The Book of Skulls
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Seeking the immortality promised in an ancient manuscript, The Book of Skulls, four friends, college roommates, go on a spring break trip to Arizona: Eli, the scholar, who found and translated the book; Timothy, scion of an American dynasty, born and bred to lead; Ned, poet and cynic; and Oliver, the brilliant farm boy obsessed with death.
Somewhere in the desert lies the House of Skulls, where a mystic brotherhood guards the secret of eternal life. There, the four aspirants will present themselves–and a horrific price will be demanded.
For immortality requires sacrifice. Two victims to balance two survivors. One by suicide, one by murder.
Now, beneath the gaze of grinning skulls, the terror begins....
Coming into New York City from the north, off the New England Thruway, Oliver driving as usual. Tireless, relaxed, his window half open, long blond hair whipping in the chilly breeze. Timothy slouched beside him, asleep. The second day of our Easter vacation; the trees still bare, ugly driblets of blackened snow banked in dirty heaps by the roadside. In Arizona there wouldn't be any dead snow around. Ned sat next to me in the back seat, scribbling notes, filling up page after page of his ragged spiral-bound book with his left-handed scrawl. Demonic glitter in his dark little eyes. Our penny-ante pansy Dostoevsky. A truck roared up behind us in the left-hand lane, passed us, abruptly cut across into our lane. Hardly any clearance at all. We nearly got racked up. Oliver hit the brakes, cursing, really made them screech; we jolted forward in our seats. A moment later he swung us into the empty right-hand lane to avoid getting smashed by a car to our rear. Timothy woke up. "What the crap," he said. "Can't you let a guy get some sleep?"
"We almost got killed just then," Ned told him fiercely, leaning forward, spitting the words into Timothy's big pink ear. "How would that be for irony, eh? Four sterling young men heading west to win eternal life, wiped out by a truck driver on the New England Thruway. Our lithe young limbs scattered all over the embankment."
"Eternal life," Timothy said. Belching. Oliver laughed.
"It's a fifty-fifty chance," I observed, not for the first time. "An existential gamble. Two to live forever, two to die."
"Existential shit," Timothy said. "Man, you amaze me, Eli. How you do that existential number with a straight face. You really believe, don't you?"
"In the Book of Skulls? In your Arizona Shangri-la?"
"If you don't believe, why are you going with us?"
"Because it's warm in Arizona in March." Using on me the airy, casual, John-O'Hara-country-club-goy tone that he handled so well, that I despised so much. Eight generations of the best blue chips standing behind him. "I can use a change of scenery, man."
"That's all?" I asked. "That's the entire depth of your philosophical and emotional commitment to this trip, Timothy? You're putting me on. God knows why you feel you have to act blase; and cool even when something like this is involved. That Main Line drawl of yours. The aristocratic implication that commitment, any sort of commitment, is somehow grubby and unseemly, that it—"
"Please don't harangue me now," Timothy said. "I'm not in the mood for ethnic analysis. Rather weary, in fact." He said it politely, disengaging from the conversation with the tiresomely intense Jewboy in his most amiably Waspish way. I hated Timothy worst of all when he started flaunting his genes at me, telling me with his easy upper-class inflections that his ancestors had founded this great country while mine were digging for potatoes in the forests of Lithuania. He said, "I'm going to go back to sleep." To Oliver he said, "Watch the fucking road a little better, will you? And wake me up when we get to Sixty-seventh Street." A subtle change in his voice now that he was no longer talking to me—to that complex and irritating member of an alien, repugnant, but perhaps superior species. Now he was the country squire addressing the simple farm boy, a relationship free of intricacies. Not that Oliver was all that simple, of course. But that was Timothy's existential image of him, and the image functioned to define their relationship regardless of the realities. Timothy yawned and flaked out again. Oliver stomped the gas hard and sent us shooting forward to catch up with the truck that had caused the trouble. He passed it, changed lanes, and took up a position just in front of it, daring the truckie to play games a second time. Uneasily I glanced back; the truck, a red and green monster, was nibbling at our rear bumper. High above us loomed the face of the driver, glowering, sullen, rigid: jowly stubbled cheeks, cold slitted eyes, clamped lips. He'd run us off the road if he could. Vibrations of hatred rolling out of him. Hating us for being young, for being good-looking (me! good-looking!), for having the leisure and gelt to go to college and have useless things stuffed into our skulls. The know-nothing perched up there, the flag-waver. Flat head under his greasy cloth cap. More patriotic, more moral, than us, a hardworking American. Feeling sorry for himself because he was stuck behind four kids on a lark. I wanted to ask Oliver to move over before he rammed us. But Oliver hung in the lane, keeping the needle at fifty, penning the truck. Oliver could be very stubborn.
We were entering New York City now, via some highway that cut across the Bronx. Unfamiliar territory for me. I am a Manhattan boy; I know only the subways. Can't even drive a car. Highways, autos, gas stations, tollbooths—artifacts out of a civilization with which I've had only the most peripheral contact. In high school, watching the kids from the suburbs pouring into the city on weekend dates, all of them driving, with golden-haired shikses next to them on the seat: not my world, not my world at all. Yet they were only sixteen, seventeen years old, the same as I. They seemed like demigods to me. They cruised the Strip from nine o'clock to half past one, then drove back to Larchmont, to Lawrence, to Upper Montclair, parking on some tranquil leafy street, scrambling with their dates into the back seat, white thighs flashing in the moonlight, the panties coming down, the zipper opening, the quick thrust, the grunts and groans. Whereas I was riding the subways, West Side I.R.T. That makes a difference in your sexual development. You can't ball a girl in the subway. What about doing it standing up in an elevator, rising to the fifteenth floor on Riverside Drive? What about making it on the tarry roof of an apartment house, 250 feet above West End Avenue, bulling your way to climax while pigeons strut around you, criticizing your technique and clucking about the pimple on your ass? It's another kind of life, growing up in Manhattan. Full of shortcomings and inconve-niences that wreck your adolescence. Whereas the lanky lads with the cars can frolic in four-wheeled motels. Of course, we who put up with the urban drawbacks develop compensating complexities. We have richer, more interesting souls, force-fed by adversity. I always separate the drivers from the nondrivers in drawing up my categories of people. The Olivers and the Timothys on the one hand, the Elis on the other. By rights Ned belongs with me, among the nondrivers, the thinkers, the bookish introverted tormented deprived subway riders. But he has a driver's license. Yet one more example of his perverted nature.
Anyway, I was glad to be back in New York, even just passing through as we were, en route to the Golden West. This was my turf. Would be, once we got past the unfamiliar Bronx into Manhattan. The paperback bookstores, the frankfurter-and-papaya-juice stands, the museums, the art movies (we don't call them art movies in New York, but they do), the crowds. The texture, the density. Welcome to Kosher Country. A warming sight after months in captivity in the pastoral wilds of New England, stately trees, broad avenues, white Congregationalist churches, blue-eyed people. How good it was to escape from the Ivy League simplicities of our campus and breathe foul air again. A night in Manhattan; then westward. Toward the desert. Into the clutches of the Keepers of the Skulls. I thought of that embellished page in the old manuscript, the archaic lettering, the ornamental border with the eight grinning skulls (seven missing their lower jaws, yet they manage to grin), each in its little columned cubicle. Life eternal we offer thee. How unreal the whole immortality thing seemed to me now, with the jeweled cables of the George Washington Bridge gleaming far to the southwest, and the soaring bourgeois towers of Riverdale hemming us on the right, and the garlicky realities of Manhattan straight ahead. A moment of sudden doubt. This crazy hegira. We're fools to take it seriously, fools to invest so much as a dime of psychological capital in a freaky fantasy. Let's skip Arizona and drive to Florida instead, Fort Lau-derdale, Daytona Beach. Think of all the willing suntanned nookie waiting there for the sophisticated northern lads to harvest. And, as had happened on other occasions, Ned seemed to be reading my thoughts. He threw me a sharp quizzical look and said softly, "Never to die. Far out! But can there be anything at all to it, really?"
The fascinating part, the challenging part, what is for me the esthetically rewarding part, is that two of us must perish if the other two are to be exempted from mortality. Such are the terms offered by the Keepers of the Skulls, always assuming, first, that Eli's translation of the manuscript is accurate, and, second, that there's any substance to what he's told us. I think the translation must be correct—he's terribly precise in philological matters—but one must always allow for the possibility of a hoax, perhaps engineered by Eli himself. Or that it is all nonsense. Is Eli playing some baroque game with us? He's capable of anything, of course, a wily Hebrew, full of tricky ghetto lore, concocting an elaborate fiction so that he might inveigle three hapless goyim to their dooms, a ritual bloodbath in the desert. Do the skinny one first, the gay one, thrust the blazing sword up his ungodly asshole! More probably I'm giving Eli credit for more deviousness than he has, projecting into him some of my own feverish warped androgynous instability. He seems sincere, a nice Jewish boy. In any group of four candidates who present themselves for the Trial, one must submit voluntarily to death, and one must become the victim of the surviving two. Sic dixit liber calvariarum. The Book of Skulls so tells us. See, me spikka da Caesarish too! Two die, two live; a lovely balance, a four-cornered mandala. I tremble in the terrible tension between extinction and infinity. For Eli the philosopher this adventure is a dark version of Pascal's gamble, an existentialist all-or-nothing trip. For Ned the would-be artist it is an esthetic matter, a problem of form and fulfillment. Which of us shall meet what fate? Oliver with his ferocious midwestern hunger for life: he'll snatch at the flask of eternity, he'll have to, never for an instant admitting the possibility that he might be among the ones who must exit so that the others may live. And Timothy, naturally, will come out of Arizona intact and undying, cheerfully waving his platinum spoon. His kind is bred to prevail. How can he let himself die when he has his trust fund to look forward to? Imagine, interest compounding at 6 percent per annum for, say, 18 million years. He'll own the universe! Far out! So those two are our obvious candidates for immortality. Eli and I therefore must yield, willingly or otherwise. Quickly the remaining roles designate their players. Eli will be the one they kill, of course; the Jew is always the victim, isn't he? They'll honey him along, grateful to him for having found the gateway to life everlasting lying in the musty archives, and at the proper ritual moment, wham, they seize him and give it to him, a quick whiff of Cyklon-B. The final solution to the Eli problem. That leaves me to be the one who volunteers for self-immolation. The decision, says Eli, citing appropriate chapter and verse from the Book of Skulls, must be genuinely voluntary, arising out of a pure wish for self-sacrifice, or it will not release the proper vibrations. Very well, gentlemen, I'm at your service. Say the word and I'll do my far, far better thing. A pure wish, perhaps the first one I've ever had. Two conditions, however, two strings are attached. Timothy, you must dip into your Wall Street millions and subsidize a decent edition of my poems, nicely bound, good paper, with a critical foreword by someone who knows his stuff, Trilling, Auden, Lowell, someone of that caliber. If I die for you, Timothy, if I shed my blood that you may live forever, will you do that? And Oliver: I require a service from you as well, sir. The quid pro quo is a sine qua non, as Eli would say. On the last day of life I would have an hour in private with you, my dear and handsome friend. I wish to plough your virgin soil. Be mine at last, beloved Ol! I promise to be generous with the Vaseline. Your smooth glowing almost hairless body, your taut athletic buttocks, your sweet unviolated rosebud. For me, Oliver. For me, for me, for me, all for me. I'll give my life for you if you'll lend me your bum a single afternoon. Am I not romantic? Is your dilemma not a delicious one? Come across, Oliver, or else no deal. You will, too. You aren't any puritan, and you're a practical man, a me-firster. You'll see the advantages of surrender. You'd better. Humor the little faggot, Oliver. Or else no deal.
Eli takes all this much more seriously than the rest of us. I suppose that's fair; he was the one who found out about it and organized the whole operation. And anyway he's got the half-mystic quality, that smouldering Eastern European wildness, that permits a man to get worked up really big over something that in the last analysis you know is imaginary. I suppose it's a Jewish trait, tied in with the kabbala and whatnot. At least I think of it as a Jewish trait, along with high intelligence, physical cowardice, and a love of making money, but what the crap do I know about Jews, anyway? Look at us in this car. Oliver's got the highest intelligence, no doubt about that. Ned's the physical coward; you just look at him and he cringes. I'm the one with the money, although Christ knows I had nothing to do with the making of it. There are your so-called Jewish traits. And the mysticism? Is Eli a mystic? Maybe he just doesn't want to die. Is there anything so mystic about that?
No, not about that. But when it comes to believing that there's this cult of exiled Babylonian or Egyptian or whatever immortals living in the desert, believing that if you go to them and say the right words they'll confer the privilege of immortality on you—oh, lordy! Who could buy that? Eli can. Oliver too, maybe. Ned? No, not Ned. Ned doesn't believe in anything, not even himself. And not me. You bet your ass, not me.
Why am I going, then?
Copyright © 1972 by Robert Silverberg
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