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Silent Valley


by Lorna Garano


Jerry pulls back the throttle and squints through the window of the cockpit at the little abandoned village below.

“Silent Valley,” he says in a voice-over style like in the promotional videos. The quietest place in the Western Hemisphere.”

The huts built by the scientists who studied the mountain movement barely stand anymore. The wrinkles deepen around Jerry's eyes, and creep out past his sunglasses as he tightens his gaze on what is left.

“Where quiet is all you'll hear,” Jerry continues in the suede-like voice of the videos my father made to sell Silent Valley real estate.

He knows me. Or he knows who he thinks I am. Like so many others, Jerry holds me captive in the fiefdom of his imagination.

Jerry nods at the dilapidated cabins. “Even the brainiacs couldn't figure out what the hell is going on down there.”

            I train my binoculars on the outpost below. I feign interest until we fly over them. Then I close my eyes and lean back, hoping that Jerry will mistake this for sleep. Just when I think he has he says, “Holy hell. Check that out, Madison. Even your family's place is gone. It was here the last time I choppered in … well … one of Indizara's people.”

He knows me for sure. Knows about the first-of-its-kind wedding I had planned, knows that Dad's fortune was going to pay for it.

Whenever I'd come to believe my malign fame had run its course, like some kind of illness, a stranger made a point to tell me he knew me. It happens even now as I sit in the chilly vehicle of my escape with a guy who smells like Irish Spring.

That feeling returns—the one I wouldn't have thought possible before all this. It's like I'm paralyzed, while my blood has turned to fire. Then I remember Indizara's admonishment: “Anxiety can be quieted if you focus on the Convergence. Seize on it hard and the most untamable fear will grow silent.” I do and it does.

It helps to imagine Indizara waiting for me in person—the real thing, not words on a screen. And it helps that that I can see that the West Mountain—the one we used to call “Mae” when I was a kid—has not only subsumed much of my family's compound, but taken with it much of the pine-crammed forest that ringed the estate. Mae, in her slow, unstoppable slide, has crushed and disappeared everything in her way. I survey her path of consumption with my binoculars. Gone are the guesthouse, the main house, the stables, the studio my mother built when she went through her artist phase. In place of all of it is Mae, sitting serene and triumphant with her crown-like peaks and charcoal skin.

“I swear she's moving faster by the day. Last time I could see the clearing where the wedding of the century was to be held,” Jerry smiles.

I tighten my body and block out the mention of the wedding.  

 “Technically, no,” I say. “There's been no speed up for any of the mountains. They're just coming for the heart of—”

“Everything your old man built.”

Now I want to say something eviscerating back, but what is there to say? First rule of coerced fame: The non-stranger always wins.

WestSouthNorthEast, I say to myself. This is the order it will happen in. The mountains that ring Silent Valley are converging. Eventually, the edges of West, South, North, East mountains will meet and knit together, leaving only a small aperture of what was Silent Valley.

We dip down and I can see the encroachment of South Mountain has broken the main road in two. Its eastern flank now sits on the road making it impassible and cutting off the main artery into town.

The landing strip that cuts through a yellow field comes into view and Jerry leans into the throttle. We go a little lower, and I can make out Indizara's dark shape—a slice of face clouded by long dark hair—sitting in the driver's seat of a white pickup truck.  

I have never met him in person. I have only known him from his emails, which are meandering and beautiful. He wrote of the ultimate detachment, the final freedom that we would achieve in the Convergence.

The Convergence: A return to the mountain mothers who were coming back for us if only we could recognize it. Indizara had said that the mountains spoke to him and that they were calling for me—the first daughter of Silent Valley—to return home, and that only this could make the Convergence complete.

I lived for Indizara's emails. If too long a time went by without one, I would call in Dad's IT person to make sure my computer and my Wi-Fi were in good working order. Dad would get angry because I was taking work time away from an employee when business was just starting to bounce back after the plans for my one-of-a-kind wedding went viral.

The public hatred not only hurt business, it tore away all privacy, so that everyone knew that Mom had powder blonde highlights put in her hair once a month and Dad had a mistress—a pre-school teacher with red hair.

The chopper blades slow and for a moment I feel a sense of panic. We land and they thwok, churning dust and then they go quiet. It's no longer the ether-talk of online chatter. It's all real now, as real as Indizara opening the truck door and swinging his skinny legs out of it. I consider staying right where I am until Jerry leans across and opens the door for me and I see Indizara approach. He spreads out his arms and says “WestSouthNorthEast.” His mouth breaks into a warm smile while his eyes lock on mine. I run toward him.

            Indizara is skinnier than I imagined. When he hugs me I feel his ribs mash against my breasts. The slash of the blades builds again and the wind they generate forces me closer to him.

We watch the chopper rise up and head back. I try to remind myself that the poor dimwit of a pilot who spent most of his life in the military, was probably psychologically scarred. Really, the only difference between him and me is that I recognize a way out when I see one. That, and the mountains never called for him the way they did for me. Indizara never called for him. Indizara pulls me closer and I am no longer angry at Jerry.

Indizara leads me back to the truck. The hems of his low-slung jeans raise dust from the stubble. He gets in the car, and I slide in on the passenger side. He turns the key and the truck sputters to life.

            When he sees me grab for a seatbelt that has been sliced in two he smiles. “We know we won't go before the Convergence, and besides we're the only car on the road these days.” He is fifty-four years old, and his face is as smooth as quartz.

            As we head out of the field, I turn the handle to roll up the window and notice that there is no window. Just as I start to feel relieved that Indizara doesn't seem to see he says, “It's an old truck.”

            The quiet is even thicker with the mountains moving together and all I can hear is the clatter of the truck and the squeak when Indizara taps the brake. We pass a sign that says “Downtown Silent Valley 15 Miles” with “Silent Valley” crossed out and replaced by “Sinagrais,” the original name of the valley. It's a word I remember my parents saying when I was a kid.

Up ahead, South mountain intersects with the road, making a dead-end. I expect Indizara to slow down, but he does the opposite. He speeds up toward the mountain wall. He drives so fast that the cold air blowing in through the window frame turns my face numb. I open my mouth to say “Indizara,” but his name chokes in my throat. I feel like everything in me has turned to liquid and wants to escape. Then, in what has to be the last possible second, he jams on the brakes and the screech is so loud that it makes me scream. We skid toward the mountain, the truck fishtailing out, and stop within inches of it. The truck is parallel to the rock wall so that I would have taken the initial hit if we had smashed into it.

Indizara starts laughing and it sounds surprisingly girlish, high-pitched like my own giggle sounded once when I was in school and the one laughing. He rubs the back of his hand against my face and it comes away wet with tears, which he licks off and then laughs again.

“Saltiest tears, sweetest heart,” he says.

He keeps laughing and presses his eyes with his fingers.

When he can finally talk again he says: “The humor comes with the faith.”

“1139” is spray-painted on the rock wall. The day of Convergence; one-thousand one-hundred and thirty-nine days after the first movement of the mountains was detected.

Indizara points to the numbers and says “We know we won't go before then and soon you will too. Know it and believe it.” He drills his finger so hard into my chest that I wince.

I keep crying and Indizara pulls me toward him. I remember how it felt when my one-time fiancé held me. He was skinny like Indizara, but more muscular from running endurance races.

“Look straight ahead,” Indizara says and points out toward where South Mountain has crushed a copse of maple trees. Their trunks are under the mountain's rim and their leafy heads poke out and press against the trunks in front of them that have been felled by their weight. Collapsed together, their red and orange leaves look like a contained fire.

Indizara pulls me closer to him and says “Have you even seen anything so beautiful?”

I think back to my ski trips to Switzerland, the Kenyan safari we went on for my sixteenth birthday, the summers sailing on the Mediterranean, and I realize I haven't. I feel something release in me and now I get why Indizara did what he did.

He shifts the truck into gear and circles the downed trees and we begin to make our way around the mountain to pick up the other end of the road. There is barely a path around and there are times when Indizara has to slow down to pass bumpy terrain or avoid getting stuck in mud.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“To the Colonel's,” he answers.

“The Colonel's?” I ask.

“Yeah, it's going to be finger-licking good, baby, you'll see.”

He starts up with that girlish laugh again and I laugh along this time, not caring that I don't know why.

When the road finally comes into view again, dusk is falling, and my stomach is in knots from all the bouncing around we've done in the truck. We pass by the empty boutiques and restaurants that made up the downtown of Silent Valley.

The Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket whirling on a pole breaks through the horizon. It still spins because of the work of my father who had generators and underground diesel reserves installed throughout Silent Valley. I would have thought the fuel would have run out by now. For a moment I feel a twinge of sadness for Dad.

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I think it's been three weeks since I've been at the KFC. I gauge time in bigger chunks now—by the passing of each night, not according to an hourly schedule. For a while I kept track by noting each morning on a receipt roll that I used as a journal, but lately that's started to seem pointless. I do know that I haven't been here long enough for the smell of old fog that emanates from my mattress and mixes with the odor of frying grease to stop making my stomach tremble.

            Most of the time we are in the parking lot of the KFC, each of us sitting on our own mattress around a fire that Indizara keeps going for warmth. The mattresses are thin and stamped with “Property of US Army.” Only when Indizara wants to have sex with me or one of the other women do we linger inside for any length of time.

It was after one of these sessions with Indizara that I found a rose-scented soap in the KFC bathroom. It was carved into the shape of a rose and its petals were edged with dirt that I chipped off. I take it out of my pocket now and hold it up to my nose. A cheap odor of fake roses tickles my nostrils. I would have been disgusted by the smell in my old life, would have thought it vulgar. Now it just brings relief as I sit on my mattress alongside the others.

We're all working on what Indizara calls “returnwork”—art that we will toss into the fire when we're done with it to train our minds in the habit of release, to help unstick us and accept the Convergence with grace when it happens. I'm making a collage with the cut-up KFC buckets. The old Colonel Sanders with the Van Dyke beard duplicated over it in different sizes and crisscrossed with banners that read “9-Piece Tenders;” “Family Dinner;” “Biscuits in Gravy;” “The Colonels' Own Recipe.” I use cooled-off cooking grease as glue, but it barely holds down the pieces.

I take another sniff of the soap and that's when I notice Andrew—the architect from Denver who came about a week before me—watching me; his sketchpad balanced on his crossed legs and a pencil in his hand. I get the feeling I'm being judged for the soap, so I put it back in my pocket and Andrew looks back down at his sketchpad. We're supposed to lose ourselves in the returnwork, so that when it is finished and we toss it into the fire it is like we are immolating ourselves—willingly, happily. I shouldn't have been distracted with the soap, but then Andrew shouldn't have been distracted with me, so if he told Indizara I would be prepared with a defense. Our transgressions canceled each other out.

Not counting Indizara, we are six altogether, less than I had thought. I had expected a community. Could six be a community? Whenever I come close to asking that out loud I realize it is a meaningless question, formed in the confusion of the old thinking I had to escape, the thinking that had me plan a wedding that involved meteorological intervention and custom-made umbrellas. Six was a community; five was a community. One could be a community if looked at a certain way. Were we not all ecosystems unto ourselves?

O'Brien, a former tech executive and one of the earliest to buy a vacation house in Silent Valley, sketches with a charcoal pencil and every now and then he rubs his finger across a border to get a smudge effect. Since he coughs a lot and covers his mouth when he does, he has black fingerprints across his left cheek that look as if someone has slapped him and left bruises behind.

Stallett, a business consultant from Los Angeles, one of the first to join Indizara, writes her novel on a yellow legal pad, scribbling away in her jagged handwriting. Her thin, straw-colored hair barely covers her scalp. Foster, the oldest of us, draws on an old paper bag with colored pencils. He had been an oilman. He stops every few minutes to scratch at the wire-like stubble on his chin and wrap his blankets tighter around him. Looking at him encased in two quilts makes me so hot I start to panic slightly and I have to look up at the spinning bucket that hovers overhead to calm down. Even though the sky is white with fog I suspect nightfall is close.

Dani is sewing old towels together into a tapestry. She was a dancer once, and a vegan chef. She has legs that remind me of the ropy lava rock I saw in the Philippines. My parents were at the opening of her restaurant in Silent Valley, but I keep this loose connection a secret.

Indizara also sits on a mattress in the KFC parking lot and, like the rest of us, he works on a creative project: making a small abstract sculpture out of twigs.

Indizara's twig sculpture starts looking like a steeple and he leans back on his mattress to see if it can stand on its own. When it does he picks it up gingerly, walks to the edge of the fire and tosses it in. The fire spits back at him, but he moves so fast away from it that he's untouched by the sparks. Then O'Brien gets up with his charcoal drawing and takes Foster's colored pencil art since Foster is too weak with age to move from his bed. O'Brien's cough gets worse as he approaches the fire, but he doesn't stop. He tosses both drawings into the flames and the sound of his coughing masks the crackle of the disturbed fire.

I take my collage and move toward the fire. I crumple it up into a ball so I can stand farther away from the flames.

“You're a little far away,” Dani calls out.

“I'm just getting ready,” I lie.

“If you can't take the fire you're a liar,” she says parroting one of Indizara's sayings.

Indizara sits with his eyes closed on his mattress and doesn't move.

 Dani is jealous of me. Even though I have grown fat with our diet of fried chicken and soda and macaroni salad, all frozen, refrigerated, and cooked thanks to my father's foresight, Indizara still prefers me to her and definitely to Stallet whose face is leathery and who has lost teeth since she's been here.

“You know she's right, Madison,” O'Brien yells.

I look at Indizara again and he opens his eyes. His mouth is tight and his eyes drill into me. 

I move closer and let my balled-up collage fly into the flames. At that moment, I see Andrew running. He's headed for the North Mountain, the one that is closest to us. I forget about the flames, about the collage. Reflexively, I start to chase him with Indizara and everyone else but Foster.

            Even with my flabby legs and fat-thickened blood I manage to overtake them all. I reach out and grab Andrew's t-shirt, but he wriggles loose and back kicks me in the shin. I fall down and when I try to get up I slip on the wet grass, and even though I break the fall with my arms my forehead still hits the ground. When I get up again I'm dizzy but I run myself alert and I'm the closest to Andrew as he starts scaling the mountain. I jump on his back and make myself dead weight. As he slides down the mountain his t-shirt rolls up and the jagged edges scrape away at his skin. We roll on the ground, until Indizara and O'Brien separate us and O'Brien sits on Andrew's legs, coughing without bothering to cover his mouth.

            When we get back to the camp Foster is standing at the side of his bed,

 

stooped over.

 

“Where you goin', runner?” he says to Andrew.

“I want to go home,” he moans pathetically.

“Don't let him move,” Indizara says to us and then disappears into the KFC.

O'Brien sits on Andrew's legs again and Dani, Stallet, and me circle the bed. Blood from Andrew's scraped skin seeps through his shirt and pants.

North Mountain starts to hiss. That's something only Indizara and me can hear. Andrew's eyes are wide, their black pupils crowding out the rim of blue around them. His heavy breathing irritates me because it throws me off the sound from the mountain.

“Shut the fuck up,” I scream at him, but he keeps gulping air.

When Indizara returns he carries with him a couple of ropes made of dishtowels knotted together. Dani, Stallet, and I, help him tie Andrew's wrists and ankles together. Andrew twists around a bit at first, but then stops and cries softly. Indizara whispers something in his ear that makes him cry harder.

Indizara leads us in a chant of WestSouthNorthEast around Andrew's bed. We repeat this until our voices are scratchy and Andrew has curled into a fetal position. He starts to shake and when Indizara covers him with a blanket he uses his bound legs to kick it off. This happens three more times until, finally, Andrew grows still under the blanket and we stagger back to our mattresses, exhausted.

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It has been four days since the mountains took all of Silent Valley. On TV this event has crowded out the news of the tropical storm that has devastated Wales and part of western England. It has pushed aside the announcement of dreary economic statistics that have come from the new report by some international body or another. Jerry wishes the Silent Valley story would fade away, hopes for some other tragedy—one that he's not so related to—to take its place. He's grateful that on the TV at Tip's Tavern in a town a day's drive from Silent Valley a rerun of an old nature show plays. Zebras and gazelles flit across the screen. 

Jerry takes a long pull of Snow Leopard 550 ale, so long that he drinks in half the bottle. He remembers when Tip's Tavern was a place for working guys, rough-knuckled types who drank so they could turn mushy. They lingered there as long as they could to avoid their frazzled wives who were pretty once. Not him. One drink and then out the door, home to Myra, his now long-gone wife who had never been so pretty and yet Jerry wanted no one else—not then and not in the years since her death. He could have had women—plenty of them, what with his military pension and the house he'd built himself and owned free and clear. That was the thing about all this poverty: his potbelly and his bald spot didn't matter or at least they didn't matter as much as his ability to buy food on a regularly basis. The deeper the collapse spirals the more attractive he becomes. But he only wants Myra back. He hasn't felt a stirring for a woman since she died.

He looks around Tip's and thinks about what to call it, this place for the socially shipwrecked. A home? A hang-out? A refuge? Surely not a commune. That was for another era, a time of hippies and upper-class types who had everything, but still couldn't be happy. He laughs quietly as he thinks of them leaving their fat jobs to live in geodesic domes plopped down on farms that they had no idea how to run. People are so dumb. Jerry cracks open another Snow Leopard 550. He has brought a case and he will share if asked, but he hopes he isn't. There is no longer a bartender here. Having a guy here now to serve shots and draft beer would be absurd. Whatever Tip's is, it is no longer a business. It‘s shuttered like so much else.

The mirror behind the bar reflects people sitting or lying on the floor. They are interlocked in hugs, or staring out into space or mesmerized by the wildlife dashing across the big-screen TV mounted on the corner of the bar. The TV had belonged to O'Brien. After Jerry had choppered him into Silent Valley, he picked it up from the house that Indizara had located for him on an aerial map. There was other stuff he could have taken—a 3D printer that he wouldn't have known how to use, jewelry, an elliptical glider—but he didn't. The TV he could justify. It was for everyone, and they'd need it to keep up with what was happening.

He glances over to the TV and sees the credits rolling. Then the nightly news begins. Jerry wants to get up and turn off the TV, but that's against the etiquette that has been quietly established at Tip's.

“We're learning more about the cult, led by a man calling himself Indizara, who moved into the Valley, with his followers to commit suicide in the mountain convergence,” the newscaster says.

Laughter ripples across the room, and when it dies down one giggle lingers. It's the girlish trill of Kirby. Yes, Kirby, that was his name. Not Indizara. Kirby. Jerry had always thought that was a little shit's name. He had picked him up a week ago. He hovered above a mountain ledge in his helicopter and unfurled the rope ladder for Kirby to climb up. All the way back Kirby had been giddy, explaining how he had left those fools in the KFC, how one of them had already died. He told Jerry how he'd had them all lug their mattresses into the restaurant—even the old guy—and then locked it from the outside. Jerry had thought about not picking Kirby up at all, letting him die there too, but a deal was a deal, even when it was made between the devil and the jackass who stared back at him from the bar mirror.

Kirby sits at one of the only remaining tables at Tip's, flanked by women and swigging from a bottle of bourbon that catches the light from the TV.

“One of the deceased is believed to be Madison Ashworth, the woman who gained notoriety last year when her plans to seed the clouds to make it drizzle for her wedding and provide all 800 attendees with custom-made, one-of-a-kind umbrellas that turned color in the rain were released online and went viral. Emails retrieved from her private account between her and the cult leader, Indizara, show their strange belief system. It appears he convinced her—and others—that the mountain movement was a sign that they should end their lives.”

The laughter in the tavern picks up again.

That wedding. That had done it for Jerry. He'd read that it cost $8 million all told. People starving and she's spending $8 million on her wedding. He had hated her. Who hadn't? He'd even got on the Twitter hashtag #DrownMadisonAshworth that called for this water-loving pig to have a wet funeral instead of a wet wedding.

His hate wasn't even leavened with the respect he had had for some of the combatants he had fought against in war. He could sympathize with them, and, hell, sometimes when he had been alone with Myra in the dark he would even admit that half the time he believed more in their cause than his own. But her, the oblivious, extravagant uselessness of Madison Ashworth ignited a purer hatred in him than he had ever known. People starving. His own wife denying medical care because she preferred death to watching the misery around her.

“Who am I?” she had asked when Jerry pleaded for her to get care. Why should she have treatment when so few could? She told him to pay for the care of some kid, that her life was mostly over anyhow. “Wrong,” he had insisted, even though technically it wasn't.

The last time they argued and Myra asked “Who am I?” Jerry reminded her that she was his wife and asked if that mattered. She had replied simply “no” and went to sleep.

            “The cult also included Devin O'Brien, an executive with the Edenics Corporation, who owned a vacation home in Silent Valley that he had fled when the mountains started moving, and others—all of whom seem to come from wealthy or prominent backgrounds. We located Mr. O'Brien's sister who wouldn't talk to us on camera, but said he had been depressed before returning to Silent Valley.”

 O'Brien and the rest of them were collateral damage, ambient death. He hadn't hated them in the way he hated Madison with her cloud seeding and hand-made umbrellas. He had silently raged at her as if every wrong ever committed could be laid at her feet. If he tried hard enough he could even figure a way to blame her personally for Myra's death.

Kirby had first asked him to be the transportation, to ferry the handpicked targets into Silent Valley, but as it went on he had done more: providing army surplus mattresses, refilling the diesel tanks around town, opening a bank account to accept the money transfers from Madison and the others.

Kirby had called this an act of resistance. They were taking a stand and Jerry went along. Myra would have laughed at that, said that these were people who could only act on emotion, who didn't understand that the problems went beyond individuals and who were selfish anyway. She would have called this symbolic, needlessly cruel, and of zero strategic value. “Like bad performance art”—that's   what she'd said of other stunts like this. Myra, his small wife, had understood that what we needed was a war, and a war required strategy, which if done well could last as long as any work of art. And he would have agreed with her. He would have realized, through Myra's calm, careful reasoning that he should choose neither Kirby nor Madison, that Kirby was just a psychopath on the take and Madison was—well—just an inconsequential fluffhead, a human bauble with no real power. Myra probably would have said something smart about our tendency to blame an individual because then we could quietly assure ourselves that if we killed that person our problems would be solved. Of course, depending on her mood, she might also add something about why the whole human endeavor is doomed because of this.

“The reason why these mountains have converged remains a mystery,” came from the TV.

Myra thought bigger. Jerry imagines what she would have done had she lived to see this crazy mountain creep. She would have figured a way to use it for real resistance—would have seen some opportunity that no one else could. He thinks that he should be angry with Myra for choosing to check out, but he loves her too much for that. Little Myra could have been the General we needed. It sounds ridiculous, but he knows it is true.   

“When science can't explain a phenomenon, unfortunately the unscrupulous among us will step in with their own concocted answers. Although it appears that Indizara, who led this bizarre group died with them, so one can only assume that he believed his own story.” That was some reporter who'd written a piece a few months ago about Indizara and his following.  He'd gotten a lot wrong then too.

Laughter crashes over Jerry. This time Kirby's chilling giggle rises above everyone else's voice. Jerry drinks another Snow Leopard 550 in two gulps and puts his head on the bar, wishing only for his own Convergence.

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