Sketches from Part I of Novel “The Magnetic Fields”

November 9, 2013

She hated the dream.

She would always awake startled in a clammy sweat, sometimes with a wrenching cry, sometimes in a pantomime of fear, her limbs thrashing in wet wrung sheets. For several minutes she would do nothing but stare into the lonely chasm of night, which as an effect of the clinging vapors of her dream, assumed a more leaden and opaque character. She would remain this way sometimes for up to an hour as she struggled to focus on the familiar objects: the bed, the bureau and the table, the window framing a piece of the sleepy outer world; a halo around a distant streetlamp; a red fleck of light on a tower’s beacon; the pinpoint of an isolated star . . . Normally she would not fall asleep again for the rest of the night. She tried reading, hoping to escape the dark unsettling places her sleep had recently traversed. She dreaded, shunned that lair of her unconscious, and she would have to steel her will against a second visit, at least in the same night.

Often, in the wake of her nightmare, she would fixate on Hiroshima and Nagasaki laid to waste by the bomb; fixate on the gaunt, irradiated victims whose blistered flesh hung in tatters on their shocked frames, fixate on the death landscape of ash and rubble, the incinerated matchsticks of buildings, the ghost outlines of bodies as negative reverse images fused to a charred wall, and the all-encompassing white light of Hell. The dream was different: it lived (and died) in earth, but formed a shared incubus with destroyed, Imperial Japan . . . Equally threatened when asleep or awake, Ligeia could never quite bring herself to close her eyes or to keep them open.

One night, when her terrors were especially acute, she picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.

“Hello?” a sleepy male voice answered on the other end.

“Sol. It’s me.”

“My God! It’s after three o’clock. Are you okay?”

“No, Sol. I’m not. I’m failing again tonight.”

“Is it the nightmare?”


“And all the rest of it?”


“Do you want me to come over?”

“No, I can manage.”

“Are you sure? Tell me how you’ll manage?”

“Just talk to me. That’s all I need. Talk. I need to hear a human voice.”

There was a brief silence, then Sol Lapis began to delicately probe.

“It’s usually hot and dark in your dream but sometimes there’s dampness, too. Am I right?”

“Yes, there is dampness,” she repeated as in a catechism. “A chilling dampness. Sometimes I have this deafening ringing in my ears and sometimes a bird-like thing hovers and buzzes in front of my face.”

“That could be your soul, Ligieia. The ancient Egyptians had depicted the ba, or soul, as a bird-like entity with a human head.”

“Who knows what it is,” she said. “I am sick to
death of my soul flitting about, leaving and entering different spaces like it’s stuck in a revolving door. It isn’t normal.”

“Haven’t you remembered our conversations about reincarnation and metempsychoses?”

She ignored him.

“Try living inside of me for a week . . . You’ve opened a Pandora’s box, Sol. I dwell in a funhouse of ghosts.” Her voice was frayed and edgy.

“Look, I’ve only guided you closer to them,” he reasoned. “They have existed all along, waiting to be uncorked from the genie’s bottle, if you’ll allow my mixing metaphors . . . I’ve only given you the means to recognize them, and I think that’s better. You’re not as confused . . .”

“But I still can’t sleep, Sol!”

He grew suspicious.

“Have you been taking your medication?”

No answer.

“That’s a big mistake. Have the dreams been more frequent lately?”

“About the same. If they were more frequent, I’d be back in your clutches again, wouldn’t I?”

“And is that such a bad thing, Ligeia?”

Again, no answer.

Dr. Sol Lapis tried to think of everything he had ever known or learned about this woman since she had first come to him for treatment a year and a half ago.

“Tell me about the one who holds her ears and shrieks when the bomb explodes?” he asked her.

Ligeia didn’t speak for several seconds, then:

“Yes, the last one . . . She sees God and all of humanity flash before her eyes in one huge and brilliant moment of clarity, and she sees the future and tries to scream to warn everyone, the way Cassandra did.”

“And then what happens?”

“Nothing. Absolute, total non-being.”

“So is the woman shrieking because of the massive detonation that threatens to obliterate her at any second? Or is she shrieking because the future is a yawning abyss?”

“It’s more the latter. The bomb has hit and it’s already too late. The woman is profoundly alone and helpless. She sees her finger bones x-rayed inside her hands at the exact moment she raises them to shield her eyes.”

“And shrieking, Ligeia. Is that right? Horrible, ear-splitting shrieking.”

“Yes, Sol . . . Shrieking . . .”

The man donned the veil and the leather gauntlets, tied hemp twine around the bottom of his trousers above the ankle to prevent bees from crawling up his legs and stinging him. He lumbered toward the hives with his smoker and hive tool. He heard the buzz from a great distance. His hearing was quite acute. He could hear if the colony swarmed or if worker bees washboarded the entrance to the hive. With small holes cut out on the tips of his gloves, he could feel the brood frame, the brood chamber, touch capped comb in the supers, tactilely detect the useless brace comb and propolis.

He approached one hive and checked the entrance block. Clutching the smoker in his hand, he bellowed smoke under the crown board to force the workers down out of the supers. He removed the crown board. A deafening drone sealed off the world beyond his covered head. He believed the sound of the hive to be one and the same as the sound of a transmitter, a pronounced electrical current making its signaled presence known in the world. He liked that. It was the center of the Universe. It was home.

He removed a super and brushed off any stubborn bees who had withstood the choking bloom of smoke. From the super he extracted the brood frame clotted with a hexagonal matrix of comb. He occasionally incurred stings on the tiny glove openings of his fingertips. The stings were more of a nuisance than painful, because the nub calluses they formed made it difficult for him to read, and he desperately needed to read.

There was no surplus honey in the super so he then examined the brood nest to determine if it were too thinly populated. He fingered the queen cell. Maybe she was slack, withering, a poor layer, though he’d only gotten her last fall. The second hive was more productive, he would probably need to re-queen the first one. His friend, Dr. Sol Lapis, had mentioned a breeder who dealt in strong queens, queens with incredible stamina who would pack the cells with larvae over their allotted lifespan of two years. He decided he would give Sol Lapis a call and get himself a new queen.

Tom Aquinas Valenti’s childhood home sat at the end of a long dead-end road off of county route 530. It was a non-descript, wooden, two-story edifice built in the 1920s that now stood largely neglected, the yard of two-foot high grass segmented into rank clumps of nettle, a section of it shaded by a canopy of white and red oak, mulberry, locust, sweet gum and catalpa. Most of the house’s white and dark green exterior had blistered or peeled and there was evidence of dry rot in the eaves and soffits and sills. The property was hemmed by a forest of gnarled and ancient mixed hardwoods, scrub oak and Virginia pine. The closest neighbor was about two hundred yards away.

The living room, like most of the other rooms in the house, had been largely denuded, stripped of knick-knacks, most furniture, pictures and other niceties that make up a home. His mother, Maureen, had already vacated, moving in with her sister and her sister’s husband in a townhouse in The Villas. His youngest brother Nat only stayed a couple nights a week, living mostly at his girlfriend’s place. The remainder of the living room consisted of a threadbare sofa and recliner chair. A wicker rocker stood on the front porch next to a reading table and lamp. The upstairs bedrooms had beds and a few furnishings. A close, musty feeling hung in the air, the way it does in a vacation home during the off season or in a seldom visited museum.

His father, Vic Valenti, had been a small swarthy man with wavy hair and a black pencil moustache. Dressed in work khakis, Vic would amble up the driveway, the shiny silver clips of mechanical pencils and screwdrivers lining his pockets, and he would swing the oversized black case and wave to his son as if he were some benign country doctor making a house call. After dinner, Tom usually liked to stay down in the basement repair shop and help Vic with the TVs . . . Vic was usually seated on a green metal stool, awash in fluorescent light, the solder gun in his hand like a weapon out of Buck Rogers, its molten scent acridly blending with the tobacco reek of a Lucky Strike non-filter burning down in the ashtray. Around him were half-gutted cases with missing circuits, transformers, oscillators, cathodes, deflection coils, or entire picture tubes . . . Vic, squinting through heavy black-framed glasses as he executed the minute IC weld, his bristle of moustache, his perennial khakis, his strong fingers deftly ratcheting the screwdriver . . .

Several TVs turned on at once, with their garish chattering heads, with their products and snappy jingles, and canned laughter and fake gun fire, were an onslaught to anyone’s nerves. By his early teens Thomas Valenti had begun to unravel, disturbed about the nightmarish contrast between stepping from a room filled with noise and color into a pitch black forest with not a neighboring house light to be seen anywhere and a silence so pervasive and palpable you felt as if you had stepped foot onto Mars. He had begun to notice how his parents and two younger brothers relied on the “TV House” to shield them from the creeping silence. He’d felt trapped, asking himself which way he should flee: From the safety of the all-too-still and terrifying Pinelands into the weird racket and tortured Catholic iconography of the dead-end house? Into the reassuring prime-time
Hades of the basement? Or was it wiser to head in the other direction, away from the noise and chatter where only he alone could embrace the Dark and the Unknown . . . He’d stayed stoned most of the time as a way of coping. At school Tom had rejected the most basic forms of social interaction, and at one point he’d even suffered a minor mental breakdown.

On the night following his arrival, after unloading the car and unpacking a few things, Thomas Valenti opened a beer, sat on the front porch rocker, and flipped through the pages of his journal until he came across an entry he had written only two nights before in an unpleasant motel about 10 miles from Topeka, Kansas:

The desire to change ones self to live up to a youthful ideal becomes more illusory with the passing years and in the end only succeeds in destroying us. By the time you reach 30 you begin to see the person you are forming into, the person you are becoming, and cannot help becoming. At times I think I see him all too clearly—withdrawn, intolerant, intellectually smug but riddled with doubts and insecurities, of questionable sanity—at times he frightens me . . . As we age, the lineaments of the person we will eventually wind up being come more sharply into focus, and like it or not, we make a private pact with the devil if we want to endure.

“As kids, my brothers and I used to see mirages when we were playing outside on the road at dusk. Dancing figures that turned out to be clumps of twisted stalks swaying in the wind. A hanging body on a tree that would end up being a dangling dead branch. A woman in a flowing white dress standing alone in a field, and when we crept close enough to get a better look, she was nothing more than a sheet flapping on a clothesline in the middle of someone’s backyard . . . For thrills, we would linger in cemeteries on windy autumn nights, waiting for the mysterious sound or imagined bogeyman that would start our feet moving, set us tearing home, shouting down the dark empty roads . . . I wanted to be scared back then. I enjoyed it, the adrenalin rush . . . but not anymore.”

The night light cast a white disk upon the ceiling as Tom’s youngest brother, Ignatius Loyola, or Nat, spoke to it, his hushed words rising like ashes up a flue. Rene’ Imprimatur, his girlfriend, lay next to him, the dunes of her flesh cemented to his as she studied the elastic motion of his lips, the tiny whisker roots that peppered his chin, the Adam’s apple like a tremulous stone lodged in his throat.

“You lived with this unidentifiable terror outdoors, this threatening shadow land, and inside it was Best Buys. The whole thing was an illusion of safety, like in any other American living room with its pale blue fire, except here there were 20 fires, an encampment. You can see how, in that type of environment a sensitive child could develop a warped sense of reality.”

Rene Imprimatur had brown wavy hair and large brown eyes and full pink lips and perfect skin. Her every movement exuded sexuality. The voyeur who frequently inhabited Nat’s mind snapped holy pictures of Rene’ nude on sofa, bed or floor, her calves tucked firmly under her long thighs . . . funnel of pubic hair . . . symmetrical knobs at the ends of her pelvic bone like a calf about to cut its horns.

He had first seen her while performing with his band one night, a siren in phases of eclipse working the edge of the dance floor spotlight that pinned the musicians in its smoky nucleus. She had stayed until the end, premeditating coitus, and here they were, nearly a year later.

She was a good girl, a bad girl, a coy tease, a porn goddess, a companion, a future spouse and mother; she could summon the requisite female persona for any given situation.

“What can we do for Tom?” she wondered aloud.

“Not much at the moment,” Nat answered. “He only got back yesterday. Let him find his way around again. I tried to interest him in the beach this weekend, but he wanted no part of it.”

A devious look crossed Rene’s face.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “I think I can fix him up.”

“With who?” Nat said warily.

Rene’ whispered a name in his ear, as if they were in a public place.

“Oh, no,” he winced. “Definitely not his type.”

“Au contraire, mon amour.”

“Have you given any thought to how that might throw a wrench into the works?”

“I only thought of it now. Unlike your brother, I’m not big on deep thoughts . . . but I know she is.”

Nat laughed at her.

“Deep thoughts? Is that what you call it? I think she’s plain crazy.”

“And what makes you say that, monsieur?”

“I met her once. Remember? At Candides? I knew she was crazy after talking to her for about a minute and a half.”

Rene’ kissed his chin.

“How perceptive of you, darling.”

She raised herself up and straddled his hips, her legs snug. There was heat in her eyes as she leaned down toward him.

“I’m telling you—it won’t work,” Nat warned.

The tip of her tongue skated in a line from his sternum down to his cock. She whispered:

“Trust me on this one, Valenti.”


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