From Book One: DISCOVERY
It is easy to go down into Hell . . . ; but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air -- there's the rub. . . .
--Virgil, AeneidChapter 1
The Himalayas, Tibet Autonomous Region
In the beginning was the word.
Whatever these were.
They kept their lights turned off. The exhausted trekkers huddled in the dark cave and faced the peculiar writing. Scrawled with a twig, possibly, dipped in liquid radium or some other radioactive paint, the fluorescent pictographs floated in the black recesses. Ike let them savor the distraction. None of them seemed quite ready to focus on the storm beating against the mountainside outside.
With night descending and the trail erased by snow and wind and their yak herders in mutinous flight with most of the gear and food, Ike was relieved to have shelter of any kind. He was still pretending for them that this was part of their trip. In fact they were off the map. He'd never heard of this hole-in-the-wall hideout. Nor seen glow-in-the-dark caveman graffiti.
"Runes," gushed a knowing female voice. "Sacred runes left by a wandering monk."
The alien calligraphy glowed with soft violet light in the cave's cold bowels. The luminous hieroglyphics reminded Ike of his old dorm wall with its black-light posters. All he needed was a lash of Hendrix plundering Dylan's anthem, say, and a whiff of plump Hawaiian red sinsemilla. Anything to vanquish the howl of awful wind. Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl. . . .
"Those are no runes," said a man. "It's Bonpo." A Brooklyn beat, the accent meant Owen. Ike had nine clients here, only two of them male. They were easy to keep straight.
"Bonpo!" one of the women barked at Owen. The coven seemed to take collective delight in savaging Owen and Bernard, the other man. Ike had been spared so far. They treated him as a harmless Himalayan hillbilly. Fine with him.
"But the Bonpo were pre-Buddhist," the woman expounded.
The women were mostly Buddhist students from a New Age university. These things mattered very much to them.
Their goal was -- or had been -- Mount Kailash, the pyramidal giant just east of the Indian border. "A Canterbury Tale for the World Pilgrim" was how he'd advertised the trip. A kor
-- a Tibetan walkabout -- to and around the holiest mountain in the world. Eight thousand per head, incense included. The problem was, somewhere along the trail he'd managed to misplace the mountain. It galled him. They were lost. Beginning at dawn today, the sky had changed from blue to milky gray. The herders had quietly bolted with the yaks. He had yet to announce that their tents and food were history. The first sloppy snowflakes had started kissing their Gore-Tex hoods just an hour ago, and Ike had taken this cave for shelter. It was a good call. He was the only one who knew it, but they were now about to get sodomized by an old-fashioned Himalayan tempest.
Ike felt his jacket being tugged to one side, and knew it would be Kora, wanting a private word. "How bad is it?" she whispered. Depending on the hour and day, Kora was his lover, base-camp shotgun, or business associate. Of late, it was a challenge estimating which came first for her, the business of adventure or the adventure of business. Either way, their little trekking company was no longer charming to her.
Ike saw no reason to front-load it with negatives. "We've got a great cave," he said.
"We're still in the black, head-count-wise."
"The itinerary's in ruins. We were behind as it was."
"We're fine. We'll take it out of the Siddhartha's Birthplace segment." He kept the worry out of his voice, but for once his sixth sense, or whatever it was, had come up short, and that bothered him. "Besides, getting a little lost will give them bragging rights."
"They don't want bragging rights. They want schedule. You don't know these people. They're not your friends. We'll get sued if they don't make their Thai Air flight on the nineteenth."
"These are the mountains," said Ike. "They'll understand." People forgot. Up here, it was a mistake to take even your next breath for granted.
"No, Ike. They won't understand. They have real jobs. Real obligations. Families." That was the rub. Again. Kora wanted more from life. She wanted more from her pathless Pathfinder.
"I'm doing the best I can," Ike said.
Outside, the storm went on horsewhipping the cave mouth. Barely May, it wasn't supposed to be this way. There should have been plenty of time to get his bunch to, around, and back from Kailash. The bane of mountaineers, the monsoon normally didn't spill across the mountains this far north. But as a former Everester himself, Ike should have known better than to believe in rain shadows or in schedules. Or in luck. They were in for it this time. The snow would seal their pass shut until late August. That meant he was going to have to buy space on a Chinese truck and shuttle them home via Lhasa--and that came out of his land costs. He tried calculating in his head, but their quarrel overcame him.
"You do know what I mean by Bonpo," a woman said. Nineteen days into the trip, and Ike still couldn't link their spirit nicknames with the names in their passports. One woman, was it Ethel or Winifred, now preferred Green Tara, mother deity of Tibet. A pert Doris Day look-alike swore she was special friends with the Dalai Lama. For weeks now Ike had been listening to them celebrate the life of cavewomen. Well, he thought, here's your cave, ladies. Slum away.
They were sure his name--Dwight David Crockett--was an invention like their own. Nothing could convince them he wasn't one of them, a dabbler in past lives. One evening around a campfire in northern Nepal, he'd regaled them with tales of Andrew Jackson, pirates on the Mississippi, and his own legendary death at the Alamo. He'd meant it as a joke, but only Kora got it.
"You should know perfectly well," the woman went on, "there was no written language in Tibet before the late fifth century."
"No written language that we know about," Owen said.
"Next you'll be saying this is Yeti language."
It had been like this for days. You'd think they'd run out of air. But the higher they went, the more they argued.
"This is what we get for pandering to civilians," Kora muttered to Ike. Civilians was her catch-all: eco-tourists, pantheist charlatans, trust funders, the overeducated. She was a street girl at heart.
"They're not so bad," he said. "They're just looking for a way into Oz, same as us."
Ike sighed. At times like this, he questioned his self-imposed exile. Living apart from the world was not easy. There was a price to be paid for choosing the less-traveled road. Little things, bigger ones. He was no longer that rosy-cheeked lad who had come with the Peace Corps. He still had the cheekbones and cowled brow and careless mane. But a dermatologist on one of his treks had advised him to stay out of the high-altitude sun before his face turned to boot leather. Ike had never considered himself God's gift to women, but he saw no reason to trash what looks he still had. He'd lost two of his back molars to Nepal's dearth of dentists, and another tooth to a falling rock on the backside of Everest. And not so long ago, in his Johnnie Walker Black and Camels days, he'd taken to serious self-abuse, even flirting with the lethal west face of Makalu. He'd quit the smoke and booze cold when some British nurse told him his voice sounded like a Rudyard Kipling punchline. Makalu still needed slaying, of course. Though many mornings he even wondered about that.
Exile went deeper than the cosmetics or even prime health, of course. Self-doubt came with the territory, a wondering about what might have been, had he stayed the course back in Jackson. Rig work. Stone masonry. Maybe mountain guiding in the Tetons, or outfitting for hunters. No telling. He'd spent the last eight years in Nepal and Tibet watching himself slowly devolve from the Golden Boy of the Himalayas into one more forgotten surrogate of the American empire. He'd grown old inside. Even now there were days when Ike felt eighty. Next week was his thirty-first birthday.
"Would you look at this?" rose a cry. "What kind of mandala is that? The lines are all twisty."
Ike looked at the circle. It was hanging on the wall like a luminous moon. Mandalas were meditation aids, blueprints for divinity's palaces. Normally they consisted of circles within circles containing squared lines. By visualizing it just so, a 3-D architecture was supposed to appear above the mandala's flat surface. This one, though, looked like scrambled snakes.
Ike turned on his light. End of mystery, he congratulated himself.
Even he was stunned by the sight.
"My God," said Kora.
Where, a moment before, the fluorescent words had hung in magical suspense, a nude corpse stood rigidly propped upon a stone shelf along the back wall. The words weren't written on stone. They were written on him. The mandala was separate, painted on the wall to his right side.
A set of rocks formed a crude stairway up to his stage, and various passersby had attached katas--long white prayer scarves--to cracks in the stone ceiling. The katas sucked back and forth in the draft like gently disturbed ghosts.
The man's grimace was slightly bucktoothed from mummification, and his eyes were calcified to chalky blue marbles. Otherwise the extreme cold and high altitude had left him perfectly preserved. Under the harsh beam of Ike's headlamp, the lettering was faint and red upon his emaciated limbs and belly and chest.
That he was a traveler was self-evident. In these regions, everyone was a pilgrim or a nomad or a salt trader or a refugee. But, judging from his scars and unhealed wounds and a metal collar around his neck and a warped, badly mended broken left arm, this particular Marco Polo had endured a journey beyond imagination. If flesh is memory, his body cried out a whole history of abuse and enslavement.
They stood beneath the shelf and goggled at the suffering. Three of the women--and Owen--began weeping. Ike alone approached. Probing here and there with his light beam, he reached out to touch one shin with his ice ax: hard as fossil wood.
Of all the obvious insults, the one that stood out most was his partial castration. One of the man's testicles had been yanked away, not cut, not even bitten--the edges of the tear were too ragged--and the wound had been cauterized with fire. The burn scars radiated out from his groin in a hairless keloid starburst. Ike couldn't get over the raw scorn of it. Man's tenderest part, mutilated, then doctored with a torch.
"Look," someone whimpered. "What did they do to his nose?"
Midcenter on the battered face was a ring unlike anything he'd ever seen before. This was no silvery Gen-X body piercing. The ring, three inches across and crusted with blood, was plugged deep in his septum, almost up into the skull. It hung to his bottom lip, as black as his beard. It was, thought Ike, utilitarian, large enough to control cattle.
Then he got a little closer and his repulsion altered. The ring was brutal. Blood and smoke and filth had coated it almost black, but Ike could plainly see the dull gleam of solid gold.
Ike turned to his people and saw nine pairs of frightened eyes beseeching him from beneath hoods and visors. Everyone had their lights on now. No one was arguing.
"Why?" wept one of the women.
A couple of the Buddhists had reverted to Christianity and were on their knees, crossing themselves. Owen was rocking from side to side, murmuring Kaddish.
Kora came close. "You beautiful bastard." She giggled. Ike started. She was talking to the corpse.
"What did you say?"
"We're off the hook. They're not going to hit us up for refunds after all. We don't have to provide their holy mountain anymore. They've got something better."
"Let up, Kora. Give them some credit. They're not ghouls."
"No? Look around, Ike."
Sure enough, cameras were stealing into view in ones and twos. There was a flash, then another. Their shock gave way to tabloid voyeurism.
In no time the entire cast was blazing away with eight-hundred-dollar point-and-shoots. Motor drives made an insect hum. The lifeless flesh flared in their artificial lightning. Ike moved out of frame, and welcomed the corpse like a savior. It was unbelievable. Famished, cold, and lost, they couldn't have been happier.
One of the women had climbed the stepping-stones and was kneeling to one side of the nude, her head tilted sideways.
She looked down at them. "But he's one of us," she said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Us. You and me. A white man."
Someone else framed it in less vulgar terms. "A Caucasian male?"
"That's crazy," someone objected. "Here? In the middle of nowhere?"
Ike knew she was right. The white flesh, the hair on its forearms and chest, the blue eyes, the cheekbones so obviously non-Mongoloid. But the woman wasn't pointing to his hairy arms or blue eyes or slender cheekbones. She was pointing at the hieroglyphics painted on his thigh. Ike aimed his light at the other thigh. And froze.
The text was in English. Modern English. Only upside down.
It came to him. The body hadn't been written upon after death. The man had written upon himself in life. He'd used his own body as a blank page. Upside down. He'd inscribed his journal notes on the only parchment guaranteed to travel with him. Now Ike saw how the lettering wasn't just painted on, but crudely tattooed.
Wherever he could reach, the man had jotted bits of testimony. Abrasions and filth obscured some of the writing, particularly below the knees and around his ankles. The rest of it could easily have been dismissed as random and lunatic. Numbers mixed with words and phrases, especially on the outer edges of each thigh, where he'd apparently decided there was extra room for new entries. The clearest passage lay across his lower stomach.
" 'All the world will be in love with night,' " Ike read aloud, " 'and pay no worship to the garish sun.' "
"Gibberish," snapped Owen, badly spooked.
"Bible talk," Ike sympathized.
"No, it's not," piped up Kora. "That's not from the Bible. It's Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet."
Ike felt the group's repugnance. Indeed, why would this tortured creature choose for his obituary the most famous love story ever written? A story about opposing clans. A tale of love transcending violence. The poor stiff had been out of his gourd on thin air and solitude. It was no coincidence that in the highest monasteries on earth, men endlessly obsessed about delusion. Hallucinations were a given up here. Even the Dalai Lama joked about it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Descent by Jeff Long. . Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.