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Sacred Places – Stephen Paul Martin

Jan 21, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Three years ago, my family disappeared. It was at a place called Hidden Beach in northern California, just a few miles west of the largest redwood forest in the world. We got there by following an overgrown cliffside trail, then inching our way down steep switchbacks. We were there for hours by ourselves. It wasn’t the kind of place that would attract the usual tourist crowd. Getting there was too difficult. It wasn’t even mentioned in regional guidebooks. I learned about it from a friend back home, who told me it was a well-kept local secret, the kind of sacred place you have to search for, assuming that you even know it exists. I’m not religious. I don’t believe that anything is sacred. But the silence at Hidden Beach felt like more than the absence of sound.
I fell asleep for an hour beneath a crude lean-to made of driftwood. It might have been constructed by someone who’d been there recently, but there weren’t any nails or fasteners of any kind. It could have just been the random result of the tides. It would have given me shade from the sun had there been any sun. But instead, there was that same deep mist we’d found in the redwood forest a few days ago. The sound of the ocean made the silence deeper, more distinct, but the fog was so thick that I could barely make out the waves, even though they were breaking only a hundred feet away, and some of them ran up on the smooth sand to within a few feet of my feet.
But then the kids wanted food. We hadn’t packed anything, so we had to find a place to eat. We had to give up our quiet existence. We had to drive into a town filled with traffic and billboards. We had to enter the TV system, the all-encompassing network of picture tubes in public space—in supermarkets, restaurants, clubs, bars, waiting rooms, game arcades, laundromats, amusement parks, bus depots, fast food places, motel and hotel lobbies, shopping malls, airports, gift shops, barber shops, train stations, garages, repair shops, nail salons, department stores, convenience stores. You can’t escape them. No matter where you look, you see commercials, media faces doing silly things, dramatic things, offensive things, self-righteous things, impossible things. There’s always music, not something to really listen to, just noise, mixing with the noise of voices talking, messages on messages on messages, juxtaposed and superimposed, interrupting and talking over and changing into each other. If a referendum was held, how many people would vote to maintain the TV system? Who really wants it? Who thinks it serves any good purpose? I’d hate to meet the person that did.
We got out of town as quickly as possible. We took back roads to avoid strip malls, even though our GPS told us the trip would take twice as long. We soon got lost and found ourselves on a dirt road surrounded by redwoods. I started figuring out how to get back on track, but Marianne, my partner, was fascinated by something she saw in the dark of the forest. She insisted on getting out and walking a few hundred feet on an overgrown trail, leading to a small stone hut. We went inside. It was obvious that the place had been abandoned long ago. There were moldy beds in two of the rooms, a decaying circular table in the main room, which had also been the kitchen, where a white ceramic stove and oven combination looked like it hadn’t been used in a hundred years. Marianne wanted to buy the place right away, turn it into a yoga retreat center.
Marianne was a powerful woman—over six feet tall, forcefully articulate, and good to look at. Someone once told her that she looked and talked just like a well-known TV journalist, Beth Barton, though I’d never seen the resemblance myself. Marianne knew how to be persuasive, and within a few minutes she had me believing in her plan. She wanted to form a yoga collective centered on an enlarged and renovated version of the hut. She reminded me that a close friend of hers taught meditation at the nearby state university, and could refer students to our center, so that we could quickly get a good number of people involved, sharing our belief in a quiet existence. There was no stopping Marianne once she got an idea, and she stayed up half the night in our motel room, doing online research, designing the yoga center in her head and on screen, adding rooms for various purposes, a full second floor, and a possible third floor later, with an observation tower.
She was still talking about it non-stop the next day, when we packed our own food and went back to Hidden Beach. I wanted another nap under the lean-to. Marianne and the kids went down to the water, eager to play in the place where the mist and sea became interchangeable. At first, I couldn’t sleep. I kept trying to imagine the new yoga center, Marianne’s version of a sacred place. I wanted to be in that observation tower, surrounded by the silence of redwoods. I tried to form a clear picture I could dream about. But I was too stuck in my rage at the TV system to fully concentrate. I couldn’t accept that something so worthless and invasive, something that no one really wanted, had somehow become a permanent part of society. Who set up this hideous network? Who decided that public space should be filled with noise and distraction? Was it part of a plan, like the border wall the President wanted to build? Or did it just happen, with no design or agenda, like tree roots growing under someone’s house and finally destroying the foundation? Was it the consequence of consumer economics, the unplanned but still unavoidable result of a sell-at-all-costs social system? Would it someday reach Mount Everest, greeting groups of climbers with commercials when they reached the top? I couldn’t stop the rant in my head. The words were mine, I wanted them to shut up, but they just kept going. I needed Marianne’s stone hut, where I knew there would never be media noise.
Finally, I fell asleep, dreaming that dolphins were leaping and splashing in the wake of an ocean liner, maybe the Titanic, Strauss and Mozart on a sinking ship. I woke up three hours later. I looked for Marianne and the kids but didn’t see them. The fog was even thicker than before. I looked up and down Hidden Beach for hours, until it got dark. No sign of my family. I called the police and with heavy duty flashlights and megaphones, they helped me continue the search. Nothing. I drove back to our motel room half-expecting them to somehow be there, having played a misguided joke on me. They weren’t there.
I stayed up all night. I saw an ACLU report on my computer. The President’s border atrocities were becoming even more predatory, with more than 2000 families torn apart in the last few months, victims of policies that served no constructive purpose and weren’t even legal. I’d seen the pictures of children in cages, faces pressed against rusty chain-link fences, banging on bars of cells, or pressing handwritten notes against dirty windows begging for help, juxtaposed on the news with bruising footage of the President’s face, his obnoxious voice declaring that foreigners needed to be kept out, for reasons of national security, as if that meant anything. Normally, I would have sent out tweets, texts, and emails, calling on the legislative branch to impeach the racist buffoon as soon as possible. But I couldn’t concentrate long enough to send out anything.
I went back to the beach the next morning. Again, the fog was thick and again I found nothing. This went on for a week. I started resenting the fog, which never left, not even for a second. I’d always loved foggy days and felt that there weren’t enough of them. In the past, when the morning light burned off the mist, I’d hated the sun. I didn’t want things heating up. I wanted the chill, the phantom zone. Now these things were more than inconvenient. They seemed deadly.
At one point I found a cave behind a heap of driftwood. I took a quick look inside and saw that the space got smaller the farther I went. If I’d continued, I would have had to go down on all fours, and then down on my belly, sliding my way forward into darkness. I remembered reading that in paleolithic times, people crawled through long tunnels in total darkness to reach subterranean chambers, where walls were covered with pictures. I never understood why the art was so inaccessible, but some expert said that facing the darkness was probably a Stone Age rite of passage, that only people willing to snake down into the earth, struggling along in dirt and stone through claustrophobic tunnels, could earn the right to contemplate the images, which came to psychedelic life in flickering torchlight. Were the caves regarded as sacred places, meditation chambers, sources of secret knowledge? Back in my late twenties, I’d seen the caves in southern France, and I’d been impressed by the images. But I knew that I had no way of knowing what a Stone Age person’s reaction might have been when he looked at them for the first time. In his daily life above ground, he wouldn’t have been surrounded by constant visual stimulation, like we are today. Wherever we go, bright images are waiting for us. They’re forced on us all the time. They’re nothing special. We see them without having traveled through absolute darkness on our bellies. But 40,000 years ago, a person gazing at cave paintings in torchlight might have been have stunned, transported by an unforeseen experience, knowing he’d seen something most other people would never see.
I thought of Marianne’s plan to build a yoga center in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it was her version of a Stone Age cave. I tried over the next few days to find the stone hut again. Even though I knew my family couldn’t have gone there without our car, I still thought that somehow they might be there, with Marianne explaining the plan, telling the kids that they would soon be off the grid, beyond their phones and computers. But I wasn’t sure where the hut was. I tried all the dirt roads I could find, driving as slowly as possible, but saw nothing but trees and mist. Maybe only Marianne knew how to locate the hut. Maybe she was like a Stone Age magician, and she alone could find the secret entrance to the sacred cave. I felt silly thinking this, but in my desperate state of mind, lots of weird things seemed possible.
Finally, I gave up and went back to Hidden Beach. Helicopters were summoned and searched for three days. Coast Guard Cutters with powerful searchlights went up and down the coastline. They found nothing. At some point it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t lost at all, that Marianne had decided to leave, taking the kids, going in secret to start a new life without me. Maybe she didn’t want me or anyone else to know where they’d gone. I dismissed this possibility. It would have been unlike Marianne to sneak off while I was sleeping. She would have told me to my face that she wanted her freedom. She never backed away from confrontations. Still, I wanted to think that my family was still alive, even if they wanted nothing to do with me.
Finally, I felt I had to go home. I couldn’t strand our motel room any longer. But the day before I left, I was walking up and down the beach, trying to relax as the frothing tide ran over my feet, when I came across a man who looked like my father, not the man who raised me in his thirties and forties, but a version of him in his early twenties, someone I’d only seen in pictures. I told him what my problem was.
He creased his brow and said: A woman in her late thirties, tall and slim with long blonde hair, and two kids who might have been ten or so, both blond?
Kids named Kirk and Betsy or Betty? Both kind of skinny?
They were wading in the surf. They kept going farther out. There were fins sticking up from the water.
Dolphins. A whole pod of them.
You can tell the difference? Even in the fog?
Absolutely. When you live in a place like this, you learn the difference.
So the woman seemed to know they weren’t sharks, and she kept going further. The kids were afraid at first, but then they went with her, further and further. Soon the dolphins were all around them. And then the woman and the kids were on the dolphins’ backs, riding out into the ocean.
You’re messing with me, right?
He shook his head: Not messing with you.
So then?
Like I just told you: They disappeared into the fog on the dolphins’ backs.
So where are they?
The man looked at me strangely, then smiled and shrugged and said: What happens to people who ride on the backs of dolphins into the sea?
I was thinking at first that he was prompting me to say something hopeful. But I couldn’t come up with anything. I knew there were stories about people being saved in the sea by friendly dolphins. In Classical times, people believed that virtuous souls were carried after death by dolphins to sacred islands. But I’d always assumed that dolphins were just aquatic mammals with no special place in the human condition.
I looked toward the waves in the mist. I looked back at him and shrugged.
He finally said: Sorry, man. I hope things work out.
Then he walked off into the fog.
I should have followed him right away and gotten more details. But I was stuck in his question, wondering what he might have meant, other than that he was telling me to accept the obvious: my family must have fallen into the sea, and the dolphins couldn’t save them, assuming that they felt even the slightest desire to. My wife and kids hadn’t run off to start a new life without me. They were floating somewhere face down, rising and falling with the waves.
Finally, I rushed after him, but he wasn’t where he should have been, maybe two hundred feet away. For the next hour, I searched the beach for him, but couldn’t even find footprints.
I was still unsettled by it, three years later. The police decided that somehow my family must have been abducted, but all their investigations came to nothing. I hired a private eye, supposedly one of the best. He too found nothing. I finally gave up and dismissed him. I knew I would never stop missing them, but I resigned myself to being alone. Before I got married and became a father, I used to enjoy being single. I even wrote a book on the pleasures of being unmarried. It sold so well that I’ll probably never have to look for a job, especially since I don’t mind living on almost nothing. Now that I was on my own again, I remembered what I used to like about it. I sold our house and moved into a small apartment. I fixed it up with stuff I found in thrift shops, battered rugs and chairs and lamps and bookshelves, a bed that was also a sofa. It was strange at first just living in a single room, but before too long it began to feel like home. I enjoyed waking up in it, coming home to it. If I really believed in sacred places, my apartment might have been one of them. Not that it was perfect. It was old and things didn’t always work. The landlord was lazy, unreliable. He kept promising to paint the place, but he never did. You could always hear big city noise through the windows, even when they were closed. But I had a good view of the city. I had music, books, and friends. And there was something nice about doing whatever I wanted, not having to figure things out with Marianne all the time.
She wasn’t an easy partner. She had strong opinions on everything, and didn’t hesitate to fight for what she believed. She often made me feel like an idiot. When she wanted something, she insisted on getting it, even if it was awkward or inconvenient for me. I didn’t miss the difficulties we created for each other. But she was a funny, brilliant, beautiful woman, and there was no way not to feel terribly empty at times, especially when I thought about our kids. They filled my life in ways I couldn’t anticipate before I became a father. They were often cute and funny. But taking care of them was challenging. Marianne and I had very different ways of being parents, and this led to bitter fights. The kids themselves were difficult, not like the kids on TV shows or Hallmark cards. But their absence left a huge gap that couldn’t be filled by anything else. On some nights I felt like I might go crazy, and I had to go out and walk for hours and hours, through neighborhoods I didn’t recognize, down streets of old brick factories with broken doors and windows.
On one of those nights, I reached a turning point. I was on a street where most of the streetlights were broken. Then I came to a place that didn’t seem abandoned. I went inside. About fifty people were seated on folding chairs in front of an empty stage. There was silence, then laughter, silence, then laughter, silence, then laughter. I watched for fifteen minutes. No one was making jokes on the stage, yet everyone was laughing. I wondered about the audience. Were they just a random collection of comedy lovers, somehow amused by the absence of a comedian? Were they members of a secret society practicing an absurdist ritual of some kind? I liked the second possibility, a group of people actively seeking or staging nonsensical situations, convinced that they were transforming themselves in important ways. But after a while, I got tired of what I didn’t understand. I was just about to leave and forget about it, but a tall blonde woman from the audience was leaving too, so I stopped her outside the door. She looked startled, like someone who wasn’t there was in her way.
Sorry to interrupt you. But I need to know: What was going on in there?
What was going on in there? What do you mean?
You were all just sitting there laughing at nothing.
So why were you all just sitting there laughing at nothing?
We enjoy it.
Even with no one on stage entertaining you?
We don’t need anyone else to entertain us.
You entertain yourselves?
Sure, why not?
Can’t you just do that at home, by yourselves.
Sure. Everyone does that. But sometimes it’s fun to meet somewhere and do it together.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got somewhere else I need to be.
She shouldered past me, walking briskly away. The sound of her shoes on the pavement made the darkness even darker. I knew if I didn’t follow her, the dark would get even worse. I caught up with her.
Sorry I disturbed you.
Yeah, no kidding.
I mean, I’m out here by myself because there are nights when I can’t be at home. I lost my wife and kids about three years ago, and I’m still not over it.
You lost them? They died in a plane crash or something?
They disappeared. No one can find them, probably an abduction of some kind.
That’s horrible.
So, I thought I saw something strange back there. But maybe it was just dark, and something completely normal was going on, and my imagination—
Look, it’s okay. You’ve had a horrible loss. I don’t have kids myself, but I can imagine how devastating it must be to lose them and not know where they are.
We were standing outside what looked like an old café. She looked sympathetic, feeling my sadness, then looked puzzled, like she was reading through my forehead, confused by vanishing patterns of words and phrases. She nodded and smiled slightly, as if she’d come to a decision, suddenly knew who I was, not just a perfect stranger. She touched my arm and said: Why don’t we go inside and get some coffee?
Inside, the place was dark. There were only three small circular tables, two of them occupied, people having quiet conversations. A young man was playing guitar on a small stage. Or rather, he was pretending to play guitar, moving his hands expertly up and down the fret board, gracefully plucking the strings, face animated with playful concentration, without producing any sound, filling the room instead with something like water, except that it wasn’t wet and didn’t interfere with our breathing.
We sat at one of the tables. A guy came and took our order. The woman took off her sweater, showing off her supple arms and shoulders. Suddenly I knew who she was, a cable news anchor widely admired for being beautiful, though not for being brilliant, even though she’d won awards.
Beth Barton?
Okay, so you finally recognized me. Now what?
I’m nervous about being with someone I’ve seen a thousand times on the TV screen.
So, you like the way I present the news?
You make disaster seem sexy. You make the stupid and vicious things the President says and does seem sexy. But I hate TV.
You hate TV? It sounds like you watch it.
I hate how it’s everywhere. Don’t get me wrong: I like seeing your face all over the place. But I don’t like the way it’s impossible to escape it.
It’s not impossible. There’s no TV in here.
I looked around. The walls were covered with pictures of tropical fish, painted with photo realist precision, so it looked at first like the place was a huge aquarium.
Yeah. There’s no TV. It’s incredible. And you don’t look like you do on the picture tube. You look more intelligent.
I look stupid on TV?
That’s not what I meant.
What did you mean?
Your face on TV is so perfect that it looks like you’re just there to get attention. Every facial expression, every move you make, looks planned, carefully staged to make you look stunning, irresistible. But here you just look like a person.
That’s why I like this place, this neighborhood. It’s almost off the grid. No TV. No Internet. The people here don’t want to be media clones. It’s almost like a sacred place.
You believe in sacred places? You’re religious?
I didn’t mean it in a religious sense. I just meant—
I’m glad you didn’t mean it in a religious sense, because the last time I was at a so-called sacred place, my family disappeared.
Where was this?
Hidden Beach in northern California.
Is Hidden Beach an official sacred place?
Not exactly. But it’s a beautiful place where you can be by yourself, without the usual tourist bullshit—at least it was like that three years ago, when no one knew about it.
Has it been discovered?
I don’t think so, but it probably will be. Nothing will ever stop the human race from trashing the world. Even Mount Everest, which was once considered inaccessible, has become a tourist trap. People with enough money can buy guided tours to the top of the world, and it’s so crowded at this point that it’s become dangerous. When Tenzing and Hillary first got to the top, the mother goddess of the mountains was dangerous in a very different way.
The mother goddess of the mountains?
That’s what it’s called in Tibet and Nepal, Chomolungma, the name of a sacred place, or it used to be, before the British came and changed the name. Now it’s just another photo op. People go there just to take pictures of themselves.
She looked at me with affection, took my hand across the table. I smiled and imagined that she might be attracted to me, though I was not sure why. She could have any man, the richest and best-looking guys in the world. Why would she settle for someone like me? But there was no doubt that she was looking at me with interest.
She rippled her shoulder muscles, something Marianne used to do when she wanted me to want her. Suddenly I could see why people used to say that Beth and Marianne could have been doubles. She let the moment grow by remaining silent, then said: Anyway, this neighborhood has been forgotten by everyone. It’s almost a ghost town at this point. It’s becoming special, a place that won’t ever be gentrified, or rediscovered by hipsters.
It’s strange. I’m not even sure how I got here. All I know is that one street led to another. I’m not sure how to get back.
The guitarist on stage was moving his hands up and down the fret board, not strumming or plucking the strings at this point, but moving his hands like he was petting a dog or cat, making his instrument sound like a barely audible symphony ten blocks away. The music was making the paintings move. The fish were quick and graceful, darting in and out of underwater vegetation.
Do you live around here?
Right around the corner.
Even though you make a million dollars a year?
I like it. I’ve got a whole building. I had it renovated before I moved in.
So now it’s a fancy place, with that generic designer look? Something I can expect to find in Architectural Digest?
Not at all. It’s a place where I feel at home, not the kind of space you can only see in glossy magazine pictures. Believe it or not, I’m more of a slob than a snob. I like battered sofas and unmade beds.
Is that an invitation?
Only if you say yes.
She takes my hand more firmly. Her hand is Marianne’s hand.
I laugh slightly: Your husband’s not around?
I divorced him two months ago.
He wasn’t good enough.
Good enough?
He didn’t like tropical fish.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m a big fan of tropical fish. I think the world would be greatly improved if everyone traded their TVs for aquariums. I think our tax dollars should fund this project, with money redirected from the obscenely bloated defense budget. But it was hard for me to imagine Beth Barton supporting such a project, since TV had made her wealthy enough to buy and fix up a whole building.
She was looking at me closely, like someone finding ways to enjoy a painting they’d never liked before. She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head and said: Kiss me. Kiss me right now and die.
I laughed: Sure, whatever you say.
I’m serious. You need to release me.
By kissing you? Like you’re that girl in the fairy tale? Sleeping Beauty?
You need to release me. I’m stuck in the picture tube, like a genie in a bottle. Only you can release me.
This might be the strangest thing I’ve ever heard.
Strange or not, just do it.
Not without an explanation. Kiss you and die and release you from the picture tube? I mean, what the fuck?
Okay, here’s how it works. TV has made me who I am, to the point that most of my soul is no longer mine. I’ve become an image, part of a system of images. I had a dream that someone who’s lost everything could release me. But he had to kiss me knowing that he would die, and he had to do it in a place with no name. This place used to be called The Green Dolphin, but now it doesn’t have a name, and I’ve heard that the owner won’t name it again because he thinks names are bad luck.
Names are bad luck? Look, this whole thing is getting too weird. I mean, obviously I’d love to kiss you. You’re one of the world’s most beautiful women. How often do regular guys like me get a chance to kiss women like you? But the other part of it sounds fucked up. Sure, you could say I’ve lost everything. But it’s really not so bad. I still like my life. In fact, in some ways I like it better now that I don’t have anything left. What you want is just too weird.
I’m sure it is. But sometimes you just have to do something crazy. You don’t do it because it makes sense. You do it because it doesn’t make sense.
I like the way that sounds. It’s like something a hippie philosopher might have said, back when people were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.
So, what are you waiting for?
Beth Barton stood, looking impossibly beautiful in the gliding aquarium light. I walked around the table, eager to kiss a woman everyone in the world would love to kiss. But once I kissed her I’d die? It couldn’t be true but what if it was? What if she had something deadly on her lips and teeth and tongue? I wanted to live in the moment before the kiss, a prelude to a kiss, like in that Duke Ellington song. I thought of Tenzing and Hillary, seconds before they reached the highest place in the world, knowing that they were just about become famous, living legends, but savoring the moment right before the highest moment. Would something be lost forever once they reached the top and looked down?
I tried to make the moment last, noticing something strange in the look Beth Barton was giving me, as if she’d been looked at so many times that now she was poisoned, loaded with a radioactive charge, and touching her was dangerous. Then it wasn’t Beth Barton standing there smiling. She was starting to change into someone who looked like she might be the woman I lost, emerging from the aquatic light of a place that had no name.
She said: Recognize me now?
Where have you been?
The place where everyone finally goes. Your permanent home.
I’m not dead yet.
You might as well be.
I won’t be dead until I kiss you, right? That was the deal.
She laughed softly and said: The dead don’t make deals.
They don’t?
They don’t have to.
So, what happens now?
Put your lips on mine and find out. Kiss me the way you’ve kissed me a thousand times before—only better, much better.
I tried not to. I didn’t want the kiss of death, even if Beth Barton was really Marianne, even if she’d traveled with a pod of dolphins to a sacred place, and now she was inviting me to join her there, a place that was forever outside the TV zone, a place that wouldn’t ever appear on a billboard, a place beyond all human interference. I was tempted to think it was time to make the big move, the final transition. But I didn’t believe in life after death, especially if it was a place of rewards and punishments. Besides, there was something unpleasant about her voice, the way she was forming words. She sounded like she’d been trained to sound persuasive, to sound like she knew what was going on, confident that everyone would believe her. There was no way I could trust the situation.
So, I did what I’ve learned to do when things get weird. I gave myself a moment of absolute silence, thinking that if I could take just one step back, then another step back, then another one, and another, I could back myself out the door, onto the street, walking backwards until I was back where I needed to be, reversing my path through a neighborhood no one knew about anymore. I assumed that Marianne couldn’t follow me out of the place with no name. Only Beth Barton could, and I guessed that she probably wouldn’t. She wouldn’t try to force me, knowing that a tense and awkward kiss would get her nowhere.
I made my move. I took a step back, another step back, then another. Soon I was out the door, out on the street. It was cold and windy. I wasn’t sure where to go from there. In the distance I could see parallel lines of streetlights, leading somewhere, though the place I was calling home seemed a long way off, in another lifetime. But I told myself that if I could just keep moving in reverse, I might get there. It might take a long time, but it felt like I had all the time in the world.


Read the story A Cloudless Night, an Eclipsed Moon by Papree Rahman

Stephen-Paul Martin has published many books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. His most recent collections of fiction are The Ace of Lightning (FC2, 2017) and Changing the Subject (Ellipsis Press, 2010). An earlier collection, The Gothic Twilight, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award in 1992. He is currently the co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University.


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