“As Interstate 70 traced its course through the foothills, the landscape showed, under high magnification as it were, that its colors flowed one into the other as smoothly as did the curvatures of the earth. A crescent of silver-blue stream bordered by tightly packed spines of grayish-magenta canary grass, clusters of Spotted Ladysthumb blossoms colored like radishes, cattails poking up like hot dogs on sticks: all melted into impartite perfection. Along the banks of the watercourses behind the rushes grew narrowleaf cottonwoods shaped like slender vases, box elders, squat and bushy with deep-grooved trunks, and the open crowns and shrubby, copper-hued, lenticeled boles of the water birches. From oxbows, gentle bends in the streams, narrow inlets forked off to create near-islands of vegetation. Larger trees grew on the mounting slopes: some in intimate compactions and others isolate and lonely. Outside Vail the now-excited group passed above the Eagle River whose sage-green flows flared into tufts of whitewater as they raced past boulders in the riverbed. On one bank of the Eagle some partially dried out bushes reminded Skylar of wickerwork and others, completely desiccated, looked long dead, while on the other side, at the foot of the mountain, a thick fringe of foliage hung lush over the water.”
“My laboratory was also that of an alchemist, and from my stored treasures I sought, as he once had, the materia prima, whose discovery would bring the Great Light to my being. My alchemist worked with the physical elements of my body and the ideational vapors of my mind. In his retorts and alembics could be found, in bubbling boil, the four humours: black, earthy, irritable, and melancholic bile and its xanthic cousin, fiery, angry, and choleric; sputum-clear phlegm, watery and calm, and red, aerated blood, amorous and sanguine. Across many pages of rubricated and miniated manuscripts were written events and memories from the present and thousands of past lives. From scriptures hoary and foreign, from poesy of the sojourners of kef, from stray secrets captured from the mouths of hermit saints, the alchemist worked. From oiled visions of masters, from the stark dreams stolen from their wandering nights and carried back like pillage by a bloodied warrior, from woven multiverses and figures of gods and their consorts sculpted from aromatic woods, he sought in urgency, even desperation, for the required answers. Wandering into tangled, clinging, sweating, howling jungles, and struggling to stroke over watery walls the height of buildings, swallowing briny mouthfuls, fearing circling fins as slimy forms slithered past his legs, he searched for the alkahest, that pure solvent able to dissolve every impurity in man and object, leaving only the pure, the true, the divine. No aqua regia would satisfy him. The search must yield perfection or must fail. In his laboratory, my alchemist would discover the quintessence of life or die bent over rows of fuming elixirs, canisters of terrene matter, beakers of foaming solvents, carboys of corrosive agents, and crucibles of glittering powders.”
“From the first, it was obvious that they would not interact as males and females typically did. With her there was no formality, only an easy being-together straightaway. Other people seemed to lurk back somewhere inside their faces, to be removed at least one step from Skylar’s being, but Ilona shone right there, directly in front of him, unmistakable for who and what she was. Others were in costume—only rarely did one meet the actress without her makeup, elegant gown and shawl tossed aside, so that one could see the blemish by her nose, the perspiration on her brow, and the run in her stocking. Ilona strode boldly into the world unclad. She may have worn a skirt and blouse—contrary to her natural preference for feeling the elements against her sense-acute body—but she still traipsed the living earth in spiritual nakedness.”
“Angled rock faces formed immense rusty nuggets. Low, shallow formations could have been Aztec pyramids. A Parthenon in red ochre stretched far across a mini-plateau. Talus-skirting fringed great tables of sandstone. A sphinx figure towered over what looked like an ancient city’s battlemented walls. One of the most unusual carvings showed a Chinese warrior with his long, thin beard and top-knotted hair. Paired with this soldier was a helmeted Spanish Conquistador facing in the opposite direction. A box-shaped, golden-ochre butte had at each of its corners a telamon in the form of a saint with crossed arms and benefic smile. One skyscraper-sized and pinnacled monolith had wheaten horizontal stripes and must have stood over a thousand feet tall.”
“People like Isabella, Melvin, Soyala, and Skylar had been invited to the Prince’s ball all right, but as wallflowers, strays, and stags. The newcomers, like adjunct lecturers alive with dazzle and flair, had a real but short-lived effect on the University. The interlopers appeared on campus like vibrant and unusual posters for a theatre production: ephemerally delightful but soon papered over. Skylar knew himself to be a guest, someone granted temporary lodging at the great institution, whereas the sons and daughters of the social aristocracy were its natural denizens. These clear-skinned and well-coiffed fortunates, in their Topsiders and bronze corduroy trousers, their crew-necked sweaters, fine-napped pants, and sheeny pumps, symbolized the ivy that grew into the very mortar of the old buildings and the patina whose accretion painted brass fixtures with mint-green ferns and transformed copper downspouts into works of jade. Skylar and his ilk may have been fragrant and colorful annuals in blossom, but the children of the upper class rose tall like the oaks, elms, and plane trees rooted deep in the campus ground, which had watched over the school for centuries.”
“The United States had supposedly turned its back on the old-country ways of class stratification in favor of equality; hence, it could never, in good conscience, acknowledge any system in the country that smacked of aristocratic privilege. So the wealthy gave lip service to upward mobility and told stories of walking ten miles in the snow to school as part of the propaganda intended to reassure the masses that big-stakes poker is played in America with a fair deck of cards and no sleight of hand. Every story of a millionaire shared the same script: a hard-working, never-say-die adherent of the free enterprise system clambered over every obstacle put in his way, survived the days when his empty stomach growled at him, and finally pulled his way to the top. The wealthy elite relished these homilies about success, for they convinced average people that, indeed, all opportunities remained open to them and that victory depended almost entirely on their own efforts. The reality behind the scenes contradicted this facade. The game was rigged; the deck, stacked; the rules, bent; and the big-stakes players, in cahoots with one other. In reality, a single phone call accomplished more for the right caller than a year’s worth of research for the unconnected investor. In reality, the early stockholders defined preferential terms for themselves guaranteeing that they would wind up in a far more lucrative position than the electrician who bought common stock with the hope of putting his children through college. In reality, the local politicians, their tongues loosened by the passage over them of too much vintage Bordeaux in the course of a country-club dinner and their spirits of sharing encouraged by preferred stock to which they were sometimes given access, divulged the routes of new highways to real estate magnates who, the next day, bought cheap properties in what later proved to be perfectly chosen locations.”
“On Christmas Eve, they took both cars to St. Dunstan’s for the candlelight ceremony that in the latter years had survived, with Easter, as the only occasions when any of the family attended church. Heavy snow fell as they drove, transforming the earth and its accretions in the celestial fashion that it often does. For it muffled the harsh noises of the earth-man and rounded the sharp edges he had laid down on the land. The snow made carefree children out of careworn adults, caused self-conscious teenagers to instantly lose a decade of emotional maturity, and introduced adventure into the most prosaic of routines. After the service they emerged from the small church, festooned with evergreenery and illuminated with the palpitant shivers of candlelight, into the wakeful, expectant, chill air of that night so tantalizing to children around the world. They could not only see their breath in this air but blow smoke rings with it. The women clutched at the sleeves of the men to prevent themselves from falling on the snow-covered walkways, and the men waited to reach a respectful distance from the sacred structure before initiating a snowball fight. Keats, always a good pitcher, caught Skylar squarely in the chest, leaving an icy cloudscape impression on his London Fog trench coat. Skylar retaliated with a hard-thrown but poorly aimed missile that flew past his ducking father and struck Elsa in the back. Throughout the laughter-scored battle, Pearl kept warning everyone to watch their footing to avoid a fall, to protect their eyes and head, and to keep dry so that they would not catch a cold for Christmas.”
“But the finest visual treats were those furthest removed from the travelers’ point of vantage. In the distance, shimmering in that soft, other-worldly light which dusk sometimes brings, gleaming in palest silver and chastened white, loomed a vast temple structure part celestial and part chthonic: a building of rock reminiscent of Karnak, Angkor Wat, or Konark in majesty and expanse. This temple, topped by twin domes, could only be entered through a five-story, semicircular-arched gateway. Cylindrical buttresses extended out from its visible side and a flat-pitched roof covered the structure’s far end. Graceful twin columns climbed up the building’s left side. And an unblemished sheet of sky, of the palest gray imaginable, backdropped the colossal creation.
“Eternity, like the peek-a-boo morning sun, clasping the horizon’s brim, had been close to bursting forth in all its auroral, igniform, blind dazzle. It had lurked just beneath the edge of his world, like an actor straining to hold himself back so as not to make a premature entrance, ready to set the surrounding space on pink-fire and nectarine and orange sorbet and flamingo and canary, prepared to instantly exotify clumsy stratocumular mounds by electrifying them, pumping into them, in a matter of moments, massive quantities of transformational pigment, transfiguring monochromatic tails of cirrus into fiery arabesques and flourishes worthy of a celestial abstractionist master.”
“With her knack for doing the right thing, Ilona made this moonlight dance easier for him than it would otherwise have been. Rather than immediately facing him, proposing herself as his partner in dance, she instead began her own movements ahead of him, so that she did not see his. In this way, he could take guidance from her, find his own rhythm, and not be concerned with the impression his clumsy efforts might make.
“She, of course, was destined for a night like this one. Lithe and gracile, she skimmed over rather than trod upon the ground. Not a trained dancer, she nevertheless possessed such comfort with her body and felt so integrated with nature that she stepped, jumped, and spun as if extensively rehearsed. Ilona bent forward at the waist and, with both arms moving inward from the sides, appeared to gather up the magic light through which they moved. Then she pirouetted and, with out-flung arms, released the breast-held light up into the tree limbs. Sometimes she circled at ever-increasing speeds, round and round her own axis as well as that of a central stone that was the focal point of their dance. Her arms floated high, lifted by some buoyant force, then gradually descended until they came to rest at her sides. Twice she stopped in place and sprang into the mystic air, hands aloft, cutting through the moonlight like a diver completing a smooth entrance into the water.
“At first, Skylar was at a loss what to do. Nothing in his experience even remotely prepared him for this moment. He had lived an outward life of supreme rationality and was now being asked to become a primitive. His days had been routinized like an inmate’s, and he was now being offered the chance to simply be— in pure spontaneity. He had survived only by knowing what was acceptable and expected and adapting himself to those norms, and he was now being handed the freedom to dance wild and naked under the moon, like a Neolithic shaman.
“This girl, however, liberated him in ways he could not have imagined possible. Because she loved, because she supported and encouraged him, he never felt in her presence the caustic self-doubts that arose while in that of others. Her character functioned like a solid foundation on which he could experiment with new behaviors without having to worry about falling into a dark hole. Although unconscious of the ability, at least he did not think of it as such, Skylar had always possessed clear and immediate intuition about what others were thinking. While the true signal-readings were often distorted by the interference of his neurotic noise, they were still there, in the midst of that garble, accurate and complete.”