The Megalith Plague
Don Webb is well known in Lovecraftian circles, but he is also known for his mystery series and his collections of avant-garde prose. A native Texan, he lives in Austin, Texas, where he teaches high school English. Webb’s first professional sale was to Interzone in 1986. He lives with his wife and two beautiful tuxedo cats.
There had been a little controversy when my great-grandfather died shortly after the Civil War. He had asked that two large stones be set at his feet and his head in the “manner of the Druids.” Because of his medical service to the community of Flapjack, Texas, and (ironically) his preeminence in the local Masonic Lodge, this heathen custom had been observed. Last night they drug them off for another model Stonehenge.
According to the Flapjack Recipe there are now four hundred and fifty-seven models of Stonehenge in this county.
For me it began with the cockroaches.
Flapjack, Texas, is on the road between Austin and Dallas. Stagecoaches used to stop here for food and water for man and beast. Hence its high-carb name. With the coming of Mr. Ford’s affordable device, Flapjack and its sister communities of Comesee and Doublesign were doomed not to grow very large. If you live in central Texas you have driven through these towns hundreds of times, probably never even noticing them as separate entries in the blur outside your window. By the time I practiced medicine in Flapjack, there wasn’t even a place to buy—well, you know.
But there were cockroaches. Not your little-bitty German cockroaches, not your more urban African cockroaches. There were huge cockroaches. Locals call them “palmetto bugs.” Periplaneta americana. These suckers were three inches long.
They could fly. Sometimes you had to step on them twice to kill them. They weren’t scared of light, so they didn’t even have the good taste to scurry away when you pulled the string dangling from your kitchen light at two in the morning, after delivering a baby at some godforsaken farm. Sometimes they would fly right on you and make you wish that you weren’t such a lousy doctor that you had to practice in a region where nobody thought about suing their doctors for incompetence.
I didn’t practice here because great-granddad did. I practiced here because they would have me. I was staring thirty-five in the face, knew I had to leave Las Vegas before lawsuits caught up with me.
I bought the two-bedroom stucco house with the thousand coats of white paint and fifty thousand cockroaches. No one would know that I graduated last in my class. They would know me as a descendant of a healer. They were glad I didn’t have an accent.
At night they ran over me. Not the Flapjackers, the cockroaches. The palmetto bugs. They loved my ears and nose, no doubt thinking of them as sexual organs of an even bigger member of their species. My return to the ancestral homeland had not prepared me for the notion of an insect copulating with my nostril, so I went to the Home Depot in Doublesign and purchased four times the recommended amount of insect fogger. In the checkout line I met Richard Scott.
A short man, I would guess five foot two, his gray beetle brows and the lines of grime across his forehead were not inviting. His bloodshot slate blue eyes were a little too wet. He smelled of welding, but he was buying thirty or so precut 2x4s. He glared at me, clearly angry. Was he a friend of the roaches?
“So you are the new Doc,” he said.
“I took over Dr. Hawthorne’s practice. My great-grandfather,” I began.
“Is dead,” he finished. “I need some meds. I have to renew.”
“What do you need?”
He rattled off a list of anti-psychotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, typical and atypical neurolyptics—and frankly some stuff I had never heard of.
“I’ll need you to come by my office. Perhaps tomorrow morning,” I said.
“Good; then you can see I’m crazy, and you’ll leave me the fuck alone. I am, you know. Crazy. Bugfuck crazy. Ask anyone about Scott.”
I saw no reason to doubt his statement.
I intended to set off my foggers the next morning and drive the mile or so to my office. I would look over Dr. Hawthorne’s records and check on Mr. Scott’s bugfuck status. However, the invitation to ask anyone was a strong one. I had not made friends with anyone in Flapjack, and perhaps giving them a chance to tell me about their village idiot would endear me to their bosom. I dined that night at the Cobra, which offered a free meal after you had dined there eleven times. Such bounty, I thought, was to be patronized. So while enjoying my chicken fried steak I asked the waitress if she knew a Mr. Scott.
“Why, he’s just crazy, hon. But I, well, don’t you…I’m sure he’ll give you a lot of business.”
It seemed that Mr. Scott had committed three sorts of offenses. The first is that he was the unmarried son of a very wealthy family, which was a severe offense. The waitress looked at me strangely while giving me that news. I wondered if she thought I was gay. His second crime was sculpting. He produced an ugly sort of high modernist sculptures out of I-beams and T-beams, the sort of sculptures that banks display to prove that they are cultured. These two social crimes, however, did not condemn Mr. Richard Scott. They merely made him odd. He also beat people with wrenches and burnt them with acetylene torches. His violence broke out every few years. His trust fund covered it pretty well, and heck, most people knew enough to get away from him, and when things got bad old Doc Hawthorne would add a new anti-convulsant or a new anti-psychotic. Scott would calm down for a spell.
I heard all this over sweet coconut meringue pie and bitter black coffee.
The stars at night were big and bright, as I drove home and the moon a full cantaloupe. The moon even put to rest my cynicism, which shows how powerful the central Texas moon can be.
The next day I pushed down the little green plastic notch on the bug foggers and muttered my vengeance as I set them out. I was putting down the last fogger in my living room when I tripped. I went down, the fogger went up and in a freak moment passed before my open eyes, giving them one hell of a blast of bug spray. I thunked my head good on the floor and passed out with the fogger blowing into my bloodied nose. As their hissing filled my ears everything seemed to light up orange and the floor seemed to turn to slime; if you ever huffed ether in college or glue in middle school you’d know the feeling. I wondered if the cockroaches felt this way as they died. Maybe some cockroach made it once, survived, and went back to the roach club to talk about heaven.
When I came to, I was restrained. I couldn’t open my eyes because of the bandages, and I could not lift my hands because they were tied to the bed, so that I wouldn’t tear off my bandages, but I did not understand my situation. So I jerked strongly against the bed and gave a muffled cry, which my insecticide-soaked nose, mouth, and throat meant as a scream of terror.
Scott answered me. “Don’t I know it, Doc. You know I’ve been in that very bed. It’ll pass, just tell yourself it will pass.”
“Where am I?”
“You are in the Doublesign Minor Emergency Clinic, although I am sure you feel that you had yourself a major emergency. Currently you are tied to the bed, which in my vast experience means they feel you will do harm to yourself or others. Will you do harm to yourself or others, Doc?”
“What’s going on?”
“Doc, you tried to get high on bug juice. I saved you before you flung your consciousness out into the void. I decided that would be a waste, and I might not get my scripts refilled.”
“Scott, I wasn’t trying to get high. Now get me a doctor.”
“I don’t take orders, now if you would like to make a request.”
Before I said anything I listened. I was hoping to hear some sound that told me I was in the tiny six-bed hospital in Doublesign. I wanted to hear an IV machine beep or a soda drop out of the soda machine, or Dr. Fresno making his rounds. I didn’t hear anything, and I realized that I could be anywhere. I couldn’t smell anything; my nose was just a mass of burning pain. In fact, I could almost hear its throbs. The pain must have been what woke me. Why didn’t they have me on a morphine drip?
Then the blackness behind my eyes got darker, and I was gone for a while.
When I came to again I called out for a nurse, and one answered. Her guitar-twangy voice soothed my soul; I was indeed in a hospital. Dr. Fresno came in soon after. I found out that I would be here for another two to three weeks. He would take my patients in the meantime. They told me that Scott had rescued me. Impatiently waiting to be my patient, he had walked over to my home after an hour. He kicked open my front door, and he called the ambulance from Doublesign. He claimed to be a distant cousin.
This proved true. My great-granddad’s second daughter had married into the Scott line. Scott pointed this out to me the next time he visited me.
“Didja ever wonder, Doc, why you’ve got no friends here? It’s ‘cause you and I are kin. I probably shouldn’t have you as my doctor.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have the same great-grandfather. My only blood relative would stand to gain a lot of money if I died. It doesn’t exactly motivate you hippocratically speaking. Maybe you and I should write out wills to each other. Be more fair-like. I had been intending to leave my wad to the Sloane Art Museum in Doublesign as they have a couple of my sculptures.”
“Scott, I’m not interested in your money.”
“Now that’s a lie, Doc. I may be crazy, but I ain’t stupid. In fact, Doc, you would be surprised at the depth of my art education.”
He spoke truly. I wanted the damn money and spent many blindfolded hours thinking about what drugs that would kill him off. When I returned to light, I would no doubt think differently, but you think odd thoughts in the dark.
The next day, or later that night, Scott woke me.
“This is choice, Doc, really choice. You know Fenster?”
“Yes,” I said, having no idea who Fenster was.
“Well, he found something on his land. He was putting a well where an old church was and he found a little metal box. Inside was a small book called How to Worship God Correctly. Seems like we’ve all been doing it wrong for years. He drove to the Kinko’s and ran off a few copies and gave them out at the Dairy Queen. Now there’s going to be a town meeting.”
“Did you get a copy?”
“Of course I did. I get me a double-dipped chocolate cone every day about three. I think that soft serve custard is the one of the two best parts of civilization.”
“What the other one?”
By this time the bandages were really starting to itch. My hands had been freed days before. It was hard to keep track of the pace of days. Scott came often. As the hospital’s major donor, he could come anytime. For all I knew, this conversation took place at six in the evening or four in the morning or noon.
“So how are we supposed to worship God?”
“With megalithic stone circles. Mankind apparently hit the mark with Stonehenge, Nabta Playa, Bagnold’s circle, or Sentinel Hill in Massachusetts That’s what God wants.”
“I bet that went over big with the Baptists.”
“You’d think not, but everyone seemed pretty positive about it.”
I didn’t know what to make to this remark. I had never heard of Nabta Playa or Bagnold’s Circle. I wondered if he had taken his meds today. I had asked Dr. Fresno to keep him out of my room, but Fresno said he slipped past the guard. I doubted that anyone would say no to him. I didn’t like being quiet for too long so I said, “So what do you make of it?”
“I don’t know, Doc. I have never been the religious type. Seems to me God has already made enough calendars with the moon and the sun.”
The twilight came when Dr. Fresno cut away my bandages. The room was dim, and I kept expecting some Twilight Zone moment when they would look at me and see me as a monster. Instead, for a moment I was the one horrified. Something seemed wrong with the angles of the room, as though everything lunged toward me. I put my hands, and then I felt stupid. Dr. Fresno smiled his half-senile smile. I could see Scott waiting for me in the hall.
Dr. Fresno said, “Richard agreed to drive you home, you can drive tomorrow, but let’s remember our sunglasses, Dr. Huff. Your eyes are fine, and you’ll soon be over any respiratory distress.”
The moon was dark. It had only been two weeks since I had scalded my eyes, fried my brain, and cooked the insides of my lungs. It felt as if months or years had gone by. Scott drove me home, and as his old white Chevy pickup turned at the town square I saw my first Stonehenge. The stones stood six or seven feet tall. I asked him to stop. He shrugged and did so. I realized that people were walking around in the middle of the circle. I yelled out to them, but they didn’t yell back.
“They ain’t always friendly, Doc. Just simple country folk.” He laughed all the way to my house. I didn’t get the joke. I was glad to see my SUV in the driveway; maybe I should just drive away tomorrow.
The next day I saw four circles in progress. Two stone. One made of old TVs, which I frankly thought was pretty cool, and one made of cement parking slabs, which I thought was a little tacky. None of my patients had anything to say about the circles and looked at me with raw hatred when I asked. So I let the matter drop. When I drove home I saw six circles.
The next day eight.
Richard Scott dropped by my office. I was glad to see him. Any fantasy I had of doing him in had vanished. I was trying to make my mind to stay or leave or just call CNN. He just wanted me to reauthorize his twelve prescriptions.
I asked him, “What happened while I was blind up in Doublesign?”
“The Flapjack Recipe ran the complete text of How to Worship God Correctly. In my opinion it caught on.”
“For the love of God, are they all crazy?”
“You’re asking me? I left grad school because I thought my clay was talking to me. Weeks before this they were all worshipping a dead carpenter. I think the movement toward sculpture is healthy.”
“Did you read the Recipe?”
“Sure. I read it every day. That and the Wall Street Journal.”
“And it didn’t fill you with the need to go build Stonehenge a thousand times?”
“I take drugs so that I don’t get messages. See this one and this one and this one.” He pointed at his list of drugs. “They also keep me from thinking that Mr. TV is telling me something important. I could get you the issues of the Recipe they all went crazy reading, if you would like to see it.”
Part of me wanted to read that article more than anything; it’s the same part that makes me wonder what goes through a suicide’s mind as he hurtles toward the pavement. But the part of me that manages to brake a car at a red light stopped me. My breathing was rough. I don’t care what Dr. Fresno said, I think I had had lung trauma.
Scott laughed. “You had to struggle with that one, didja? I can feel you, Doc, I can feel you.”
“But these people have jobs.”
“Like what, Doc? Selling crafts to rich Austinites on Market Mondays, farming, drawing SSD? Their jobs can wait a spell if they want to worship the stone circle god.”
“People will see as they drive by.”
“Doc, you can’t see a circle one from the highway, and if you could I don’t think there is a nary a word in Texas law against stone circles.”
“Why are they doing this?”
“Dotting ‘i’s’ and crossing ‘t’s.”
I saw my last patient about three-thirty. I looked up Mr. Fenster in the phone book and I drove out to his farm.
There was a big circle in the back. Big Edwards limestone slabs, almost twelve feet high. They didn’t stand too straight. A tall thin bald man wandered among them, fretting. He wore a short sleeve blue shirt and blue jeans. He looked worried.
Before I could speak he asked me, “Are you good with math? I don’t know if I set this up right.”
“I’m good at solid geometry,” I said. I had no idea why I said this, but like all humans I want to fit in; it is a hard-wired circuit in our amygdale, it makes baboons groom each other.
“What about astronomy?”
“Nope, no good there.”
He looked at the daytime sky as though he could spot something. I tried to figure out how he had set the stones up. This wasn’t down with a simple tractor, and the damage to the ground seemed pretty small. I faintly remembered the guy’s wife. She had been in to see me for rheumatoid arthritis a month ago. I started to tell him that recent findings had shown that Stonehenge wasn’t a calendar, but a gravesite for elite pre-Celts. I decided the phrase “elite pre-Celts” didn’t get said much in rural Texas.
“How’s Mrs. Fenster?” I asked.
“Mildred? She’s gone. Doesn’t hold with this.” He made a vague hand gesture that I took to mean the standing stones.
“You were the one that found the book, weren’t you?”
“Yes. That was my honor. You’d think I’d do a better job.”
“Why does God want so many calendars?”
He snapped out of his daze and gave me the same hateful look I’d seen in my patients’ eyes. “I don’t rightly think it’s our job to question God. Besides, it’s not about calendars. They’re windows like me, you know, Fenster. It’s about salt and ground glass. I’m no good at explaining it, I’m just a cog in the machine.” He pursed his lips and blew out a long sigh. There seemed to be a struggle inside him; I’ve seen it in patients that want to tell me something but are embarrassed or afraid. He had no more to say to me.
That I didn’t leave Flapjack that night is a sign that the wrong part of me was winning. I might not risk the damnation of reading the Recipe, but for the moment I couldn’t leave the scene.
Next morning Scott banged on my door at first light.
“Come out, Doc, you gotta see this.”
My SUV, sans tires, was up on cinderblocks.
Scott said, “Somebody wants you to stay. Ever see The Wicker Man, you know where that cop gets sacrificed Druid-style?” He laughed his hick butt off and then offered to drive me to my office tomorrow.
“I need out of here. Drive me to Dallas,” I said. I shivered because I heard my own fear.
“No can do, Doc, these are my people. I’ve got to live here.”
“Don’t you see they’re all crazy?”
In his best Norman Bates voice he said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” He continued, “Look, they’re not any crazier than before. Look at your neighbor Jim Cusson across the street there. He used to spend ten hours a day making birdhouses for tourists to buy once a month on Market Mondays. So now he’s put a circle of them for his own self up in his yard. Now I expect his purple martins aren’t into archaeo-astronomy, but hell I don’t know that tourists were that into his carving.”
On the way to work I saw twelve circles. My office was full of patients. Bunged-up thumbs, sprained backs, carpal tunnel. Heavy construction taking its toll. I had never had as many patients. I worked through lunch and even into the night. It was my best day as a doctor ever. There was no guesswork, no subtle readings of signs. Maybe I had left my home city for great-grandfather’s village for a reason. Maybe they needed me. Scott drove me home.
Sleep cleared my mind some. When Scott drove me to work, I asked him to drive me out of here. He just said, “I’m sure that Mildred Fenster asked for the same thing. So just pipe down.”
At my office the phone was dead and the injured were many. I kept my mouth shut; even when they told me they had pulled down great-granddad’s stones. I would leave tonight and tell the authorities. I tried not to watch the clock all day. I tried not to glare at the endless stream of patients that crossed my door. I tried to act calm. I wanted to tell Scott as he drove me home, but all I could think of was the number of medicines he took. His personality was a leaky sieve, a dribble-glass of self.
My SUV was no longer on blocks. It had been incorporated into a carhenge down the street. I saw the Cusson kid’s red CRF230 Honda leaned against his pink stucco house. That little street bike looked prettier to me than Pamela Anderson. I could hotwire it and make it to Dallas. I made my move at midnight. I ran across the pavement and up on the lawn feeling as though the nearly full moon was a spotlight aimed directly at me. Then I marveled at something as miraculous as Mona Lisa’s smile—keys. People don’t always take their keys in villages the size of Flapjack. I pushed the rice rocket away from the concrete porch, hit the juice, and off I went. Two roads later I would be on the highway.
The moon seemed to get brighter and brighter as I sped away. Liberty does things to moonlight, just as moonlight does things to liberty. I saw stones everywhere, and stumps, and trashcans, and PVC pipe, and bones. Something seemed to flash in the sky above me, and I looked up. A small stone hit me. I had crashed through a tiny Stonehenge in the middle of the highway; it was made out of pebbles and orange lane markers.
The tiny circle launched me into space. I seemed to be heading toward an oranging sky and then my belly scraped the ground, and I heard people yelling.
They dragged me to the center of town, to the middle of the largest circle, where Scott was their king. He wore a crown made of stainless steel knives and forks that he had welded together in a strange fashion.
They reflected the orange light from the sky where the moon had begun to melt, and the stars had become prismatic ovals.
The villagers sat me in a camp chair. I was expecting Scott to leer and act like a movie villain. Instead, he was sad. I was the dull pupil that couldn’t quite do the lesson.
“Do you know what your problem is, Dr. Huff? You don’t ask the right questions.”
His country bumpkin accent was gone.
“What questions should I have asked?” I asked.
“Well, cousin of mine, you should have asked how a mentally ill guy in central Texas sells his art to famous places. You think I’m a Ray Johnson?”
This seemed to be a rather random thread to pursue while the moon melted, but I asked anyway.
“I did great work on my MFA. Hell, I didn’t even go crazy until my doctorate. I had a Question. All great Quests start with a Question. You know what my question was?”
“Stone circles?” I asked.
“Oh, thank God for that. I was beginning to think there were no smart genes in your part of the family. Yes. Between four thousand and two thousand B.C. mankind couldn’t make enough of these things. Fred Flintstone should be calling Barney Rubble and saying, ‘Hey, Barn, want to come over and make a whopping big stone calendar this weekend?’ ‘Gee, Fred, sounds great, I’ll bring Bam-Bam.’ I asked why—why the obsession with time.”
“Can we talk about the sky instead?”
“You’ll have a long time to talk about the sky. At least I think so. As the comic villain in this post-Shakespearian tragedy, I am allowed one monologue.”
The air had begun to shake as though a thousand fans had been turned on. Some of them were inside my lungs. A few of the Flapjackers began to cough and sneeze. My mad cousin continued.
“So why the obsession with time?”
I answered, “Crops. It was the big breakthrough.”
“I thought so at first, but then my art history professor directed me to certain older books. Pre-human books actually. Mankind wasn’t the first species interested in the big calendars. There were things that had begun big stone works on Earth millions of years before. Time is a dimension that life oozes through like a slug on a dew-wet leaf.”
The chair had begun to squirm under me. I started to stand, but something had wrapped itself around my wrist; for a crazy moment I thought I was back in the hospital bed. That my wrists were still bound but that my bandages were coming off and I was really going to see the world. Everything lunged at me, then relaxed back into its normal spatial relationships.
“You see, the calendars form a bigger shape. A series of angles that directs things. Imagine the things you call dimensions—length, width, time, and so forth—were not as interesting as life, senses, consciousness. Imagine all that bio-stuff as a sort one big slug. You make one path of ground glass and salt and one path of wet slime and slug food; where does sluggy go?”
I could feel things sprouting at the base of my spine. My teeth had begun to move independently. I felt emotions that were analogues of lust and fear and the part of you that waits to plummet go down on the roller coaster. It felt like the rush of smoking salvia divinorum or whipping roach killer. I am still in my house dying, none of this is happening. But for once in my life, denial didn’t work.
“I got the big picture, cousin. I saw all the angles. I saw every angle from Yr to Nhhngr. I could control the path of all that bio-stuff. I could use God’s technology. I’m not rightly sure what god—here is where it gets tricky. I don’t know if I am delivering cows to the slaughterhouse door or helping beautiful butterflies out of their cocoon. That was when I lost it. I just had to find out, so I made the little box for Fenster to find. I mixed an old Baptist hymnal with the Typhonian Tablets with simple diagrams showing all the angles. Humans picked up where they had stopped four thousand years ago. Now little sluggy is almost there.”
“So you are giving me the Scooby Doo speech and now the monster comes along and eats me? That’s my life?” I asked.
“You are very stupid. This is not about you being a little sacrificial lamb, cousin. It is about a new world. For one instant as an artist I saw I could sculpt the whole world, so I did. I used family money and a little Texas town, and then fate threw me you as the first person to visit my gallery. Well, not fate, really. When our great-granddad James Scott began playing with weird notions about Druids, someone in England sent him the Typhonian Tablets. Some poor soul had translated them for certain English Rosicrucians, then hanged himself. Dr. James couldn’t read them very well, but he didn’t have my advantage of being crazy. You will be changed to be able to view my art. It is what I sold my soul for, so to speak, I am making you into the perfect audience.”
With his left hand he pointed to the sky, which shone pure, orange, and smelled of burning wax; with his right hand he pointed down at the earth, which was weeping greenish mercury. “So tell me, cousin, what hath God wrought? Slaughterhouse or paradise? Did our ancestors’ ancestors stop making the stone circles because they were unworthy, or because they were afraid? What do you see and smell and hear that a little crazy human like me can’t? Do you worship my sculpture of space and time, mind and soul? Or should I worship you?” He fell to his knees before me, and as he bowed his head, the weird crown of flatware fell from his head.
I could feel what all the angles were doing to me, my perception shattered and then reformed in more dimensions than before. Good-bye 3D.
And the air smelled sweet like souls separating into their separate parts, and I could hear the gentle pops of the eyes of the mealy little humans around me, and the hairs on my arms began to move independently and I began to see into time, just shallow pools at first, and there was great-granddad getting his package from England, and his chestnut mare rearing in fear of the book and there was the One who would Come in Its polychromatic polychronic ploy-gendered terror-beauty.
I stood free from the chair, my feet sinking a few inches into the mercury-like liquid. I breathed in the new heaven through my hollow teeth and I sucked in the newly charred earth through my roots and I called out to my Beloved who lures me into a thousand painful deaths of ecstasy, now at the end of Time.