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The sky went dark, rain fell in a sudden torrent, and a lightning flash struck the rock not twenty feet above me and blasted me from my handhold.
The mummy's flesh was desiccated, and it was salted with its own grainy dust.
Hula Ville
by James P. Blaylock

"… and the windows of the sky were opened."
When I was twelve years old, I awoke in the night to find a strange man standing at the foot of my bed, regarding me as I slept. Moonlight through the window cast what appeared to be the shadow of wings against the wall behind him. Instead of being terrified, I was filled with a radiant joy, and as he faded from existence it came into my head that I had been visited by an angel. The idea, you'll say, is absurd. I should have known a hallucination when I saw one, even at that young age. And I'll admit that the shadow on the wall might have had more to do with the moonlight and the shrubbery outside the window than with wings.

The mundane and rational explanation is perhaps always the most useful, whether it's right or wrong. It puts a safe and tidy end to otherwise incredible things: it was merely a hallucination, a shadow, a hoax, temporary insanity, swamp gas, a weather balloon—but not an angel. One can dismiss the very idea of angels and fall asleep. In the morning the sun will shine—no moonlight, no shadows.

But for a long time I lay awake, marveling at the angel, remembering the arch of its wings and the dim outline of the feathers, and it was gray dawn outside before I drifted off to sleep again, awakening hours later with the memory still going around in my head but tinged with a vague feeling of discontent. A door had opened on a mystery but then had closed before I had gotten a good glimpse at what lay on the other side, and I very much wished that it would open again—which is a little too much like wishing that a windmill were in fact a giant, and then having the wish come true.

· · · · · 

Twenty years ago, when I was living alone in San Bernardino, off Highland Avenue at the edge of the California desert, I spent my weekends driving through the Mojave or down to Anza Borego or up 395 into the White Mountains. I was looking for something—the Lost Dutchman's Mine, let's say—although only in a figurative sense. I was never that sort of prospector. I was haunted by the continual impression that something was pending in the small world that I inhabited at that time in my life, a world circumscribed by the open highways and starry night skies of the desert in a changing season.

I carried a book of maps titled California Desert Trails that I bought at the Hula Ville Desert Museum out in Hesperia one afternoon. The museum was marked with a big plywood sign—the cut-out, garish image of a hula dancer with the words "The Hula Girl" painted underneath. It came into my mind that this was the definite article, and I pulled off the road and into the empty gravel parking lot. A cold wind blew down off the hills, picking up sand in little wind devils and making the two or three acres of Joshua trees and yucca seem even more desolate than it was.

The proprietor, an old-timer named Marion Walsh, stood behind the counter in the museum itself—a bunkhouse-shaped building knocked together out of rough-cut lumber. He had written and published California Desert Trails himself—had drawn the maps and typed in the footnotes concerning UFO sightings and abandoned mines and other bits of arcane information about out-of-the-way desert places. I had the idea of working through the book methodically, page by page, covering all the ground.

· · · · · 

Some months later, on a cool November afternoon, page twenty-eight sent me out Highway 10 to Desert Center, where Route 177 angles away north past the Granite Mountains, a narrow, twelve-mile range of lonesome, rocky peaks. The southernmost peak, according to Walsh's map, was called "Angels Peak" because a storefront preacher claimed to have seen an angel there in 1932 and for a few years thereafter had led pilgrims from San Bernardino, Riverside, and Redlands into the area for baptism in a shallow pool among the rocks.

From the highway, the Granite Range is nearly indistinguishable from the hundreds of other dry ranges that rise out of the desert floor in that part of the country. I had often driven past it before without turning my head to look at it. On this day there were heavy clouds gathering on the Arizona horizon, and the radio broadcast flash-flood warnings across the Mojave and down into Imperial County. As I angled up 177 at Desert Center and got a good look at the sky, I nearly turned around and headed home. A storm in the desert can be a uniquely beautiful thing, although it can change the demeanor of the landscape in an instant.

· · · · · 

At the southern edge of the range, an overgrown and rutted dirt track winds back into the hills, quickly losing sight of the highway and climbing some five hundred feet before dead-ending at a rockslide. The road hasn't been maintained for fifty years, and there's nothing to identify it any longer—no marker and no highway turnout. Despite the map, I passed it twice before I got out of the car and began searching on foot, looking for the compacted and rutted soil of what had once been the road but was now overgrown with greasewood and scattered with boulders. The air was full of the scent of creosote and sage and the sound of the wind. Even in a pickup truck it was slow going once I left the highway, and it took me nearly fifteen minutes to drive the mile and a half around to the east-facing slope.

The map marked a place where a big Joshua tree hid a cut in the rock wall of the hillside. The cut begins as a little defile scarcely wide enough to pass through, but it soon opens into a narrow gorge that leads upward into a box canyon with steeply sloping rock walls. It's at the top of this hidden canyon, maybe a thousand feet below Angels Peak, that a stand of fan palms clusters around a natural spring that bubbles out of the mountainside, the water spreading out a few feet into a clear shallow pool before sinking away into the sand.

The spring itself, flowing out of a fissure in apparently solid rock, is utterly mythological, as if in some lost age a Moses wandering in the desert had struck the rock with a staff and water had issued forth. A profusion of desert primrose and paintbrush grow in the canyon, and a scattering of Panamint daisies a hundred-odd miles from their usual home to the north. There's a holy, lonesome beauty to the place, and a profound silence in the empty ridges and rocky peaks and in the deep expanse of the desert sky.

· · · · · 

I intended to hike to the peak above the spring, a climb that would have been unpleasant in the summer heat. From there I would have a panoramic view of the storm moving in over the desert, although I would have to hurry, because the sky was darkening at an alarming rate. I heard the sound of distant thunder about ten minutes after losing sight of the canyon, and within moments immense drops began to fall, scenting the air with the intoxicating smell of rain on dry stone. It would have been sensible to turn around and return to the car, given the ominous nature of the clouds and the solid chance that the storm would wash out what was left of the old road, but at the time I wasn't inclined to be sensible. What I was searching for I couldn't rationally say—gold, perhaps, or fool's gold. I stepped under an outcropping of rock and was sheltered for a moment from the windblown rain and then came out of it onto a high ledge that was completely open to the weather and sky.

I could see for a hundred miles around three points of the compass, and although it might have been my imagination, I fancied that I could detect the thin, blue, sunlit ribbon of the Colorado River away to the east. There were scattered clearings in the clouds through which the sun still poured its golden beams, illuminating ragged patches of the desert floor, the light quickly swept away by dark curtains of moving rain. Lightning flashed, striking the distant ridges and washes, and the sound of thunder rumbled more or less continually.

The peak lay hidden above, very near by my reckoning, and with the rain at my back I clambered upward in a crouch from boulder to boulder and across angled planes of decomposing granite, hearing sharp, successive cracks of thunder, much louder and closer now. I finally found myself looking out across a vast rock face cut with open fissures. The granite surface was rough, and there was only a small chance of slipping, so I stepped out onto it, finding fingerholds and toeholds in the cracks and craning my neck to see whether there was any hope of getting entirely across to a line of ragged crags just below the peak.

It was then that I saw an immense nest built in among the crags an a flat area partly overgrown with greasewood. It lay in the shelter of a deep overhang that was evidently the mouth of a cave, its entrance partly blocked by boulders. Through the blur of rain and shadow and brush, the nest was difficult to see clearly, but it was apparently woven of palm fronds and was as incongruous in that part of the desert as was the spring in the canyon below. It was large enough for a family of condors, but there were no condors within two hundred and fifty miles. I inched toward it to get a better view, making out what appeared to be the arch of a massively heavy wing, the rainwater glistening on feathers of burnished gold.

Above, in the hollow of the cave mouth and half-hidden by boulders, something moved—a man, it seemed to me, perhaps stepping back out of sight. I had seen him out of the corner of my eye, just a shifting image that might as easily have been the shadow of moving clouds. The rain stopped abruptly then, and the clouds parted, and in that instant the creature in the nest turned to face me. I saw that there was another next to it, and in that one brief moment of sharp, sunlit clarity, I believe I either lost my mind or recovered it.

The sky went dark, rain fell in a sudden torrent, and a lightning flash struck the rock not twenty feet above me and blasted me from my handhold. The crack of thunder was simultaneous, deafeningly loud. I slid away down the rock face, scrabbling with my boots and hands to slow my fall, the air smelling of ozone and gunpowder. The rain pounded down so heavily now that I was blinded by it as I lurched to a stop against a spur of rock, where I lay for a moment gathering my wits. The only safe route lay upward again, but when I reached blindly for the base of a nearby bush, I lost my footing again and fell, rolling onto my side, frantic to stop myself but sliding and tumbling uncontrollably for the last twenty feet before slamming to a halt on a sandy little plateau where a clump of brush was stalky enough to bear my weight.

I lay there dazed, having hit my head in the fall, aware but unconcerned that the rain was washing blood into my eyes and mouth. I was strangely at peace, no doubt because of the knock on the head, and I listened to the thunder recede into the west as the worst of the storm passed away overhead. How long I lay there I can't say, but it's certain that I lost consciousness or fell asleep. How I found my way back down to the spring is a mystery. I have only scattered memories—more like dreams than memories—a recollection of floating, of being carried. It's quite common, of course, for a concussion to cause delusion and a temporary lapse of memory, and certainly the most sensible explanation is that I climbed back down to the canyon myself before passing out again beside the spring.

When I awoke I was full of a strange elation, a joy that I hadn't felt since that nighttime visitation during my childhood. I washed my abraded hands in the spring and stumbled back down the trail to my car. The dirt track was all but washed out by the storm, and it was a small miracle that I managed to make my way across the rutted desert floor to the highway.

· · · · · 

The winged creatures that looked up at me from that nest in the crags had human faces, or at least that was the memory that possessed me when I awoke beside the spring in the hidden canyon, still picturing the creatures in my mind. The footprints in the sand beside me were half-full of sunlit water but there was no one besides myself at the spring and no sound except the splashing of water and the muted rumbling of distant thunder. Unfortunately there's no field guide that identifies the footprints of angels.

· · · · · 

It was the next February, under a bright, cool winter sun, that I revisited the Granite Range. I spent the better part of the day searching through the crags and canyons. There was no storm now, and the trek up to Angels Peak was comparatively easy. I couldn't find the nest, although I found a few dry shreds of palm frond scattered among the crags, as well as several long feathers that I took along with me as souvenirs.

· · · · · 

There's nothing unusual about finding a mummy in the desert, usually the dried body of a snakebitten prospector who had wandered too far out into the hills, the corpse air-drying for years in a tarpaper shack or a tin mine. There was an account of one in the Special Collections Library at the University of Redlands. It was in an unpublished history of Riverside County written by a woman named Maybelle Brewer, who was active in the Quill and Plume Society in San Bernardino in the 1930s. The history relates the story of a curious mummy discovered in the Kaiser Mine out near Eagle Mountain at the edge of the Joshua Tree National Park, perhaps ten air miles from the northern edge of the Granite Range. The mummy was taken, appropriately, to the Angels Rest Funeral Home in Desert Center, where it was warehoused "pending identification." It disappeared, however, on the same night that it arrived, almost certainly stolen by an employee, who disappeared with it.

With the theft, its existence ceased to be fact and became rumor, and rumor suggested that the mummy had leathery wings protruding from its shoulders, wings with the feathers still attached, and was about the size of a year-old child curled up in a fetal position. A reward was offered for its return. When it resurfaced years later in a Victorville carnival, the reward had long since been forgotten. The statute of limitations on stolen mummies turns out to be brief, even on mummified angels. Whether the winged mummy on display in the sideshow was the Eagle Mountain mummy remains to be seen, but it's probable that it was, and it's equally probable that it was finally sold to Marion Walsh out at Hula Ville some time in the late 1960s, along with the Hula Girl and other painted carnival signs and a small, gasoline-driven kiddy train, which Walsh set up behind the museum.

· · · · · 

Hula Ville is marked with a star on page eighty-two, the last page of the Desert Trails map, and there's a brief but glowing description of the place, written, of course, by Marion Walsh himself, along with a photo of a sign that reads, "Hula Ville, State Landmark # 939."

I drove back out there on a winter afternoon not too long ago, my first visit to the museum since buying the guidebook years earlier. There were the same couple of acres of Joshua trees and yucca, and the same plywood carnival signs and suspended bottles. Time and the weather had taken their toll on the place since my previous visit. The painted signs were faded by the desert sun, and the bottles were rainbowed and nearly opaque. Many of them had broken, and the glass shards lay in the weeds and gravel. Part of the museum roof had blown off, and scraps of ragged tarpaper fluttered in the wind. The kiddy train tracks still lay in an oval behind the museum, but the train cars were gone, all except the engine, which had been pushed some distance away and tipped over. A big tumbleweed had grown up through it. A pickup-truck camper was parked near the museum. There was a light on inside and the sound of a television through an open window.

I walked around, taking a look at the place, reading the grave markers on Boot Hill—Dead Eye Toby and Steam Train Wagner and Freeway Annie—allegedly the names of friends of Walsh who had died years back. There were half a dozen "gates" built on the property, although virtually no fences. I passed through all of the gates as the sun traveled down the sky. The idea of a freestanding gate appealed to me, calling up the suggestion of doors to nowhere, of windows in the sky.

After a time the curtains moved in the camper window, and then the television fell silent and Walsh came out. He looked older and just about as worn-out as Hula Ville itself. I asked him how he was doing, and he told me he felt a little "old-fashioned" these days. It was likely that he'd had a couple of drinks. He said he remembered me, though, from years back, and the fact that I had bought the book of maps, which he said was out of print now. I told him that I had worked through the entire book and had ended up back here, and he nodded his head as if what I'd said had stood to reason.

He showed me around, recollecting where he had gotten this or that artifact, describing the effect of desert sunlight on glass bottles and phone pole insulators, talking about the years he had spent as a card-carrying member of the Pacific Coast Showmen's Association back in the old days. It was evening, and the sun was setting over the hills. We sat in a pair of aluminum lawn chairs and watched the shadows lengthen, talking about places we'd been in the desert and what we'd seen there.

I told him that I'd spent some time camping in the Granite Range, and he assumed I meant the range up in the Mojave, near China Lake. "That's UFO territory," he told me. He had seen a few saucers himself over the years. One time out in Joshua Tree he had spotted three glowing disks heading due east, fast and low in the night sky. And then there was a time in Indian Wells when he'd seen moving lights circling overhead—some kind of Tinkertoy airship that hovered for a good ten minutes before lifting straight up into the sky and losing itself among the stars. He'd had plenty of time to take a photo, which he fetched now out of the camper. Like most UFO photos, however, it wasn't really conclusive. I couldn't tell the starship from the stars, and although he pointed out which were which, he might as well have been pointing out stars in a strangely shaped constellation. UFOs were like ghosts, he said—one of the things that people believe in and always have, even though there's no evidence of them nor ever has been. Which goes to show you, he told me, that evidence is overrated.

I thought about that one for a moment, and then I told him about the nest of angels that I'd seen out in the Granite Range, and my getting down off the mountain with no credible explanation aside from water-filled footprints in the sand. He shrugged. "Like I said," he told me, "you spend enough years in the desert and you see some things." He tended to think that a man shouldn't make too much of them, though, unless he had nothing better to do with his time. "I suppose that's why you came out here," he said. "You heard about my angel, didn't you?"

"Page eighty-two sent me out here," I told him.

"Same thing," he said. "You just want to look at him?"

"I want to buy him."

He thought about it for a moment, looking out at the hills. "Why don't you buy the Hula Girl?" he said. "We could tie her down on top of your pickup truck. You'd be happier with the Hula Girl."

"I didn't come out here to buy the Hula Girl."

"No, I don't suppose you did," he said.

We got up out of the lawn chairs and walked over to the museum. He unlocked the padlock hanging in the hasp and pushed the door open. When it jammed against the buckled floorboards, he yanked up on the knob and forced the door open and then found the light switch. The old displays of geodes and desert rose and petrified palm were covered with dust, and the newspaper clippings pinned to the walls were yellow and brittle—articles about silver strikes and UFO sightings and Vegas entertainers. There were a couple of dozen old perfume bottles, purple from years in the sun, displayed beneath glass along with the dried bodies of flies that had found their way under the glass and then couldn't find their way out. It came into my head that even the Hula Ville Museum had mummified over the years, but I kept the thought to myself.

"That's my wife's collection," Walsh said, gesturing at the perfume bottles. "She died back in '72 and I never remarried."

I nodded but couldn't think of anything relevant to say, so I stated the obvious: "She collected perfume bottles."

"Yes, she did. Everything else that she left behind I got rid of over the years, but I kept these as a display. Most people are fascinated by old bottles. Remind them of the past, I guess. That's why I kept them in the first place—something of hers to hold onto. After a while, though, it's just evidence that you can't hold onto anything, and then they're just empty bottles."

He opened a cupboard and hauled out a wooden case. Inside lay the mummified angel, visible under a glass lid. Walsh set it on top of the counter and stood aside. "Go ahead and open it up," he said. "Used to be sealed with rubber weather strip, but it dried out. Take a good look."

I opened the lid, letting the overhead light shine into the box. The mummy's flesh was desiccated, and it was salted with its own grainy dust. The shreds of dried skin still stretched over brown bone were striated like jerky. Broken feathers lay on the bottom of the box, still golden brown after all these years and nearly identical to the feathers I'd picked up out in the Granite Range. The wing bones showed through what was left of the skin and feathers. Its hands were drawn up into fists but hadn't quite closed, and I could see its overgrown fingernails. He was still curled in a fetal position, staring out of empty eye sockets at his own dislocated knees.

I looked closely at the joint between the wing and shoulder blade, searching for the telltale stitches that would be evident now that the body had decomposed. But there was no sign that the creature had been sewn together. Instead there were dry strands of connective ligament and pieces of flesh that made the wings seem entirely natural.

"It's no hoax," Walsh said.

"I didn't think it was," I told him.

"Is it worth fifty bucks to you?"

"What's it worth to you?" I asked him. Truthfully, I would have paid him more than fifty dollars for it, and it was certain he could use the money.

"Fifty bucks, just like I said. It was worth more than that once, but that was a long damned time ago. Just give me the fifty."

I counted out the bills, and we went outside. We walked to my truck, and he opened the door so that I could set the mummy's case in on the seat. I went around and climbed into the cab and put the key in the ignition. "Do yourself a favor," he said, bending over to look in through the rolled-down window. "Don't shellac this damned mummy and set up a shrine or something. And don't spend too much curiosity on what you saw up there in the hills twenty years ago. Whatever it was is long gone."

I thought for a moment about the dried-out strips of palm fronds and the feathers I'd found out in the mountains, the articles I'd cut out of newspapers over the years and the books I'd bought during my travels and underlined with marking pens. I nodded at him and started the engine.

"May it do you more good than it did me," he said.

I told him that I'd stop by when I passed that way again.

· · · · · 

Three miles down the highway my car died. There was the sudden silence of the engine shutting down, and the indicator lights on the dash came on. I realized that the headlights were dim as I pulled off to the side of the road, thankful for the moonlight. The battery was stone dead—maybe a bad alternator. I had no cell phone at the time, and still don't, and so I turned on my emergency flashers and sat in the silent car, considering whether to walk back up to Hula Ville or wait for a Good Samaritan to stop and give me a jump-start or a lift into town.

I turned on the dome light, which was flickery dim, and looked at the mummy. After a time, I got out of the car and opened the hood and then leaned against the front fender. The wind had died down, and the night was almost warm. Off to the west there was a glow on the horizon from the lights of Victorville, and the stars out that way were dim. But overhead they were bright, and an enormous moon was rising over the hills. I listened to the perfect desert silence and watched the sky for shooting stars.

A shadow fell across the fender, and I turned around, startled to see a man standing beside the car, looking at me. Where he had come from I can't say. There was no other car visible, and I certainly hadn't passed any pedestrians since leaving Hula Ville. There were a good three or four miles of open highway ahead before the rural route that I was traveling met Highway 15 above the Cajon Pass. Had he walked down from the highway? Heading where? Hula Ville?

"Where did you come from?" I asked. He was a big man, but in no way threatening. He didn't look much like an angel, but then neither did the mummy on the front seat.

He nodded his head in the general direction of the desert. "I thought maybe you needed a hand."

"The battery's dead," I told him. "I've got jumper cables, but if you don't have a car, then they won't do us any good."

He looked at the engine. "Give it a try," he said, so I climbed into the cab and turned the key. He was hidden by the hood, but through the gap where the hood was raised up away from the car, I saw that he had laid his hands on the distributor. "Go ahead," he said. I bent down over the wheel to see as well as I could and turned the key. A spray of sparks like a pinwheel going off shot out from under the hood. The engine turned over, and I gunned it a couple of times and then backed off slowly on the accelerator, feathering it a little bit to keep it from dying. When I was certain it wouldn't stall, I climbed out of the cab.

He was a good distance from the car now, a shadowy figure lit by moonlight, disappearing into the desert. Very quickly he was lost among the shadows of the Joshua trees, and the night was empty again and silent except for the rumble of the engine. I went around to the driver's side of the truck and got in, switching on the headlights, which were bright enough now to illuminate a mile of highway.

The wooden case on the seat was empty except for dust. I owned a fifty-dollar packing crate with a glass lid. I sat there staring at it for a long time then pulled back out onto the highway and drove home.

· · · · · 

It turns out that state landmarks, like angels and mummies, are prone to passing away without notice, and Hula Ville disappeared almost overnight a couple of months ago, replaced by a strip mall. I never did get back out there until it was gone, and I don't know what happened to Marion Walsh. The Hula Girl had been carted away, and the Joshua trees and gates and Boot Hill and hanging bottles had been bulldozed and buried beneath fill dirt pushed down from an adjacent hillside. The same tumbleweeds that blew through Hula Ville now blow across the hot asphalt of a parking lot.

The End

© 2004 by James P. Blaylock and SCIFI.COM