AN UNFORGIVING LAND: BIG MOMMA
“All real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival. Communities are not produced by settlement or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle.”
-Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man
Burning Man. Black Rock City. Sixty thousand artists, hippies, punk rockers, and San Francisco tax accountants going insane in the depths of the Black Rock Desert. Once a year in the heart of that vast, flat, lifeless expanse of baked clay and blowing sand known as the Playa, the third largest city in Nevada springs up for a period of one week. Like many of that state's cities, its purpose is pleasure. Unlike many of Nevada's cities, that pleasure comes from free sex, extensive hallucinogen use, and burning things as opposed to gambling, whoring, and firearms. It is a unique place in a unique place in a unique place. It has its own rules and social structure. It is its own religion. It is not safe. It is not supposed to be safe. Outside of certain rumored celebrations in Central Asia involving kites, razor wire, and boys under eleven, it is the most dangerous art festival in the world.
The inhabitants of the town of Hualapai also attend Burning Man. They have their own camp near the festival's dense, urban heart. It is an easy camp to spot. It is the only camp filled with people who look like they actually belong in the Black Rock Desert. Their well-maintained fifth wheels and RVs are festooned with antennas, solar panels, and extendable windmills. Their sandrails and quads are worn, but well maintained. They dress in light but sturdy tan clothing the same color as the dust that invariably works its way into everything on the Playa. The people themselves are lean and deeply tanned, with hard eyes that both miss nothing and give nothing away.
The local's camp doesn’t get a lot of visitors.
Most of the Burners figure that the locals came to the festival to freak watch. Which is true. They just don't watch the freaks that outsiders assumed they watch.
Hippie, Two Crows, and Uncle Hank sat on comfortable lawn chairs on the side of the camp that faced the road. From there they had an excellent vantage point from which to view the comings and goings of the festival. In the local slang this is known as “titty watching.” And, indeed, there were a lot of topless young women walking past, covered in mud, painted, tattooed up, or all three depending on their personal taste and general level of pharmacological contamination. To the casual observer it would appear that the three weathered men were peering at them with a disturbing intensity. A less casual, more alert observer might notice that that the three men weren’t so much staring at passersby as into them. Which, to any sane person, is much more disturbing.
The lilting sound of Ozzy Osborne’s voice filled the air as the Scarred Girl opened the door of Hippie’s camper and stepped gingerly out onto a set of folding metal steps warmed by the sun. Completely filthy, incredibly pregnant, and totally serene, she selected a pair of mismatched flip-flops from the chaotic pile of footwear Hippie left heaped up to one side of the door, and waddled over to where the three older men sat peering into the crowd of anonymously individualistic San Francisco freaks. She pushed aside Hippie’s long, scraggly gray hair and placed her hand tenderly upon his shoulder. He patted it affectionately, but continued starring intently into the crowd.
No one knew where the Scarred Girl had come from and no one had asked.
Whether Hippie had gotten her pregnant or she had arrived pregnant was nobody’s business. Although she had once obviously been beautiful, her face was now a ruin of scars and gashes. She seldom spoke.
“Look over that way.” Hippie said after a few minutes. “That’s one of them over there, isn’t it? One of those happy devils you been talking about.”
The other two men followed his finger in the direction of a young man about ten yards away. He was walking slowly and serenely through the crowd of Burners, his facial muscles completely slack and his hands moving gracefully back and forth in a motion that wouldn’t have been out of place on sea creature. It took considerable attention to detail to notice that his feet weren’t touching the ground. He walked calmly along atop a half-inch cushion of air, as if he were a slow motion track on some DVD.
Two Crows nodded his head yes, then no. “Yes. That’s one of them, but not any sort of devil. That’s an Ancestor. It just likes to walk around and observe. It won’t use its host too hard. He'll wake up in a few days thinking with a mild hangover."
"An ancestor? Is it one of your forefathers?" asked Hippie.
The big man shrugged.
"I still say that they're devils…"
"There's a fine fucking piece of work." interrupted Uncle Hank. He pointed to a filthy man scuttling along in an almost canine gait. "That's a Koosebu Etza'a. A Dust Coyote."
"That's not how you say it." Two Crows muttered reproachfully.
"Doesn't matter how I say it." He shot back. "I know what IT is. Now that thing's gonna ride its host hard. Assuming the poor bastard doesn't die of dehydration or sunstroke in the next couple of days, he's gonna come out of it thinking that he's been on the worst crack bender of his life. Every inch of his body's going to be covered in road rash, he'll have dirt ground into places he never knew you could get dirty, and probably a nasty case of the clap to boot."
The old man stood up.
"Hey! Hey you!" he shouted at the Dust Coyote. "Pea Sakwa'eta'a!"
"'Your mother is a very fat and dirty man.'" Two Crows sighed. "You know, there are classes you can take at the reservation..."
"Will that help improve my cursing?" the old man interrupted.
The man turned, cocking his head sidewise as he did. Though obviously tall, he was bent so far forward that his spindly arms swung close to the ground, causing handfuls of long, filthy nails to scrape against the earth. It was difficult to make out his features. Dust seemed to hover around like naked body like some sort of brown force field, obscuring any attempt to make out the particulars of his person. Then the obscuring cloud around his face wavered for a moment, allowing a distinctively canine muzzle to emerge as if from a pool of stagnant, brown water. It opened its jaws, revealing a row of jagged, yellow teeth.
"Nemaggooma tabebo'o!" the man-thing hissed back through its inhuman maw. "You lie white man!"
Two Crows chuckled.
"No," he said in reply to Uncle Hank's question, "but you'll be able to pronounce the words properly. His Paiute really is a lot better than yours, Hank."
Uncle Hank threw his beer bottle at him. It bounced off the Dust Coyote's head.
"Tubbea!" he shouted as the possessed man scampered away with an inhuman squeal.
"'Scatter like dirt.'" Two Crows grunted. "Well, that's at least funny. Even if you did use the word wrong."
"That'll teach him to talk better than me." Hippie gave Uncle Hank a bemused look, but the old man took it the wrong way. He was oblivious to his own bad grammar.
"Hey, it's not like the actual guy knows how to speak Paiute, for Chrissake. That's the spirit thing talking through him. How am I supposed to compete with that? It's not even supposed to exist, let alone be bilingual."
Hippie nodded gravely. "You're right. That hardly seems fair."
The Scarred Girl tapped lightly on Two Crows shoulder. She pointed out into the Playa where a large dust devil was making its way purposefully toward the festival. As they watched it struck the outer perimeter of Black Rock City, causing a flurry of poorly secured pup tents, random trash, and badly stored picnic items to spray into the air amidst a symphony of screams, laughter, and curses. It was moving directly toward them, its howl becoming louder and louder as it approached.
"On Shit!" muttered all three old men at once as the Dust Devil shot past the local's camp to crash into a nearby cluster of tents. It hung there for a moment as if caught on something, then began to spin even more furiously. Like a trout on a line it thrashed about, sending a geyser of newly purchased Big 5 Sporting Goods camping gear in every direction. The three old men clung to their sun hats and covered their eyes as a spray of fine dust crashed over them, following by a burst of wind that knocked them over backwards in their lawn chairs. The Scarred Girl was saved from a nasty fall only by deliberately laying on the ground, where she wrapped herself about her unborn child in a gesture of protection. The sky grew black. Small stones began to fall on them like rain; not hard enough to cause genuinely injury, but painful and shocking in their suddenness. A brief downpour of sticky, rancid mud that stung when it came into contact with the eyes followed this unexpected onslaught. It left everything within 500 yards of the dust devil smelling like a beached whale for days afterward.
Then all was quite.
Two Crows wiped the reeking crud from his face with a look of utter disgust. He quickly rose to his feet, pulling a cursing Uncle Hank up with him. Hippie helped his woman stand. The dust devil had vanished, leaving only destruction and a perfect circle of stench to indicate that it had ever existed.
"Do we run now?" asked Hippie. "Or do we wait for Her to show up first?"
Uncle Hank and Two Crows glanced at each other, and then broke into a mad dash for Hippie's trailer. All around them locals were bailing out: driving away on quads, slamming and locking the doors of their fifth wheels, or simply picking a random direction and running toward it. The two old men didn't even bother to try to get inside of the beaten up old Airstream Overlander. They slid under it like Babe Ruth hitting home plate. Their longhaired friend wasn't far behind. The Scarred Girl was forced to worm her way after them, huffing and puffing as she shoved her pregnant bulk underneath an axle.
"What?" she asked the three of them angrily.
Uncle Hank pointed in the direction of the smashed campsite where the miniature tornado had just touched down.
A figure rose slowly, phoenix-like from the remains of a shattered dome tent. She was tall, but not unnaturally so, with a waifish figure and long blond hair that hung down in casual tangles. As they watched she tore away the remnants of a tie-dyed sundress to reveal a pair of small, perfect breasts and a public region devoid of hair. Unlike everyone else within several block of Black Rock City she was impeccably clean. The Scarred Girl imagined that she smelled like sweat mixed some kind of expensive cologne - probably an Ambery or Fougere. She pictured how intoxicating the woman would smell, how smooth her skin must be to the touch, what her mouth must taste like…
The Scarred Girl shook her head violently, forcing the visions out. Uncle Hank chuckled evilly.
"Turning you dyke already, is she? Imagine how we feel."
Without even the slightest hesitation the slim woman walked directly into the confused, malingering crowd of Burners still wiping sour mud off of their bodies. They were helping one another up, and being a bit touchy-feely about it even by their own admittedly libertine standards, the Scarred Girl thought. The slight woman walked directly up to a large, handsome black man in a sarong and whispered something in to his ear. He looked at her in surprise and then, after taking a sudden deep breath, nodded his ascent. The two of them vanished into the crowd.
"Who was that?" she asked in bewilderment.
"The Devil." commented her man with complete sincerity.
"One of the old gods." Two Crows answered with a slight hint of reverence in his voice.
"Some bitch that shows up once a year to fuck people to death." Uncle Hank rolled over onto his back, straightening his trousers without standing up. "Big Momma. Thank God she doesn't come around any other time of the year or Hualapai would be a ghost town. It's not like there's enough women to go around in the first place…"
A sandaled foot cut off the old man's words by tapping him lightly on the head. Next to it was another foot, similarly attired in $120-a-pair Birkenstock mocha suede. These were flanked on either side by pairs of very large hiking boots. Uncle Hank scrambled out from under the Airstream with a particularly complex and vile curse. His companions chose to stay where they were.
"My mother? Really?" commented the owner of the expensive sandals in a slightly amused tone of voice. "Well, possibly she may have in college. I'm pretty sure that my father wouldn't have asked her to do any such thing. He was uniquely unimaginative in that department."
"What the hell do you want Oberon?" snarled Uncle Hank as he futilely wiped dirt from his filthy clothing. "Can't you see I'm busy trying not to get killed?"
Harlan "Oberon" O'Brien was the founder and spiritual leader of Burning Man. He wasn't a tall man, but he radiated a kind of cool, aloof confidence that caused a lot of tough men to call him "boss" from pure instinct. This was particularly remarkable when one considered the fact that he wore white dashikis, sandals, and a fanny pack everywhere he went. He looked kind of like a cross between George Carlin and Zeus, only not as imposing as either one. The colorless dashiki was his "thing," king of like pajamas are Hugh Hefner's "thing," only not as cool. Oberon wasn't sexy to anyone who wasn't flying on three hits of X or getting paid. Which was all right with him. He was a millionaire constantly surrounded by sexy things flying on at least six hits of X. With evil old Anton “the Black Pope” Lavey in the ground, Uncle Hank figured that he got his dick sucked by more teenagers than any cult leader currently alive.
Enormous hairy and bearded Black Rock Rangers flanked Oberon on either side. Dressed in their official khaki Steve Irwin uniforms, they looked like grizzly bears that had been shoved into Boy Scout outfit's two sizes too small for them. Their massive thighs and barrel chests threatened to burst out of the restrictive confines of their clothing at any moment. Hank knew that they had no real authority. They were "non-confrontational community mediators." But being the size and shape of primordial giant sloths didn't hurt their non-confrontational mediating skills any.
"I don't care if you get killed or not." snapped Oberon. "What I care about is my people getting wasted by that supernatural bitch each year."
"Don't bring them out here then. Shit, Harlan, my first wife left me too. You don't see me dragging 50,000 hippies out into the desert each year, do you? Get over it."
Oberon's face became a snarl. It had been a particularly rotten thing to say, but old Hank had had a bad morning and he didn't really care. Harlan O'Brien's wife had left him 20 years before, taking their infant son with her. A couple of days later a hit-and-run driver on Highway One killed both of them down near Aptos. Crushed with grief, Oberon had burned an effigy of the anonymous man who had slain his family on the beach with the help of a dozen of his friends. They got drunk and threw her belongings into the fire. That was the first Burning Man. It had grown exponentially until even Santa Cruz County couldn't tolerate it anymore. This was how it ended up being held on the Playa.
Oberon’s two ursine companions clenched and unclenched their meaty fists as if anticipating what it would be like to rip Uncle Hank into bloody little chunks. But the old man held his ground, returning their boss’s snarl with an imperious shit-eating grin that would have made old mad Doug Macarthur squirm in his kimono. Finally, Oberon relented with a sigh and a wave of his hand.
“OK Uncle Hank, I admit it: you’re a bigger asshole than I am. See? Are you happy now?”
The old man chuckled.
“Great. Outstanding.” Oberon continued. “Now that you’ve won a major moral victory over The Man, can we talk about what you’re going to do about the inhuman homicidal nymphomaniac that, even as we speak, is killing innocent people?”
“Do?” Uncle Hank scratched his ass through his pants absentmindedly. “Do? Why, I’m not going to DO anything. Screwing people to death is her gig. It’s what she does – and she’s been doing it since the Paiute showed up. Probably longer. My people know better than to go anywhere near her, and you only loose a half dozen or so to her each year. You probably get more ODs than that. Anyhow, most likely by the time you’re ready to burn your three-story wicker man, she’ll already have vanished. Melted into the earth, turned back into a tornado, or whatever it is she does. Then she won’t be either of our problems for another twelve months.”
“And it doesn’t bother you that she’s murdering innocent people?”
“Not really, no.” The old man answered flatly. “None of them are all that ‘innocent’ anyhow. And she was here first. The fact that she’s killing Californians seems like more of a public service to me. What are there what, like 30 million of you people? Seems to me you can spare a few annually.”
“Do you really hate us that much, Hank?”
“Yes! Well, no…” He shook his head as if trying to clear it, finally settling on a shrug to express his thoughts. It was a tough call for most Nevadans when dealing with their overbearing neighbors to the west. They despised them, but at the same time relied upon them for fiscal survival. Without tourism Nevada’s economy would die. Also, many Nevadans were expatriate Californians who had fled the more populous state for one reason or another. All of these factors worked together to create a sort of confused animosity that was difficult to express in words.
“Well,” Uncle Hank concluded with a sigh, “if you’re so damned worried about it, why don’t you take your freak show somewhere else?”
“I’ve been considering that. I’ve gotten a good offer from the folks out at Bonneville, but Flat Creek, Texas is already hosting one of our regional events. Everything we need is already in place there. There are some other locations I’ve been scouting out in Nevada, too. Goldfield maybe. Possibly Shurtz.”
Uncle Hank looked incredulous, but Oberon stared straight into his eyes with such intensity that the old man knew was he on the level. Oberon’s voice was steady, resolute, and totally devoid of bullshit.
“One third of your town works for me full or part time. Another third works for them in some capacity or the other. The final bunch is all people over 65. I'll pack up my ‘freak show’ and leave, but then what? What’s going to be left in ten years? Do you honestly think that dirt bikers, hunters, and the odd lost tourist are going to keep your little town alive?”
Oberon shook his head.
“This state isn’t as ‘silver’ as it used to be. Gambling’s getting to where it’s legal everywhere. The mines are either gone or going. The cattle business is a shadow of what it used to be. The Chinese have flooded so much garlic into the market that farming is dead in northwestern Nevada. It’s about the only thing you can grow up here with the limited water you’ve got.”
“That leaves you with us. Take us or leave us, but I’m sick of my kids getting murdered. You can stop that psychotic, slaughtering… whatever-she-is from killing any more of my people, and thus extend the artificial economic lifespan of your town. Or you can keep pissing me off, in which case I’m going to take my multimillion-dollar ball and play elsewhere. It’s your choice old man. I don’t entirely understand what goes on in this place – and I don’t want to – but I’ve got a pretty good idea that you, your idiot friends, and that sheriff who pretends to be dumber than he is have a handle on it.”
He jabbed his finger into Uncle Hank’s chest.
“Kill that bitch. I don’t care what you have to do to put her down for good, but do it. If you do we’ll stay and your ramshackle little town gets to live a while longer. If you don’t, we’ll leave and it will be just one more Nevada ghost town in the middle of nowhere.”
With that the founder of Burning Man turned and stalked off into the crowd, his two enormous retainers dutifully following along behind him like a pair of humanoid Great Danes. Uncle Hank sighed, then turned and dropped down on one knee so that he was eyelevel with Two Crows and Hippie.
“You heard?” he asked. They both nodded, and after a moment of silence both Uncle Hank and Two Crows starred directly at Hippie.
“What?” Hippie squeaked. The longhaired man seemed both confused and a little afraid. His friends chuckled evilly.
“I guess we’re going to find out whether or not Big Mamma is a devil after all,” replied Two Crows. “I hope for your sake that she is.”
* * *
Hippie lived his life in the shadow of fear. At first it had been fear of his father, the meanest backwoods preacher that ever thumped a Bible. That was replaced by a fear of the vast moral and spiritual vacuum that is San Francisco. It began sucking him into its depths roughly ten seconds after he began his short-lived Tenderloin ministry there. In the end that particular fear was replaced by his terror of the Devil. THAT was his big fear, and it had chased him all the way out here.
Like the Devil Hippie too had fallen. His journey made up in sordidness what it lacked in substance. From the seminary, to the bottle, to dope, to Grateful Dead shows, to the Black Rock. The experience had definitely been more Syd Barret than Dante, but the results were pretty much the same. Hippie had tumbled away from divinity like a rock. He no longer truly believed in God. The Almighty stopped speaking to him so long ago that, like a childhood memory which might have been nothing more than a poorly remembered TV show, he couldn’t decipher real memories from imaginary ones. He moved to the center of the Black Rock in the hope that, like some kind of Old Testament prophet communing in the wilderness, God and he could get back onto speaking terms. It never happened. The conversation remained strictly one way.
Hippie may have lost his faith in God, but he’d never lost his fear of the Devil. The Adversary remained terrifyingly real. It would have been hard enough to face Him when he was young, filled with the fires of conviction, and too stupid to be afraid. Back then he could have pretended he believed in the Almighty’s superiority to Satan and taken comfort from that. Now he knew the cold, hard truth. God had fled the earth leaving the Devil in charge of things. That Big Mamma was Satan (or some aspect of Him) Hippie never doubted for a moment.
He clutched his tattered Good News Translation Bible like a weapon. He had to clutch it. The binding had gone prematurely bad. The dozen or so glossy inserts of Jesus cuddling lambs, healing the lame, and preaching to blond, cherubic children on green hilltops had separated from the onionskin text. He was afraid that merely holding it would cause the pages to fall out. Still, it felt strange in his hands. He hadn’t needed to actually read it. He knew his Scripture – O Boy did he know it – but it had been years since he had done anything with it. Now he had to fight the Devil using a faith he no longer had. To make matters worse, exorcisms weren’t one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s theological strong points. They hadn’t exactly offered classes in it at the Seminary. He wasn’t even sure if what he was about to do qualified as an exorcism. It was kind of adlibbing, which was embarrassing. Of course, scripturally knowledgeable spontaneity in the face of evil was supposed to be one of a Baptist minister’s selling points. He was supposed to be “wordy,” as his mother would have called it. But, for better or for worse, Hippie was no Jerry Falwell.
His old man would have known what to say to the Devil. He’d have known exactly what words to use, which scriptures to quote, and how to bellow so effectively that Big Mamma probably would have fled back to whatever elemental demi-plane of lust and grit she came from. But Hippie’s dad was long dead. He’d keeled over from a heart attack while delivering a sermon about the Book of Job. One last “The Lord alone gives and takes.” and he was off to find out all about that.
Hippie lacked faith. This left words: frail and fickle things at best, unreliable and deceptive things at worst. And, since he was left with nothing but words, they had to be chosen very carefully. He considered them as he plodded through the festival, carefully stepping over tent stakes and politely ignoring the sounds of lust in a manner that was familiar to any veteran of Burning Man. He didn’t know precisely where Big Mamma had gotten to, but finding her wouldn’t be hard. All he had to do was follow the trail of corpses.
He found the first one in a lawn chair with a beer in his dead hand. Like most of her victims the young man wore an expression triangulated between ecstasy, horror, and longing. He also sported an erection that would last until it rotted off. Hippie patted the corpse’s head gently and then closed its eyes with his left hand.
“Our terrible sins oppress us, but you forgive us Lord. Please take this poor son into your bosom.” He muttered a bit absently.
The next corpse lay spread eagled on a sleeping bag spread out on the ground below a pagoda of billowing white satin. She wore the same expression of almost whimsical agony and delight as the other victim, and was so young and beautiful that Hippie couldn’t bear to look at her. He passed by without stopping.
It was the screams that finally led him to her. They were distinctly audible through the incredible cacophony of the festival if one knew how to listen. The low, almost baritone groans of Big Mamma and the enraptured cries of her victim were singular and carried over long distances. Weaving through a crowd of drunken, naked men clustered around a makeshift bar, Hippie tracked the cries to an enormous dome constructed from lengths of PVC and festooned with hundreds of multicolored ribbons. He pushed his way through the streamers. The inside of the dome was filled with hundreds of filthy, tattered stuffed animals of every conceivable sort. Teddy bears, monkeys made out of socks, rag dolls, and dozens of other creatures lay piled atop one another like dead Englishmen in a battlefield trench, a hideous graveyard of childhood dreams.
Big Mamma straddled a young, tattooed woman with red dreadlocks amongst the fallen furry bodies. Her face was a mask of pleasure as she began an ascent to orgasm so profound that it would literally shoot her soul out of her body through her cunt – where the demon hungrily awaited it. Hippie wasn’t sure how she did it. Biologically she shouldn’t have been able to, at least not with women… not that there is anything wrong with that.
The demon had grown in size. When Hippie had first seen her she was a teenage Kate Moss. Now she was a thirty-nine-year-old Anna Nichole Smith, fully transformed from desert aesthetic to high-end porn star. That was the ultimate horror, the true blasphemy of Big Mamma. She turned the act of love into a gluttony that consumed the soul, eventually transforming that part of us that is God into so much hip, tit, and (he imagined) eventually demon shit. It was what made her truly evil, as opposed to merely predatory.
Hippie pinned a tarnished gold cross onto the collar of his tie-died Ratdog shirt, held his threadbare bible before him, and cleared his throat.
She rose: terrible and beautiful, as old as the world when the Creator breathed life into the clay. The dreadlocked girl fell away beneath her, screaming in frustration and clutching at herself. She began to masturbate furiously as the demon strode slowly and seductively toward Hippie.
“Jesus said: When an evil spirit leaves a person, it travels through the desert, looking for a place to rest. But when a demon doesn’t find a place…”
He stammered to a halt. Big Mamma’s pheromones pushed out before her in a cloud, intoxicating him. His mind grew foggy. His movements slowed. The world began shrinking around him as she grew with every step, a massive fecund sun hovering over his grey and wrinkled desert.
“Your slaughtered god’s words mean nothing to me.” she murmured, her voice like silk and damp earth, rich and filled with animal sweat. “I was here before. I am here now. I will be here after. Once I gave birth. Now I devour. I will help you fulfill your animal self.”
Hippie felt the hard, strong, and unwanted erection of a fourteen-year-old swell inside of his baggy shorts. He had no control over it. He had no control over himself. He couldn’t budge. She was on him, all over him like every woman he had ever wanted, reaching down toward his penis. Then he thought of her…
He hit the demon on the side of the head with his bible in a spray of pages. Hard. Once. She paused for a moment, as if lost in thought, and he tried to scramble away. But his senses had been too dulled by her presence and he was old. She swung out a fist and struck him. It felt like the baseball bat a couple of shitkickers had used to work him over one night in Bakersfield. Very solid. Something broke, and he felt himself flying through the air into a rotting pile of stuffed animals. Purple spots swam before his eyes, but he could still make things out. The woman with the red dreadlocks squirmed along the ground, moaning and desperately clutching at Big Momma’s legs. The demon stroked her head as if she were a house pet.
“Was here before.” she said with more emphasis. “Will be here after. I hunger. I devour. Now!”
She took a step toward him, but then halted as the Scarred Girl stepped through the ribbons to stand between her and Hippie. His woman's broken features were a mask of rage. She placed her hands on her hips and glared at Big Momma, her vast pregnant belly jutting forward like an icrigger’s prow. The demon hesitated, seemingly more confused than anything else. She tried to look around the pregnancy as if it were a vast, impenetrable object hovering in the air before her. Then with an angry shrug she tore herself away from the supplicant woman and walked away through the ribbons, vanishing from sight.
The woman howled but the Scarred Girl ignored her. She leaned down and clasped Hippies head in her hands. The longhaired man’s eyes were crossed and he was breathing shallowly. A think trickle of blood dripped from one of his ears.
She was holding his still body to her breast and weeping softly when Uncle Hank and Two Crows found them.
“Well,” said the big Paiute after a moment’s silence, “that didn’t work out very well.”
“No.” agreed Uncle Hank in a grim voice. “It didn’t”
* * *
Two Crows Fremont had nothing to prove. He belonged here. His people (the First Men) had lived on this land since it had been born. Furthermore his great, great, great grandfather General James Fremont was the first white man ever to walk across it. He was thick and strong and had spent eight years in the Navy back when he was a kid. Now he was Hualapai High School’s gym coach, which was good. Two Crows liked working with children, and the town’s kids needed more coaching than most. Special things had to be taught when you were raised in the Black Rock Desert, and he didn’t trust anyone else to teach them to the next generation.
Two Crows spoke very sparingly. When he did speak he packed a lot of punch into his words. In his opinion, white people tended to babble a lot without managing to say much. The ones that lived out here were a bit better; but they still talked too much. English didn’t do a very good job of getting to the point. Well, OK, sometimes it did.
“Fuck no.” he told Uncle Hank. “I won’t do it.”
The old man sighed.
“Look Two Crows, you know that your Paiute is a hundred times better than mine. If it’s going to work, you have to do it. Christianity sure as hell didn’t work. I still can’t figure out why she didn’t kill Hippie and his woman. They should be deader than coyote scat.”
The ex-preacher had a nasty concussion but was otherwise unhurt. Uncle Hank had locked him and the Scarred Girl in their trailer under the watchful eye of Sheriff Sal, more to keep the girl under control than anything else. Hank didn’t want her stalking the festival in search of vengeance.
Two Crows shook his head. “She’s pregnant. Big Mamma can’t touch her.”
“Hummmm.” Uncle Hank looked thoughtful. “So there are certain people that she can’t touch, huh? Why?”
The big man shrugged. “Big Mamma is a whore. She works through fucking. If she can’t screw you, she can’t… see you, I guess. Certain people are immune. The unborn. Children. Some old people.”
“I’m old. Does that mean I’m immune?”
Two Crows thought about Uncle Hank’s frequent visits to the Wild Horse Cabaret and Spa just outside of Sparks, and then shook his head. “No.”
The old man sighed. “So, do you think you can do it?”
The two men stood at the center of the festival enjoying the sliver of shade thrown down on the ground by the Man himself. The huge, explosives-filled wooden figure towered ten stories above them, a pagan god tossed through time and space like a cultural lawn dart destined to land in the heart of the Playa. It didn’t belong there, yet it did. They were alone. That is to say that the two men were surrounded by thousands of others. Two Crows always felt alone when surrounded by thousands.
“No.” he replied. “I think that I will have the time of my life and then die. But I will try. Help me get ready.”
Uncle Hank unfolded the lawn chair that he had slung across his back. The big man dropped the duffle bag he was carrying onto the dust and settled into the chair with a sigh. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, and waking around the festival made his feet hurt. He removed his shirt while the old man began pulling various items out of the bag. Hank began painting the contents of various small vials onto Tow Crows, turning his face into a skull of clay and ash and his chest into a grotesquery of long, red “scars.” The effect was gruesome. The big man looked like a walking corpse. Uncle Hank then lit a tightly woven bundle of sage, tobacco, marijuana, and other herbs, stubbed its flaming end out over Two Crow’s heart, and began to “wash” the Paiute with its smoke in a specific, very ritualized manner. The big man began to murmur, rocking back and forth to some inaudible, hidden rhythm.
Occasionally a group of Burners paused to watch the two men working at their ritual, but they quickly moved on. Most were San Franciscans whose jaded attentions could only be held for any measurable length of time by colorful explosions, bloodshed, or extraordinarily deviant sexual acts. It was difficult for them to even notice an old man waving burning weeds around a chanting, painted native unless the two of them were either murdering or buggering one another.
Two Crows stopped chanting and stood. His eyes were rolled far back into his head, leaving only their whites clearly visible. Even though it was 90-degrees in the shade, he shivered slightly as if he were cold.
he spoke in a strange dialect of Paiute that was hard for Uncle Hank to follow.
“Just stay out of the way once you get the whole thing started.” the old man replied. “We don’t want to go looking for a new basketball coach.”
The big Indian turned without answering and walked silently into the crowd. He felt liberated, invisible in his death-trance. All around him thousands of Burners celebrated in a riot of colors, dust, paint, and naked skin. They were mostly young, fine-looking, and filled with that sort of buoyant enthusiasm that one only finds in people who’ve managed to avoid learning just how much life sucks. They rode past on bicycles and scooters, drove past on art cars modified to resemble every sort of animal or monster, or simply walked together in multi-colored groups, laughing at in-jokes stoked by psychedelic fires. There was an air of primitivism to the entire festival that Two Crows liked. There was also an air of desperation that he didn’t enjoy nearly as much. It seemed to him that city dwellers needed to learn to relax and take more pleasure in their daily lives, rather than compressing all of their recreation into a couple of frenzied weeks each year. It took all of the fun out of fun.
Yet as vivacious as the Burners were, they appeared nearly transparent to Two Crows. His eyes were attuned to another spectrum entirely, one that could not be seen through the retina. It could only be viewed from the bottom of the eye, and only then by people who understood the true nature of the world. Here and there the spirit creatures of the Black Rock Desert frolicked and fed amongst the unsuspecting revelers, catering to the needs of their kind. Murder Crows casting about for juicy souls filled with pain. Pronghorn Men on the hunt for willing females. Walking Scorpions on the lookout for prey. But he was not interested in any of these spirit tribes. He was looking for a Dust Coyote.
It took almost half an hour, but Two Crows found one of the filthy, spirit-possessed men rampaging his way through an empty campsite near the edge of Black Rock City. The thing had used its ragged jaws to tear through the unlucky Burner’s provisions. Cans of Spam, baked beans, Budweiser, and tins of sardines littered the ground around their encampment like a blast radius of garbage. When he arrived its face was buried obliviously inside of a bag of potato chips.
Two Crows looked about for a weapon. An empty forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor caught his eye. Picking it up, he realized that the brand was none other than Crazy Horse. The back of the bottle read “The Black Hills of Dakota, steeped in the history of the American West, home of Proud Indian Nation. A land where imagination conjures up images of blue clad Pony Soldiers and magnificent Native American Warriors. A land still rutted with wagon tracks of intrepid pioneers. A land where wistful winds whisper of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Custer. A land of character, of bravery, of tradition. A land that truly speaks of the spirit that is America.”
“What a bunch of shit.” thought Two Crows. Old chief Crazy Horse had hated alcohol. Naming a brand of beer after him pissed off the Lakota so bad that they had sued the brewery. It was pulled off the market years ago. How a bottle of the stuff had ended up out here was far more mysterious to Two Crows than coyote spirits, horny goddesses, or any other such thing. He wondered how the Burners in this camp had come up with it. They must have found it moldering away on the back shelf of a liquor store somewhere in Oakland or San Francisco. It amazed him that it was still drinkable after all of these years.
He shrugged. Life was mysterious. The bottle still made a good club though, and he began to systematically beat the hell out of the Dust Coyote with it. With the first blow to the back of its head the creature fell to the ground, curling into a fetal position in an attempt to protect its vital parts. A second blow to its spine caused it to begin crying – a strange, completely inhuman sound designed to summon assistance. Six more blows later it took the hint and stopped doing even that.
Two Crows continued to beat the Dust Coyote until the bottle actually shattered in his hand, spraying shards of glass and bits of rancid malt liquor all over both of them. Too frightened to rise, the filthy man continued to cower on the ground beneath him. Two Crows yanked free a length of rope from a nearby tent, tying it securely around the sobbing creature’s neck so that he could strangle it at a moment’s notice. He nudged the battered creature to its feet with his toe.
The Dust Coyote bobbed its head up and down in a pathetic attempt to please the big Indian, than scuttled off into the desert away from the festival with his captor in tow. Two Crows rolled his eyes down from inside of his head and looked up at the sky. A dust storm was blowing in from the west. It bore down upon him and his captive like a massive brown curtain being pulled across a vast stage hemmed in only by distant mountain ranges. He shivered again. The storm was like a huge knife slashing across the face of the desert. Two Crows knew that once its veil had passed across him he would be hidden to the inhabitants of Black Rock City, just as they would be hidden to one another. They storm would reduce visibility down to yards or even possibly feet. Being inside of a Playa dust storm was what he had always imagined being on the bottom of an ocean was like back when he was in the Navy: dark, heavy, and final. It was like that, only without the possibility of fantastical phosphorescent fish as entertainment. There were creatures with teeth in that storm though. Oh yes! Spiritual krakens and soul draining leviathans the likes of which that Jules Vern cat could never have imagined dwelt therein.
The storm engulfed them. The Dust Coyote was naturally enough unafraid of it, and seemed to grow a bit stronger in its embrace. He began to strain against his leash, pulling in random directions like an excited dog and seemingly immune to the effects of strangulation. Two Crows delivered a swift kick to its ribs. The creature whimpered, then began to head in a single, determined direction once again.
A huge, indistinct shape loomed ahead in the storm. It seemed almost organic, with vast, undulating curves that reminded Two Crows of a stranded whale he had once seen on a beach in the Philippines. The Dust Coyote towed him straight toward it, and as they grew nearer the shape he could see that it was one of the enormous canvas and steel structures that Burning Man allowed particularly resourceful and perverse groups of artists to build outside of their city’s limits. These temporary buildings were invariably abstract, obscene, and phantasmagoric creations. Pairs of naked breasts the size of circus tents, enormous erect phalluses like office buildings, spread-legged fat women the size of a bus, and the like. This structure was no exception. A naked and obese man the size of a suburban house emerged from the storm before him, pink and horrible. It lay half buried in the sand face down, its fingers grasping at nothing and its massive ass thrust into the air in a vulgar, piggish gesture of sexual submission. Its gaping mouth lay hungrily open, and it was through this orifice that the dust coyote dragged Two Crows.
The scene within was part Hieronymus Bosch, part Oscar the Grouch. Hundreds of plastic gallon bottles that once contained cheap vodka lay strewn about a “floor” comprised of bright polyester carpet of the sort low-end casinos in Reno throw out when they’ve been puked on too many times by drunken 70-year-old Chinese women. A disco ball of projectors suspended from the center of the fat man’s spine hurled a dozen random, disorienting images around the inside of the structure. They flittered across the floor, walls, and ceilings like desperate cinematic ghosts attempting to flee the scene of an aesthetic crime. Sex change operations, swarming insects, grainy 80’s pornography, music videos, and what looked like an episode of the Bob Newhart show swam into Two Crow’s field of vision, then quickly darted away. This grotesque apparition was backlit by a throbbing Rave music so bland and repetitive that it came close to shaking the big Indian out of his mystical trance. Perhaps it would have if it weren’t shut off seconds after he entered the building.
A group of Dust Coyotes emerged from a corner where they had been humping something pale and bloody that whimpered. It rolled under a pink canvas wall and was gone before Two Crows could get a good look at it. Others emerged from beneath rancid piles of empty bottles. They moved toward him threateningly, scuttling quickly out of his reach whenever he turned to face one of them, then moving back into position when he turned away to face another. He released his captive, who immediately joined his fellows in this bizarre kabuki of intimidation and terror. They behaved like what they were: a pack of dogs.
Two Crows was not afraid of dogs.
He hunkered down, drawing his arms close to his body and staring downward to create an impression of small size and humility. The dog-men scampered forward, waving their arms menacingly and snarling, then scampering back, then coming forward in a dance of nervous aggression. Two Crows neither moved nor made a sound. Emboldened, they came ever closer, almost touching him with their filthy clawed hands. Closer, closer, closer…
He sprang to his feet with a roar. The pupil-less whites of his eyes blazed against the deathly mask painted on his face. Grabbing the nearest Dust Coyote by the neck, he flung him against two of his fellows, and then kicked another in the jaw. The possessed men scattered screaming in every direction, their instincts seizing them in the overpowering grip of fear. With a chuckle Two Crows strode forward toward their monarch.
The king of the Dust Coyotes had been watching the entire proceeding with an air of distracted, lazy disinterest. He lay sprawled atop a throne of Stolichnaya bottles, his long legs dangling over one of its reeking glass “arms.” He clutched a blue bottle of Gilbey’s Sapphire Gin in one hand and a long plastic bong in the other. Though his facial features were indistinct, Two Crows imagined that the king looked bored.
The Dust Coyote King laughed.
While this was not strictly true and they both knew it, Two Crows let the comment pass.
Two Crows gestured widely about the structure to the empty bottles, gnawed bones, and torn, bloody clothing that lay strewn about it. The Dust Coyote king sat silently for a moment, absentmindedly tapping his bong against his throne. Then he set down the symbols of his office and rose. He spread his arms wide, leaned his head back on its long neck, and howled across the spectrum of sound and blood. Two Crows could feel the reverberation in his bowels and hear it in the bottom of his soul. When the Lord of Indulgence finished, distant calls broke through the rush of the storm to answer.
* * *
It didn’t take long for the Dust Coyotes to track down Big Momma. She was holding court in Cynthia’s Smut Shack, a camp in Black Rock City’s “red light district” – an area entirely given over to sexual pleasure. The “shack” was actually comprised of a series of interconnected geodesic PVC domes covered in old parachutes. Red and pink lights pulsated within, betraying dozens of hazy forms writhing just out of sight beyond the shack’s thin nylon walls.
When Two Crows and the king arrived the entire Dust Coyote tribe had silently surrounded the building. The storm made them all but invisible; there was little chance that anyone inside could tell that they had been encircled. After quickly assessing the situation, the Lord of Indulgence gave his orders. Two Crows wasn’t certain how he did it. There was no sound, nor any motions of the tall man’s arms. Yet all at once the possessed men used their sharp fingernails to sever the myriad ropes holding the shack’s linked structures to the ground. The storm took the parachutes away in an instant. Seconds later the PVC structure beneath them moaned and collapsed. Screaming, naked figures ran screaming in every direction at once. A moment afterward Big Mamma emerged angrily from the ruins.
She was even larger now, and angrier to boot: a hulking blond Chyna Laurer looking for an opponent to sexually smack down. Or simply kill. Two Crows thought. Even through the dust storm he could feel the wave of her mystically enhanced pheromones wash over him, drawing him toward her. The Dust Coyotes howled and moved in, forming a compact circle around the hulking woman. They linked arms, clinging to one another like frightened shipwreck survivors floating together on a shark-infested sea. Only rather than keeping killers out, they were trying to keep one in.
She paced frantically around the inside of the circle, seemingly unable to escape from the confines of nature’s most basic, womblike shape. The dog-men cringed as she stalked past but held their ground. Two Crows and the king pulled four-foot iron cement spikes loose from the ground. These were common items at Burning Man, used by nearly everyone as ultra-heavy-duty tent stakes. Grasping them with two hands like swords, they slipped between the linked arms of the possessed men and wordlessly rushed her.
Lust ran riot through Two Crow’s mind and boiled through his veins, but he bent his instinct to his will. He let it draw him toward Big Momma, let it animate his arms into motion. He screamed as he brought it down upon her back, staggering her. The desert goddess responded with a blow that could have floored a horse. He felt the warm, sickening sensation of his arm snapping as he hit the ground, his impromptu weapon flying away. The sudden pain shocked him out of his trance. He began screaming in agony.
She turned to finish the job, her enormous eyes filled with vengeance. That was when the Lord of Indulgence struck, driving the pointed end of his weapon into her side with all of his might. It bit into her perfect flesh like a sin. Now it was the goddess’s turn to scream, and even through the blinding red curtain of his pain Two Crows felt the sort of commanding sympathy for her that one might feel for an outraged lover. In spite of himself, he felt his body ineffectually try to get to its feet in an attempt to come to her aid.
With a four-foot piece of iron still protruding from her side, Big Mamma grabbed the Dust Coyote king by his neck with one hand, lifting him into the air with less effort than it took Two Crows to raise a bottle of beer to his lips. She drew the spike from her side and tossed it to the ground. Blood spattered from her wound onto the earth, and Two Crows felt the horrifying, inexplicable urge to lick her bodily fluids out of the sand. She drew the struggling dog monarch to her breast and placed her mouth over his in an involuntary parody of love. He continued to thrash about, his screams muffled by the hungry presence of her mouth, but his struggles became weaker with every passing moment. As Two Crows watched the obscuring, dusty cloud that was the spirit substance of the Dust Coyote slowly dissipated, drawn into Big Mamma through the hungry vacuum of her lips. Beneath this vanishing mist lay a lanky, confused looking man whose surprised eyes rolled desperately in their sockets. They looked pleadingly at Two Crows, and then finally rolled upward as the man went limp.
This double helping of souls seemed to reinvigorate Big Momma. The gaping wound in her side knitted itself together, leaving barely a scar to mark where it had been. She grew slightly, looking calm and composed as, still clutching a corpse in one hand, she strode over to where Two Crows lay squirming in the sand.
“I do not care about the white man’s cattle-god,” she purred in English, “and I do not care about what you think you know either, First Man. Tell the other mortals to leave me alone. I have a right to feed in this place!”
To punctuate her statement she drove her foot into the big Indian’s side. He felt several of his ribs break nauseatingly as her perfect toes bit into his flesh. Then she hurled the corpse of the Dust Coyote king into his followers, who broke from their formation to run screaming and weeping into the refuge of the storm.
* * *
Someone in town had to do the things that had to be done, even if it damned them. Uncle Hank was that someone. When the town needed someone to do something distasteful, illegal, or immoral so that everyone else could go to sleep at night and look at themselves in the mirror in the morning, he was that someone. Along with making crude sexual comments and running the bar, it was part of his role as the town’s “Uncle.” Another Uncle named had owned Hank's Hualapai Club when he was a young man. When he was gone, another Uncle would take his place. It had been this way for almost 140 years.
Some people thought the Uncles were sadists. That they did the things they did because they enjoyed doing them. Others believed that, since very few men were strong enough to carry certain burdens alone, Uncles ought to be the ones that bore them. Very few understood what it meant to be an Uncle. Uncle Hank had paid a heavy price for carrying Hualapai’s burdens. Sometimes it seemed to him that his entire life was nothing more than a bizarre series of horrifying images projected like a slide show in the back of his mind, visible only when he slept. The body of a rapist hanging upside-down in a deer tent. A severed head being gnawed on by wild dogs in a canyon. A part human, part antelope creature being tortured with jumper cables. A stillborn baby placed in a propane freezer. The last thing he wanted was another ghastly image slid into the carousel of his horrifically cluttered subconscious.
Still, Uncle Hank dutifully went in search of his son.
The boy’s mother had been a whore, drawn to Nevada by the promise of safe and legal prostitution. This hadn’t saved her when a drunk driver had cut across 447 in the middle of the night, totaling her car. Uncle Hank had been left to raise the boy alone. As much as he was capable of love, he loved that boy. Besides the club and the town, he’d been the center of the old man’s life: a friendly, precocious, miniature version of himself with all of the exhaustion and bitterness left out. That was why it pained him so greatly when he realized that his son was a faggot.
In retrospect he guessed that the signs had been there all along. A lack of interest in girls. A longing for the wider world. A certain instinctive distance between him and the town’s other boys. Still, the old man hadn’t put two and two together until the boy bolted straight for San Francisco’s Castro District after graduating from high school. He’d visited him there once. It hadn’t been as terrible an experience as Uncle Hank had expected, but he had never repeated it. His son had remained polite and deferential as the years past, but they were no longer close.
Hank knew he would be here though. Most of San Francisco was here.
His son relaxed casually on a folding recliner. He was a dark and incredibly muscular young man, with the sort of chiseled body that can only be obtained through a strict regimen of diet and exercise combined with a favorable genetic disposition. His handsome face was partially hidden beneath a pair of large, slightly effeminate sunglasses. He wore a martini glass, a jet black Speedo, and nothing else. A man who could have been his twin except for his tanned pink skin and white-blond hair lay on a blanket next to him. They looked like a pair of Greek gods on vacation.
The muscular young man lifted his sunglasses to peer up at his father. A surprised expression flickered briefly across his face, but was quickly replaced with the good-natured, slightly mocking look that Uncle Hank had long ago come to associate with his son.
“Hello Pops. What can I do for you?” His voice was slightly languid. The old man guessed that he was a little drunk.
“I need to speak with you.” he glanced at the other young man, “Privately. It’s town business.”
Uncle Hank’s son shot his companion an unfathomable look. The blond haired man shrugged, then stood up and walked away without saying a word. His son sighed.
“Ok, Pops, we’re alone. What’s up?”
Uncle Hank sat down on the recently vacated towel with a thud. It was warm and smelled slightly of suntan lotion. He looked up at his son. How in the hell did someone that good looking spring from his loins, anyhow? Though he had never met any of them, he suspected that the boy looked a great deal like the men on his mother’s side of the family. He could easily picture him making war on Cortez’s hard-ass soldiers armed only with an obsidian-tipped club and a leopard pelt.
Uncle Hand pushed that image out of his mind and got right to the point.
“Boy, you ever fucked a woman?”
His son blinked a few times before answering. “Uh, yeah Dad. A couple of times, actually.”
Uncle Hank nodded. “So you like girls, just not as much as you like boys?”
“Well… yes. Something like that.” He looked distinctively uncomfortable, but Uncle Hank barely noticed. It wasn’t his way.
“So, if your libido was a pie, how would you split it up? Fifty percent queer, fifty percent not? Or is it more like seventy-thirty?”
“Look, Pops, I don’t know what this has to do…”
“Just answer the damn question boy!” his voice softened a bit. “Please. It’s important.”
The boy looked bewildered, but nodded. The entire conversation was bizarre but, then again, this was the Black Rock. Bizarre things were the norm here.
“Honestly, it’s more like ninety-ten. Women just aren’t my thing.” he hesitated. “I tried a few times just to make sure.”
“So you find them a tiny bit attractive, but nothing more than that.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
The old man paused to think. It could work. The boy had the right combination of traits. He was strong, almost ridiculously handsome, and a fruitcake; but not one hundred percent. If his son was tough enough it might just work.
“Son, there’s something we need you to do.” Hank’s voice softened to almost a whisper. “We’ve got no right to ask anything from you, but if you do this for the town and for me we would be in your debt. If you ever wanted to you could come home, and nobody would ever say a word about you being a queer.”
The boy gave him a lopsided smile. He reached over and gently patted his old man on the cheek.
“Dad, nobody but you ever has.”
Uncle Hank blinked rapidly several times, but otherwise froze like a jackrabbit caught in a pair of speeding headlights. His son sighed deeply. It was a world-weary sound.
“Whatever you need, Pops. I’m your man.”
* * *
Some 40,000 people gathered to watch the Man burn that year. They stood in a vast, filthy sea of humanity around the inanimate wooden statue that was simultaneously their god, their demon, and everything they had come to hate about the modern world. They adored it. They despised it. And more. Every worshiper had his or her opinion about the object of his or her devotion. The faith was a very ecumenical one. Like an ancient Mediterranean mystery cult, it was primarily civic rather than doctrinal, practiced annually rather than continually. Anyone – Christina, Jew, Buddhist, or what have you – could also be a Burner. They need merely to be crazy enough to travel to the Black Rock Desert to participate in the yearly circumambulation of a burning effigy to belong.
This ocean of worshipers was held back from the object of their mixed emotion by a tiny but determined group of firemen, Nevada sheriffs, and Black Rock rangers, whose only desire was to keep particularly stoned and idiotic teenagers from unnecessarily incinerating themselves. For this they were widely reviled but generally respected. Thousands of Burners chanted lusty, good-natured insults at their would-be protectors as they called for the destruction of the towering, anthropomorphic monolith they had come so far to worship.
“Burn him! Burn the Man!” Thousands shouted through cupped hands, bullhorns, and art car mounted speaker systems that would be the envy of any downtown nightclub anywhere in America. “Burn him! Burn the fucker!”
Uncle Hank, Oberon, the Scarred Girl, Hippie, and Two Crows hung suspended via bucket truck hundreds of feet above the maddening crowd. Thanks to the hydraulic arm of its massive cherry picker, they had literally a bird’s eye view of the insanity that lay spread out below them. Hippie’s long, grey hair poked out erratically from between white bandages, while Two Crow’s arm hung limply in a sling next to his bandaged ribs. Yet it was Oberon who seemed the most irritated of the five of them. The burning of the Man was the culmination of a year’s worth of effort and planning. Incalculable amounts of work went into putting on Burning Man, and this single event was the climax of the entire festival. Screwing it up was amongst Oberon’s worst nightmares. If there had been room to pace around the bucket he would have been pacing. Instead he fidgeted and bitched.
“This plan of yours had better work.” He snarled at Uncle Hank for the tenth time.
“So long as your people have put everything in place – and do what we’ve told them - it will work fine.” he replied calmly.
Oberon motioned with his chin toward the old man’s two injured friends. “Hasn’t worked too well so far, has it?”
“Minor setbacks only,” Uncle Hank shrugged. “Hippie’s faith didn’t work. Two Crows’ wisdom didn’t work. That leave’s treachery, and I’ve forgotten more about that than you will ever learn.”
“No doubt,” Oberon responded dryly, but he turned his attentions back to the crowd below as a cheer rang out. A naked man carrying a torch burst through the mob, running at full speed toward the six-story figure at the very center of their world. He was naked, deeply tanned, and muscled like an athlete. The expression on his face was once of rapture.
“Jesus!” exclaimed Hippie. A moment later he added “Uh, sorry Jesus.”
“What he said,” agreed Oberon. “It’s like something out of the 1936 Nazi Olympics. Where the hell did you find a specimen of humanity that perfect?”
“I spawned him,” answered Hank, puffing out his chest. “What, you don’t recognize the resemblance? It’s pretty obvious.”
His four companions snorted at once.
A moment after Hank’s son emerged from the crowd a larger figure came out of the circle of humanity, shoving aside Burners or simply trampling them as she went. She was fully seven feet tall now, with filthy blond hair that flew out behind her as she ran: a colossal Mae West in pursuit of a tiny Cary Grant. Her long legs carried her along in tremendous strides as she pounded after Hank’s son, arms outstretched and her face a mask of desire. But the object of her pursuit had too much of a lead on her. He hit the base of the Man and kept of going, nimbly scaling a ladder to the effigy’s torso in spite of the burning torch in his hand. With a scream of frustration Big Mamma followed after.
“You’re a cruel man Uncle Hank.” commented the Scarred Girl with a chuckle.
“Ain’t I just?” he sneered back. “What, are you feeling all kinds of feminine sympathy for her?”
“Not a drop.” She replied, and he knew that she meant it.
Moments later, Big Mamma began a desperate ascent of the Man. There was a mighty rushing sound, quickly followed by a cheer from the crowd. A perfect circle of flame erupted around his base as hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel hidden in a trench ignited at once, bathing the massive wooden sculpture in light. To the crowd below this was a sure sign that The Burn was about to occur. To the luminaries above, it was the beginning of something entirely different.
“Come on bitch. Come on.” Uncle Hank snarled. “Be stupid now. Keep on being stupid…”
If Big Mamma noticed the circle of flame surrounding her she gave no sign. She just kept climbing, a lusty female King Kong ascending a wooden Empire State Building. Only her masculine Ann Darrow had no intention of waiting around for the biplanes to show up. He ducked inside of the Man through a door located right at crotch level. A second later he emerged, torch still in hand, out of another door at its buttocks and began descending down a latter along the back of its right leg. Oberon held his breath and raised a radio to his mouth. Big Mamma followed her prey inside.
Down below his two bearlike minions shoved a seven-foot lever downward with all of their might. A four thousand pound hardwood log broke loose from where it was suspended vertically in the center of the Man’s chest, slamming straight down into the tiny compartment in his crotch with a sickening crunch that was followed by an inhuman scream heard as far away as Spanish Springs. The mob cheered, thinking it all part of the show.
Hank’s son reached the base of the Man. With a dramatic flourish he turned and tossed his torch into the god’s leg. It began to burn.