campsite, 7,000 feet.” I washed up, made a small fire and stretched out under the stars.

I’d like to say it ended there. Einhorn, the Magus, or someone with a different name entirely came to me in my sleep—in a dream. Except that I don’t think it was a dream; the details were too precise, the voice too loud. There he was: his dinner jacket splattered with blood, long hair plastered to his face, as if the fashionable cut of a reasonable man he’d shown me on the last trip was only a disguise. It was too vivid, too screechingly real. I rolled over and sat up in my sleeping bag to face the jagged peaks and stars that, at that altitude, really are pulsing. I was maybe twenty feet from the cliff. The wind surged through the pine branches but apart from that, the night was still and I was wide awake, sure Einhorn was close by. I looked around. He was a little way up the hill, trapped inside a tree, bathed in blood, as debonair as ever. He was raving about the ravenous beasts that wouldn’t leave him alone.

“Everyone has them. They come in all sizes, all breeds. Everyone has their own special dog. They’re always around, nipping at our heels. Some visible, some we only feel. They provoke. They want to be fed, they won’t go away without. The friendly ones do as you tell them but the others are the hounds of hell. They attach themselves, they have high expectations, they demand a steady stream of orders and rewards. Where do they come from? Do I attract them? Well, I took care of them. I lost them. I’m free. Clean. What’s a little blood and gore down here in the lower realms? Ordinary, quite. We won’t trifle with that sort of thing any longer. Sorry, James, I’m a bit of a mess right now. Watch your step. One is always collecting things, despite one’s best intentions. I’m off.” He gave every appearance of heading for one of those charming evenings on the terrace, but with red slashes smeared across his coat, his hands dripping.

Was it a dream or a message or both? I raced over to the tree to search for evidence, a drop of blood, a footprint, a piece of cloth, before I turned around to face the vast expanse of busy, studded heaven looming just beyond the cliff. I went out as far as I dared. Robert Michael Einhorn, who was he? An epi-phenomenon of the universal mind? That was the way he liked to talk. Maybe so but he was also a deep groove in that bell with the hole on top, the one he so liked to go on about, the one crafted over centuries he always told his disciples we had to escape.

James Graham lives in Paris. He’s the other James Graham, not the English playwright. His new novel is le Plouc de Paris, a comedic romp through the Apocalypse. You can read him and reach him at Continental Riffs on Substack.

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