Clouds Are Far Behind Me

 

 



Imagine the scene.

A figure on the slope of an extinct volcano, running first this way and that, stumbling on the rocks under the desert sun. There are two noises - one, a woman's voice swearing and screaming in a foreign tongue, and the other, a harsh metallic bleeping, changing speed as the figure changes direction.

It was Monday July 16th 1945, and I was kinda lucky not to be spotted. I guess the "event" - local MPs were talking of an exploding ammunition dump at Alamogordo that had taken out the window panes for hundreds of miles all around - kept everybody indoors or hanging round the bars gossiping. Nobody to witness me, in my smouldering black suit and helmet, stumbling about wondering who had let me out and where the hell I was. However, it wasn't the explosive blast of Trinity that freed me from stasis - a mere shockwave could not have pierced the time-halted barrier - but the electronic pulse that by some quirk of physics had switched off my prison walls.

The beeping was from my helmet - black and conical, with a reddish brow and a triangular symbol on the forehead - and signified, as far as I could tell, danger. I knew it had saved my brains from frying during my incarceration but I didn't know it had some sort of survival programme built in. If I walked east down the slope of Jornada del Muerto towards Ground Zero it shrieked, but if I headed west around the edge of the caldera, it shrieked less.

I pulled the helmet off in exasperation and found that all my yellow hair came with it, leaving me as bald as an egg. I should have been dismayed, but I was glad I was breathing - hair seemed neither here nor there. I looked for an off switch on the helmet - there was none - and was forced to put it back on lest I got sunburnt. At least my suit - some black slithery Atlantean pseudo-rubber - was keeping me cool and protected from the heat. On my wrists the cuffs that had held me fast, similarly embedded with something bioelectrical. They'd been designed for something else more than mere handcuffs, but for what I had no idea. Time would tell.

I headed back up the slope - where was the Execution Platform and the statues of Qualopec and Tihocan, I wondered? - and tried to find the place I had been ejected from. There was a hole in the lava and my prison, its giant metallic lid thrown far away by some esoteric force as the enclosure popped open, lay buried and surprisingly pristine after so many millennia at the bottom. I cannot explain how my cage became buried by lava - geologists claim that the Jornada del Muerto erupted many millennia before my time. Maybe some un-natural force melted the rocks and my prison sank into it like a static Titanic. I didn't really care.

I poked about and found a bag. They'd thrown my bag in with me. Who had done that? My handbag, let's call it, with a few personal items in it. Not very useful, but very comforting. That and the jewellery I could feel beneath my suit was the sum total of my material worth. Now I had to find civilisation and announce myself returned.

There as nothing else - I'd have been happy to find a flask of drink or some dried fruit - but no. There wasn't even a plaque saying who I was and why I'd been locked up.

I climbed out and headed west until the helmet shut up, and then kept going.


* * * * *


I found the Rio Grande and a bridge and on seeing the bridge, and the highway, and my first cars, I realized that I'd been thrown out of Oz and into Kansas. It was as if the Wicked Witch of the West had been plonked into Depression Era dustbowl country with no magic powers, no flying monkeys and no command of American English, wondering if she'd be able to blend into the local population whilst wearing her black pointy hat.

I hid under the bridge spans by the riverbank, every now and again hearing the rattle of a vehicle above. Everything looked so grey and shabby, even the motorised machines passing by. It was a world of dust and rust.

At least I had water, although the helmet wasn't happy at the quality. It "booped" and flashed a vermilion "eye" if held too close to the river. I expect there were fish, but saw none. I found a quarter pint leather bottle in my handbag and stored a few mouthfuls of liquid for later. A raggedly dog sniffed up at one point, but I wasn't about to eat raw dog. It must have sensed my thoughts, for it ran off without a woof.

Somehow I managed to hide without being picked up by a military patrol or the local Pueblo folks and as darkness fell crossed the river and headed north. I could see lights and trains and a loading yard across the water and a glow on the horizon, but I headed westwards up the bed of an arroyo, trying to climb high enough to get my bearings.

After a few hours of scrapes and bangs and curses I found a small rock cliff and in the face the entrance of a cave. I crawled in - neither smilodon nor snake could pierce my garment, I reassured myself - and fell asleep.



* * * * *


When I awoke I discovered two things. The cave was bigger than I thought - it had two entrances some way apart - and I had spent the night in the company of a dead body.

The body was of a woman of indeterminate age, semi-mummified. For some reason the flies hadn't got at her.

She too had a bag, and a paper slip containing a kind of dry corn bread, which I ate with some relish. There was also a cloudy little glass bottle of alcohol with a coloured label which I couldn't read. I set it aside for later. The most useful thing about her were her clothes and her hair. Using her small pocket knife, I peeled the fragile scalp from her skull so that her black hair came away in one piece. By judicial application of water and alcohol I made myself a wig fitted close to my bald head. It smelt of musty perfume, but there was no infestation of any kind, and it was no worse than donning a fox fur hat.

She herself was very short and so although her dress fit me about the body, the hem was high on my thighs. There were shabby leggings and underwear, none too clean, and sandals that were too small. I had resolved to make an expedition to the river after dark to wash what I could when it started to rain, so I used a bush outside as a clothesline.

She too had a number of objects in her personal holdall. There was a pair of leopard print sunglasses, and some cardboard identity passes, one with a faded black and white photo. I peered at the photo and wondered if I resembled the deceased now that I was wearing her hair. I had the same dark skin colour but everything else was wrong.

I examined her body with professional interest. Some wasting disease - not hunger - had killed her, as far as I could see. It reminded me of death from over- exposure to the Scion, and besides, the helmet didn't like her corpse. I propped her up in a niche, covering her withered nakedness with dried grasses, like a respected ancestor.

* * * * *


My military and hunting skills were transferable.

My haul included denim trousers, boots and various other items of apparel, pies from window sills and apples from stalls, a Zippo lighter which wasn't much use as I couldn't light a fire and best of all - a battery-powered T601 Pilotuner radio. I adored the radio. It had a wooden body with rounded edges, and was worked by two bakelite knobs. By experimentation I soon discovered a local station, KTEB out of Albuquerque. I could listen for the first time, if not understand, to American English and hear the primitive music of this fallen civilisation - "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" sung by Johnny Mercer, "Don't Fence Me In" - Bing Crosby and "Rum and Coca-Cola" by the Andrews Sisters. If I could have only translated them I'd have learned all there was to know about my new New World.

I'd sing along, and got quite good at imitation;

"Drinkin' rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin' for the Yankee dollar

From Chicachicaree to Mona's Isle
Native girls all dance and smile
Help soldier celebrate his leave
Make every day like New Year's Eve.
"

I'd try and adapt a courtly dance, padding out the precise footsteps on the sandy cave floor.

So the time passed, with me picking up a few words and pleased to be left alone with the dead women. But then I met the two people who were change my destiny - Mr. Elwood Gato, who gave me my first home and Miss Jacqueline Love, who gave me her name in exchange for my heart.

* * * * *


From the journal of Mr. Elwood Gato, Socorro County 1945

Sept. 10th

"Today I met a most curious woman & although I have met a number of these in my eighty years as lawman & attorney-at-law, this lady made me pause. I surprised her in the act of burgling my house & naturally arrested her, cuffing her wrist to the armchair whilst I decided the best course. My first though was that she was some sort of deranged Anglo, as she is very tall & has the bluest of eyes, but she neither understood English nor Spanish. From her sparse utterances I gathered her name is Natalya & so may be a White Russian of sorts, maybe known at the Orthodox Church. She is unlikely to be as her documents say a Santana Quintero, member of the Mine Mill Union, employee of the Playas Grants Uranium District Mill & housekeeper with a high security pass for the military base out at the old McDonald Ranch.

Snra. Natalya has a most regal & calm air. I offered a cigarillo, which she did not know how to smoke until I showed her & then she smiled & bowed most graciously. Her apparel is a mismatch of styles; a cotton dress worn as a shirt, some men's denim, a rancher's coat & boats. She may be illiterate or an illegal but there is a fierce intelligence & spirit there.

To test my theory that she may be some sort of lost Russian �migr�, I took down my framed cover of Time Magazine with Comrade Stalin named as Man of the Year 1940, & showed it to her, but she seemed to have difficulty with it, as if her eyesight was defective, turning the surface this way & that. However I have seen similar before the Great War with old Pueblo women who cannot recognise their own photograph never having seen one & unable to interpret the flat image. I pointed at Comrade Stalin & tried to indicate my admiration, mimicking tall, & saluting, & such, but she looked confused. She placed the picture against the wall & with a questioning glance bowed down to it, murmuring some prayer or other. I'd have told her that although we in the New Mexican Communist Party revere Brother Stalin & his defeat of fascism, we didn't really see him as a holy saint.

At length I decided that I had no heart to turn her over to the sheriff & put the attempted burglary down to a misunderstanding & loosed her hand. She grabbed up her stuff (and rather cheeky my cigarillos!!) & ran from the house. If I were not so old I'd have been feeling el amor."

Sept. 16th

"For a few days I was in a fix about the documents. Where had the �migr� obtained them & such. I figured that if I reported it I'd stir up a hornet's nest for Snra. Santana Quintero that she'd not thank me for etc. I have my own reasons not to involve myself with the Anglo Military Police & besides which of these cares about a Mexican housekeeper etc.

Then to my surprise today near evening I heard an eerie warbling at the back door (which looks over scrubs & scrat & such behind the house this providing hidden approach if you're of a mind) & there apparently wearing all her clothes & with a full sack over her shoulder was Snra. Natalya looking as if candy wouldn't melt.

I tried a stern face & said girly what you want? But she bowed most elegantly & bless me if she didn't begin to sing a song, possibly a foreign version of "Don't Fence Me In" with many queer steps & gestures. When she had completed this exhibition she handed me a jewelled bracelet & kneeling down with her forehead on the dirt waited for my reaction.

I worried her by bursting out laughing but drew her up & sitting her at the kitchen table we shared a meal of chilli & tamales + beer which she devoured like a starving dog, her eyes shining & with much appreciation & miming of smacking of lips & rubbing of belly. It seems I may have a new house guest.
"


* * * * *


Sitting here in my office at the Pajarito Mesa ranch house and reading Elwood's notebooks from forty years ago, I am surrounded by many of his personal effects. I guess he was a father figure to me by the end. I'm amused that a few weeks after the victory over Japan and the dropping of the bomb he doesn't think it worth a mention. Elwood's world view seems to have been stuck before WW2, which is perhaps he managed to tolerate me.

Gradually, slowly, I began to acclimatise. My hair began to grow back and I discovered black henna. My clothes became more inconspicuous, and I was careful to wear flats to minimise my height. Elwood taught me my ABC, and what with the radio and Life magazine and the movies and the arrival in a local hall of our first television, I soon learned several hundred words of American English and American Spanish, although I couldn't at first lose a tendency pronounce "R" as "W". Elwood would introduce me as "Natalya", his long-lost daughter from Albania, the result of a liaison in the 1920's with a beautiful but mysterious Ninotchka from a visiting European trade union delegation, and I kept house for him - luckily for me I had been born in a condition of domestic servitude and knew what to do. Elwood used his status as a lawyer and friend of local law enforcement to procure me documents that allowed me, as Natalya Gato, to live freely (if temporarily) in New Mexico. His status as a local legend - started long ago when as a teen sheriff he had held off a posse of Texan criminals single- handed - was only even enhanced, which made him chuckle greatly.

One cold morning I was huddled against the flakes of snow as I went to try and buy some fresh vegetables - rare as amethyst with the tail end of rationing - when I spotted a figure walking down the main street. She ducked into a bar and so, pulling my head scarf tight around my face, I peeped in through the swing doors.

Several things about her made her stand out. First was her uniform, which was very smart, and topped with a light brown beret. A silver badge glittered on her breast and her long legs ended in sensible highly-polished shoes. Her hair was golden, her eyes were cornflower blue and she was almost as tall as me. She sat on a stool, ordered tequila in a forthright way despite the early hour and lit a cigarette. My heart gave a thump and I grew "weak at the knees" as the euphemism goes.

I plucked up my courage (I had never been in a bar before) and ordered the first drink I could remember - the "Coca-Cola", which I had deduced was made of coca leaves, coffee beans, caramel and beet sugar. How bad could it be, I reasoned?

The Anglo woman - "Anglo" was the name for a class of American usually not local and often with white skin - didn't even see me. She moodily blew smoke rings through her full lips and her eye-lashes drooped in what looked a lot like self pity.

I took off my head scarf and sat at a table well within her potential line of sight, staring hopefully at her. I guess with my naturally tawny skin and dyed-black hair I looked like an "invisible" Pueblo woman (which in most cases was a good thing but in this case was most certainly not).

Eventually she glanced at me and so I gave her my most "Atlantean Royal Family" smile and said "Good evening!"

"Hey sis," said the woman. To my joy she came over and say down. She held out her hand which I fortunately knew not to kiss but to shake. "USWAFP Jacqueline Love. Pleased to meetcha."

"Mi nombwe es Natla Gato," I said confidently.

"Natalie, eh?"

"Natla." I found myself making archaic hand gestures. "Na-tla."

"Like I said, pleased to meet you."

At first I contented myself with gazing full into her face. She was my very own Andrews Sister. Then I realised that I had no idea about the local etiquette and that she was beginning to look amused but faintly embarrassed. So I attempted conversation.

I held out my fingers in as asexual a way as I could manage, and indicated the winged silver badge on her chest. "Que ... what ees this ... jewel?"

"Oh that," said Jacqueline Love, looking down. "My squadron. Strictly civilian but working for Uncle Sam. The Women Auxiliary Ferry Pilots, recently disbanded. Used to fly them big birds from the factory down here to the air base. B52's, you name it, I drove it."

I stroked my long nails a few millimetres from her jacket shoulder, indicating a badge sewn there. For reasons that will become clear I was entranced by the cartoon of a winged woman.

"And theese?"

"That's ole Fifinella, squadron mascot. Designed for us by Mr. Walt Disney himself of Donald Duck fame. She's a gremlin but a lucky girl gremlin, if you know what I mean."

"Es muy guapa - pwetty - jus' like you."

Jacqueline blushed, which thrilled me to my cheap underwear. "Hey thanks a lot," she said. "Glad someone appreciates me - you're a pal. You're quite the looker yourself on the QT."

I almost gasped as I deduced I was being complemented and my mouth because dry. I gulped some of the Coca-Cola and the bubbles made me sneeze. "You bwave solidier with beautiful sweetheart?"

"Never was and now not even a pilot. And no, there's no Mr. Love. Can't say most of the men round here impress me much. Tell you want - lemme buy you a real drink."

"A weal dwink?" I said, looking at the Coca-Cola in confusion.

"How about a shot of rum in that?"

A light bulb went on in my head. "Ah - el wum and coca-cola." I hummed a little of the tune, and she giggled. "Si. Es muy bueno senowita Yackaleena."

To cut a long story short ... reader, I seduced her. I'll spare you the details but I have in front of me an exact list of the clothing that those USWAFP girls wore, straight from the army manual;

Beret ... kiss
Gloves ... kiss
Jacket ... kiss
Black tie ... kiss
Shoes ... kiss
White shirt ... kiss
Skirt ... kiss
Hose ... kiss
Standard issue bra ... kiss
Standard issue underpants ... kiss

* * * * *


Naked, Jacqueline Love shone like a lantern. She didn't comment on the two large scars over my shoulder blades and upper back - in fact, she never asked. I guess she figured I'd say what I had to say when and if I felt like saying it. Although she had never had a "pash" on a girl before, as she put it, she was OK with our "high jinks" provided we kept it a close secret. Elwood was indifferent to us; as far as he could say we were just best friends, holding hands, giggling and chastely pecking each other on the cheek. Jacqueline was permitted for "sleepovers" and "house parties" once Mr. Gato had established that she wasn't a real member of the American military, which would have offended his political and anti-government sensibilities.

"Te quiero," I said to her as we lay in my bed at Mr. Gato's house.

"I love you too," said Jacqueline.

"We mawwied."

"If you like."

"I take your name - es tradicionales en el Estados Unidos?"

"I guess, for man and wife."

"Yackaleena Natla."

"Like the Hungarians. Last name first."

I didn't understand her so I did what I always did, which happened quite frequently - I kissed her all over till she screamed. But the name stuck.

* * * * *


Slowly I felt confident enough to let my hair return to blonde. The local women didn't like it, but they were convinced that I was Elwood's secret lover rather than his "daughter" and so it didn't make much difference.

"Like Jean Harlow," I say, pulling off my headscarf to tease them. "Platinum blonde."

"Puta," they'd say, making the Catholic sign of the cross.

"Welcome to the twentieth century," I'd retort.

Then, one summer night as Jacqueline and I sat "spooning" in the covered enclosure of the swing seat round the back of the house, there was a flash across the sky and a barely audible "thump" from the distant hill.

'My Lord!" she whispered, straightening her clothing. ""What the ... juice was that?"

I was staring intently at the point of impact, my heart racing. "An aeroplane?" I suggested.

"We'd better get up there and take a look. Go get the flashlight. And the shotgun shells from the mantelpiece. Don't wake Mr. Gato!"

The New Mexico night is a fine thing to behold, especially if the stars and moon are out. Tonight it was overcast, and the usual sounds of fauna - muted. As we struggled uphill through the drizzle I reflected that life would be a lot easier if we had horses - Poseidon's own animal, Blessings Be Upon Him.

There was a smell of smouldering rubber as we approached the crash sight, and tiny fires flickering in the undergrowth. As we moved closer and closer, we found the heat from the burning greasewood all around to be intense. I could feel heat through the soles of my shoes; the air was humid from the light rain, and stifling.

Suddenly there was an unearthly shriek, and we grabbed each other's hands.

"Get down!" whispered Jacqueline.

"What is it?" I whispered back. "It sounds like ... some sort of ..."

We peeked over the rise. Below us were wisps of smoke and a long, wide gash in the earth, with what I could best describe in my mind's eye as a "manufactured object" lying cockeyed and partially buried, surrounding by a large field of debris.

"Look!"

I peered at the wreck. Strange looking creatures were moving around inside. They looked under stress and moved fast; in the bad light it seemed as if they were able to will themselves from one position to another in an instant. They were shadowy and expressionless, but definitely living beings.

"Whatever they are, they are definitely non-human," I observed.

Jacqueline's mouth fell open. ""Aliens?" she said, hollowly.

"No," I said, a sudden smile of recognition all over my face. "Monkeys." I gave a her a good long kiss and then started down the slope.

The monkeys - a pair of Rhesus monkeys - were dressed in little flight suits and little flight helmets, and although they were distressed they appeared unhurt. One look at me and they gambolled out of the vehicle and jumped up into my arms.

"Hello my pretties!" I said, and gave them a hug and a nuzzle.

"Careful, Nat. They might have a disease."

"Don't be a goon. They're perfectly cute, aren't you babies? And someone loves them, or they wouldn't be running to me for a cuddle."

The monkeys had stopped making alarmed shrieks and seemed almost to be falling asleep, their arms draped around my neck.

"Shh!" I murmured. "Mummy's here. We'll get you back to the ranch house for an apple and a nice cup of water and a warm blankie soon enough. Auntie Jackie just has to check out your little plane so she can phone in a report to the Air Force."

* * * * *


Mr. Gato seemed kinda keen on the monkeys; I'd thought he'd object to having them in the house, but he loved them. He named them Jesse and Frank and gave them their own room. He taught Jesse to how to smoke cigarillos.

Jacqueline rang the crash in and the Army came in trucks and took it all away. (She'd already signed official secrets act and they already knew her from USWAFP, so they were relieved). We kept the monkeys secret. However it was not long before some local boys - who had been there before us - started an alien rumor. Reading the local paper I wondered, wistfully, if there were any Olympeans still alive and whether, if they knew of the presence on earth of one of their most faithful servants, they come in their knife-prowed ships to rescue me. The Army said the wreck was a meteorological balloon.

As for what it really was - one day I found Jacqueline fiddling with a piece of metal on the kitchen table. The word "C-stoff" could just been seen painted onto the surface, in a Gothic script.

"Some sort of Nazi invention," she explained. "A jet plane. They must have captured a bunch and were testing them over at Holloman AFB."

I put my arms around her. "Why the big secret?"

"I guess they don't want the Russians to know. Plus people don't like anything Nazi."

I nodded. "Because they started the war."

"Not just. They killed cripples and mental defectives and Catholics and Jews. Anyone they didn't like. It's all coming out."

I could see why people might object to killing too many Jews, even if they were enemies of the state, but why object to a cull of genetic aberrations? I guessed I'd figure it all out eventually, but I found it confusing. One thing was for sure - I wasn't in Atlantis any more.

There were two spin offs from the "UFO" incident which had a large effect on my life. One was tuberculosis (for Mr. Gato) and the other was a job offer (for Jacqueline).

"Read this," said Jacqueline one day, handing me a letter. "Those guys from the Air Force put in a word for me. They were pissed that we were just laid off with no citation or anything after doing all that vital war flying."

It was an invitation to fly to Japan and be a reporter for a newspaper.

"I'll come," I said.

"Girlie," said Mr. Gato, stopping to cough up blood. He'd caught the disease from the monkeys and he was determined to die without aid of doctors. "You have not got papers or a passport."

"Then don't go," I said to Jacqueline.

At roughly the same time Mr. Gato drew up the papers to legally adopt me as his daughter.

"When I die this house is yours, gaupa," he wheezed. "Sign here."

"You're not going to die."

"All of us head for Jornada del Muerto in the end. Except you. You headed in entirely another direction."

"How did you know?"

"The Pueblos saw you and your hole in the ground. They got to it before the military dragged the contents away. They saw. They think you may be a reincarnation of an ancient ancestor." I must have turned pale, because he placed a hand on my forearm. "They'll never bother you. They'll just watch after you."

He died two days later and Jacqueline and I found that we were not the only mourners. A regular crowd turned up at the cemetery and there was even a reporter.

"What was Elwood Gato like in real life?" he asked me.

"Just a man," I replied.

"But he was a living legend, a genuine link to the old West."

"It can happen to the best of us."

Jacqueline left soon after, leaving me and the monkeys. She rang from a number of places and then there were telegrams and postcards. I read some of her despatches from Hiroshima and Nakasaki and Tokyo in the newspaper.

Then one day she announced she was going to fly across the Pacific in a small plane. It was a few weeks before people realised that she'd gone missing, disappeared. I wept for a long time.

I hung around for a long while doing nothing. I read a lot of history and archaeology and I realised gradually what I needed to do, a new ambition. If anyone could discover the final fate of my people it would be me, I decided. But how could I get myself into position to do anything about it?

I couldn't very well enrol in the University of Albuquerque; that required a bit too much genuine paperwork and a school record. It seemed an insoluble problem.

Then, however, one Monday I went into town and found myself outside the New Mexico School of Mines.

I was interviewed by a member of the faculty. I reminded him that girls had graduated before, although the very first successful graduate - Irene Ryan - had only been accepted a few years earlier.

"Three things," he said eventually. "First, you'll have to put up with cussing and ripe language. Second, you open doors for yourself. Third, you light your own cigarettes."

"It's a deal," I said, standing up and shaking his hand. "And if I don't measure up throw me out."

* * * * *


One day in spring I went back up to the cave, my first home in the New World, and dug a grave in the floor.

I dressed Santana Quintero in a robe and put my Atlantean jewellery on her corpse.

"Thank you sister," I said as I laid her in the ground.

I spread my arms to the setting sun, and intoned a Hymn of Praise to the Lords of the Sun and of the Sea, and sang an Ode to the Dead in old Atlantean.

"Lord of the Sea," I said, "grant me protection in this new land. It is by your will - it must be by your will - that I am still here, still alive. I vow to make you, my Heavenly Grandfather, proud of me, a Princess of Atlantis. Every day, every year, I will work to rebuild your country and your city and your civilisation. Until the day that I die."

So that's what I did.









Footsteps On The Ocean Bed