THE SQUID SISTERS - Part 2
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THE SQUID SISTERS – Part 2
After a week I was edgy and homesick and my stomach hurt: my sleep had been disrupted nightly by Penny’s heavy, restless limbs, and our 10 dollar a day food allowance was running out, allowing no more than cheap Tex-Mex and beer nuts. We’d been forced to borrow a few dollars from the other students, but we knew there were only three days left to get through - and there was still a hell of a lot of California to see.
Next day we made a long journey out to the sandstone canyons of La Jolla to see a science institute designed by Louis Kahn. In the intense midday heat we struggled up the steep steps set into the cliff to a plateau facing the Pacific. There on either side of a blinding white square were two solemn ranks of towering concrete monoliths angled towards the empty horizon, casting long shadows.
We wandered around for a while in silent contemplation. Rounding a corner I was surprised to find an elderly, silver-haired man sitting on the ground in the full sun with his head uncovered, his back against the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him, staring into space. He didn’t appear to see me so I sat down beside him, concerned for his welfare but also glad for the rest. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I live here. I’m just taking five.” “I wonder what the architect was thinking” I said, nodding towards our surroundings. The old man thought for a moment before saying “He imagined that this landscape was a lot like that of Mars before the planet dried up. (Their oceans evaporated, you know, and the clouds blew away into space, leaving the planet to the mercy of the sun. The same will happen to us one day.) Kahn wanted to give the impression of an ancient city built by visiting giants from another world who worshipped the sea. You’ll notice that down the centre of this plaza he incised a narrow channel of water leading the eye towards the edge. That’s because this space was designed as a runway for the Martians to launch their ships over the cliffs and into the sea, never to be seen again.” “Do you think they’d have survived under the sea?” “Hmm. I’ve often wondered about that …”
As he continued to stare unblinking into the distance the old man’s blue eyes started to cloud over so I shaded his face with my hand and whispered “Time to go in”. At that moment Penny walked across the plaza and I turned towards her. “Time to go.” She said. I stood up and followed her without looking back. I knew he’d be gone.
On day eight we abandoned the rest of the group, who’d decided to tour the United Artists lot. Instead we donned our dime store Stetsons and with Dire Straits turned up loud headed off into the desert like Thelma and Louise looking for Brad Pitt. (Penny had never seen Thelma and Louise, so she didn’t get it). Eventually we reached the Mecca Hills and drove through the Painted Canyon, where polychrome layers of siltstone, mudstone and shale laid down over millions of years have been kicked up by the San Andreas Fault. Even when I stopped the car the pink, grey, orange and green strata continued to snake and undulate in front of my eyes until they wove themselves into a striated carpet. It felt perfectly natural for me to step on and ride up into the thermals spiralling over the desert. Looking down, I saw the scattered puffballs of the smoke trees, a few bighorn sheep dining on cacti and even - from that height - the tracks of lone desert tortoise ambling unhurriedly along. I watched the tortoise for some time. She didn’t realise she was the last desert tortoise within twenty miles and her species was on a sure path to extinction. “You look tired” said Penny, stretching out a hand to bring me back down to earth. “Have forty winks while I drive.”
We were speeding through scrubland, miles from nowhere, when we started to smell burning plastic and noticed smoke pouring from the bonnet, so we pulled over to the side of the road to have a look. Some distance behind us a farm vehicle had also stopped. Two big men in overalls and shabby sweatshirts got out and came walking towards us. They looked dangerous. “Hi there”, I smiled ingratiatingly, hoping to deflect them from their evil intent. (Neither of us knew any karate). “Our car’s playing up and we don’t know what’s wrong. I wonder if you’d mind having a look? ” They stared at us long and hard before ripping open the bonnet, firing up the engine and testing the brakes. “That plastic smell” said the older one “is just your new car smell. Nothing to worry about.” “And the reason the car’s smokin’”, said the younger one, “is you’ve had the handbrake on for the last fifty miles. Y’all have a nice day.” They sauntered back to their lorry, grinning at each other, and we gathered ourselves together. Penny released the hand break and we continued on our journey.
It didn’t take long for us to realise with growing unease that we were well and truly lost in this featureless landscape, so it was a relief to catch sight of a stretch of water in the distance. Getting nearer we noticed a silvery shimmering above its surface, and as we approached we saw this was no ordinary lake – this was a wide white plain of crystallised salt: translucent and scaly as a snake’s cast-off skin, and just as menacing. We’d arrived at Badwater Basin, Death Valley. It felt like the end of the world.
At the edge of the salt flat, looking out across waters that were no longer there was an unprepossessing café which, we were surprised to discover, was packed to the rafters with stomping, whooping Country fans. Turns out this was THE place to hear the best Blue Grass music in the county, so for an hour or so we clutched our beer glasses and sat back to hear the legendary Bill Monroe and his nonagenarian Blue Grass Boys (and Girl). With their leathery faces, reptilian smiles and immaculate white Stetsons they looked as though they’d sprung from the fossilized landscape around them. They howled like prairie wolves and pounded their steel string guitars to show how it’s done (they had no need of plectrums – their fingernails had been filed to points): their performance both aggressive and primal. They were followed by Colorblind James and the Death Valley Boys, unleashing the best tracks from their new album Strange Sounds From the Basement.
Before we left, the barman showed us a map and put us on the right road back to Santa Monica.
(Every night, long after the punters had left, Bill Monroe and his band slew off their rhinestone-encrusted suits, walked out pale and naked into the centre of the ghost lake, knelt down, tucked their heads into their chests and with rapid strokes of their claws burrowed down into the stinging salt. In this way they kept their old bones alive. If you ever find that badass salt plain, close your eyes and you will still hear them singing.)
Back on the road we started to take note of the size and variety of the cacti we passed, having only ever seen them growing in pots on English kitchen window sills. But these were big buggers – as big as trees, and with the rocky hills in the distance so very stereotypical of the landscapes in Westerns, we were impelled to stop again and take turns to photograph each other in front of a 10 foot high saguaro. We’d not been in the desert long enough for our sense of jeopardy to be fully developed, so we continued on and reached the coast in a couple of hours, so glad to get back to the bungalow and crash out.
At three in the morning I was woken by a panic-stricken phone call from my husband. He’d been speaking to Penny’s hysterical husband, who’d had a call from the Sheriff in Ridgecrest, who told him Penny’s handbag had been found lying in the middle of the desert. It contained her camera, passport, air tickets and a purse containing a few dollars and a picture of her three children. “Oh my god!”, I shrieked. “Phone him back immediately and tell him we’re O.K! We didn’t even notice her bag was missing!” I shook Penny awake and told her what had happened. She turned as white as the sheets, took a deep breath and phoned her husband back and then the Ridgecrest Sheriff’s office. She would drive out in the morning to collect her bag.
I was in no mood for another 400 mile excursion, and was glad when one of the other students offered to drive Penny back into the desert. So I was left to my own devices for the last day of our trip, and decided to spend it lying flat out on the beach. I hadn’t had a proper meal for 24 hours and was too embarrassed to borrow any more money, so I bought a beer and a chocolate bar with what I had left and settled in the sand for the day to watch the sea and the human circus.
I watched the surfers gliding over the hills and hollows of the ocean, as light and free as sea birds. And I watched a young woman a few feet away from me with a determined look on her face, digging in the sand with a yellow spade. Every so often she got up, walked a few feet and started digging again. She spent hours doing this. Ten years earlier she had lost her Raeburn sunglasses on the beach, and every day since then she had come back looking for them. (She would never find them again: the sunglasses had been swept out to sea, where they lay on the seabed in a heap with several thousand other pairs of designer sunglasses. These would last for millennia and would form the base of a new coral reef.)
The sun was getting to me. To stretch my legs I walked around some of the beachside stalls. Some vendors were selling T shirts emblazoned with marijuana plants. Some were selling marijuana. Some were selling baskets and beads made of seeds. They were all smoking weed. I saw a man selling Live Mexican Jumping Beans. He exhaled sweet smoke in my face before saying “These are pods from the Sebastiana tree”. He picking a shiny round, brown nut out of his tray: “A tiny moth larva burrows inside and eats the seed to make room for its cocoon. It spends months growing in there before it’s strong enough to break out and fly away. When conditions are too warm the larva jumps around banging its head against the inside of the shell, trying to roll out of danger before it shrivels up and dies.” The man demonstrated this by placing the pod on a metal plate and flipping open his lighter underneath. The pod began to jump around in a frenzy. “See what I mean?” he chuckled. “The trick is to upset them but not to kill them”. He put the pod back in the box. “Only five dollars each.” “No thank you.” I walked away, trying not to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped suffocating inside a hot pod, hopelessly banging my head against the wall.
I saw a woman analysing handwriting, so I wrote a couple of sentences for her. “See how your writing slopes down to the right?” she asked. “That means you’re depressed.” “Thank you for telling me.”
Finally, there was a stall advertising Magic Medusa Squids. “In each packet are several dried squids” said the stallholder. “They are not dead, they are in suspended animation. When you put them in water, they come alive again.” "I'd love to see that, but I'm afraid I don't have any money on me". "Well I'm just about to pack up, so have one on me". "That's very kind of you." It wasn't.
One version of the Medusa myth says that she was a beautiful vestal virgin raped by the sea god Poseidon while serving in the temple of Athena. This infuriated Athena, who blamed Medusa for the sacrilege and turned her hair into snakes. From then on every man who gazed into Medusa’s eyes turned to stone.
When I got back to our bungalow I filled the kitchen sink with water and dropped in a couple of the dried squids. As I watched, the creatures slowly plumped up and began to move round in the water. Their tentacles started waving then curled back, revealing at their centres the squids’ open mouths, which looked very much like small - if gelatinous - human mouths. With teeth. And then there sprouted from the bottom of each squid’s body what looked like two tiny human legs. The creatures stood on their tiny legs, linked tentacles and began moving their mouths. I leaned forward and could just about hear them. The room was spinning and the squids were singing that old jazz favourite made famous by Mary Ford and Les Paul: "How High The Moon".
I found this sound both beautiful and sickening, so I pulled the plug, flushed all the squids down the sink, ran to the bathroom and threw up.
During our flight home the following day I read my fashion magazine and Penny read her favourite philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s Argument for Pessimism. It states that:
“The will is the essence of Life. To will something is to experience a lack or deficiency and thus to suffer (i.e. willing entails suffering). It is impossible to fully and finally satisfy the will. Therefore to be alive is to suffer, continuously.”
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we suffer,but rarely in
we suffer,but rarely in silence. I liked this lots. The surreal elements blend in wonderfully, but when the narrator had no money for food, she bought beer and other items, including singlng squid. That threw me. Not the singing squid. But having nothing and yet something.
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This sucked me in like a squid
A spellbinding journey- loved every minute of it.
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Really enjoyed this piece Sim
Really enjoyed this piece Sim, but you need to check those lyrics. If they're not out of copyright, or if the copyright has been renewed which is quite likely, they will have to be removed in the next 24 hours. Quoting anything longer than the title of a song leaves us open to a big fine which we can't afford - and they do check!
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Thank you very much Sim
Thank you very much Sim
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