Hau Tree Green

There are a lot of different kinds of poisons that do a lot of different things. The one that Olive Gaynor gave me did what she expected it to. It killed me.

The old woman sat with her hands on the table and watched me die, carefully. I watched her too, just as carefully. I was going to tell her that I was no fool, and that I knew damned well that she had slipped something into my drink. My mouth wasn’t working, though, so I slid out of my chair and onto the floor instead. I did it as gracefully as I could.

There was a light set into the ceiling above me, an electric bulb behind frosted glass. Looking straight up, I watched it get much too bright, and then fade to orange and red. It got steadily dimmer until it was just a spot floating in a black sky.

They told me later that Annie Kahlo saved me, but that came after I’d been dead a while. There was a lot of commotion; there was an ambulance ride and a scramble of doctors and nurses. I didn’t know a thing about any of it, because I wasn’t there. I was in a desert, behind the wheel of a nice car that wasn’t mine. I saw mahogany trim and an emblem that said ‘Packard’. There was lavender twilight outside the windshield, and the black bulk of an immense pyramid. I seemed to have finished parking the car, so I shut the motor off and got out.

It was a nice evening. There was sand under my feet and a cool, steady wind that played with my hat brim. I left the car and walked toward the pyramid in the growing dark. There was a structure at the base. It was lit up by a lot of torches; their light looked pretty in the purple dusk. I went through a big stone arch into an open space.

Three priests in black cassocks loitered in the courtyard, smoking. Somehow, I knew that they were talking about baseball, to pass the time while they waited for whatever was going to happen inside. One of them caught my eye as I went by, and I thought about asking him for a cigarette. The look on his face changed my mind.

“Check your pockets,” he suggested.

I did. There was a fresh pack of Pall Malls in the breast pocket of my jacket, with a new book of paper matches to keep it company. I checked the cover in the light from the guttering torches. The printing on it said, ‘Surrender, Dorothy.’

“You’ll like it here,” he said. “You generally find what you need… as long as you know what you need, of course.”

I lit up, and we stood together companionably enough and smoked. I was hoping they would start talking about baseball again, because I knew a lot about it. Nobody said anything, though. Finally, I asked the one who had spoken to me where I was supposed to go.

“We don’t write your material for you, bub,” he said, gently. “This is your gig.”

“You can follow the bouncing ball,” another of the priests offered. “If you see one.”

They both looked at the third priest. He was a lot older than the first two. His face was craggy and handsome, like the kind of movie star whose name you can never remember. He held the last of his cigarette between thumb and finger; he took a final drag and threw it away before he looked at me. His eyes were dark and mournful.

“Some people see a white rabbit,” he said. “Personally, I don’t know how to feel about that, but to each his own.”

I looked up. The pyramid was huge; its shape blocked whatever little light remained in the sky, black against dark blue. I sensed that it was old, as old as the stars, older than my imagination could ever account for. At the far end of the courtyard, an iron gate was illuminated by torchlight. People went though it and inside, some in a hurry and others more slowly. Nobody came back out.

“I’ll walk in with you, if you like,” the old priest offered. “Save you waiting for the white rabbit.”

I thought about it and nodded. When I had finished my cigarette, we left the other priests behind to talk more about baseball.

“Who’s going to win the Series this year?” I asked, when we were close to the pyramid entrance. “Can you tell me?”

“The Yankees are going to win it,” he confided. “I’m allowed to tell you that, and it’s only fair that you know. They’ll beat the Dodgers in seven games. Al Gionfriddo will make one of the greatest catches of all time. It will be the last catch of his career… even though he doesn’t know it. ’47 is his last year in the majors. It will save the sixth game for Brooklyn, but it won’t be enough.”

“I appreciate it,” I told him. “It’s not really a surprise, now I think about it, but it’s a relief to know.”

I stopped to put a hand on the gate, to see if it was real. The metal was rough with corrosion beneath layers of paint. The old man touched my elbow, and we went through. It was warm inside, and dark. The floor was rough-cobbled and sloped gently downward. Huge wooden beams and stone columns supported whatever was over my head, unseen in the dimness. Canvas tents on either side were lit gold, stalls that were full of people shopping. We didn’t stop to see what was being sold. Soft voices and footsteps echoed.

“I know what this is,” I said. “It’s a train station.”

“The only way to cross the river is by train,” he agreed. “I’m impressed. A lot of people don’t put two and two together so fast.”

“I’m a private detective,” I said, modestly. “Or at least I was.”

“Your license is still good,” he said. “Things don’t change much, just because you’re here.”

“I thought there would be music, somehow.”

“There is,” he nodded. His face was solemn. “On the other end… music and color. This is in-between.”

There were occasional signs posted, black letters painted on white board. Most of them were written in a language I didn’t understand, but I could read one of them. It said: ‘Danger, Unseen Currents’. A fancy-looking arrow pointed straight ahead. I figured it was meant for me.

“That’s your platform,” the priest said, as if he could read my mind.

“The dangerous one?” I smiled. “Unseen currents?”

“Every day of your life was dangerous,” he said. “Did you ever get up in the morning and know what the day was going to bring? Ever? ‘Danger’ is another word for hope.”

“We live for risk?” I smiled.

“Hope is dangerous, and the only thing that matters,” he said. “Your life would have been dreary and infinitely gray, were it not for the unknown and unseen. The thrill of possibility… a dream come true or the bitterest disappointment, ecstasy or disaster, every single day. You never knew, but you hoped.”

The train loomed out of the dark. We walked past the black locomotive, leaking steam from a hundred places, the wheels taller than we were. The cab windows high above us were black and empty.

“What do people fear more than anything else?” he asked. “What shakes them awake in the middle of the night, unable to breathe?”

“Death,” I guessed, and gestured around me at the dark station. “This.”

“Death is hope,” he said. “There would be nothing to be afraid of if it was an ending. You were always afraid of this because it isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.”

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