Winter 1993, Volume 10.1
Story

ALAN MEYER

Scales of the Pangolin

It looked like a pine cone with appendages. Or maybe a walking artichoke. "Pangolin," said the bold type beneath the illustration. "Scaly anteater," I said. The blonde glanced at me, then dove back into her paperback without comment.

It's possible I blushed. I hope not. I don't usually talk to myself, but I was bored. Reading a dictionarythat's bored. I'd thumbed every magazine in the bus terminal, studied tattered copies of Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens until I could taste the recipe illustrations. In desperation, I asked the frosted blonde behind the counter if she had anything else I could read. She'd had her face buried in a Danielle Steele for hours. Maybe she packed a spare. I told you I was desperate.

"I'll read anything," I told her as I gazed into her mascara-clumped eyes.

At first she just looked at me with the sort of stare usually reserved for insurance salesmen, so I flashed my famous "killer" smile.

The metallic brilliance of my orthodontics must have worked its charm. She snapped her gum, fished around under the counter, and handed me a heavy tome. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, to be preciseillustrated college edition. The binding cracked as I pulled back the cover. Ms. Steele offered little in the way of challenging vocabulary, apparently.

Of course I can't afford to be too smug. I'm just a high school sophomore. What do I know? Certainly not enough to get away with blowing a little weed in Huron High parking lot. Certainly not enough to talk my mother out of sending me to Utah to live with my grandfather.

The mountains surrounding Salt Lake City made me miss South Dakota already. Wandering the peaceful prairie I'd found a refuge from my mother's moods. On the plains the eye can scan the horizon with no barrier to its scope. Here the peaks loomed around me like the walls of a prison. Like the pangolin pictured in the dictionary, I wished I could curl into a ball and hide behind armored scales.

So thanks to dear old Mom, I sat in the Salt Lake City Trailways terminal, waiting hours for an old man I hardly knew. According to her, he was supposed to "straighten me out." Right. He couldn't even remember that my bus was due at 6 a.m., not 6 p.m. And I'm the one that was supposed to be a space cadet. Right.

All I knew of Utah was that's where my parents lived when they were first married. I guess my mother figured she'd send me back to where I was started. Or maybe it was because she thought some of that Mormon tea-totaling would rub off on me. Mega-bizzaro.

The bus ride from Huron to Utah took two days and deposited me across the street from a walled compound surrounding a boxy cathedral.

Since my grandfather hadn't arrived yet, I crossed the street and passed through iron gates into the compound.

Within the ten-foot walls, dozens of couples, dressed in their Sunday finery, even though it was Tuesday, carried little suitcases and strolled around the landscaped grounds like they were waiting for a celestial tour bus. Right. Mega-bizzaro.

One couple, heavy into polyester, thought I looked lost and directed me to a large building they called, "Visitor's Center."

Inside, a hot-looking blonde tour guide, in a pleated white skirt and blue blazer, told me the boxy cathedral was called "The Mormon Temple" and explained that only "members-in-good-standing" could enter. Didn't look like my kind of hang-out anyway.

Besides, what with all the movies, animated "dioramas" and so forth, she said were spread throughout the huge visitor's center, I figured I couldn't be missing much of the show. And, of course, she was the main attraction. I figured her to be four or five years my senior. I did have this recurrent fantasy about an older woman. . .

The fantasy faded fast when a dozen or so geeky tourists lined up to join what I thought was going to be a private tour. Her loss, right? Right.

Off we went, but I wasn't paying much attention to anything except the swing of her tight little buns in that skirt.

Eventually, when I did look elsewhere, I found myself at the top of a winding staircase, and stood transfixed, staring at a towering statue of a muscular Jesus, his bulging arms outspread, posed before a panorama of the Earth, the Moon, and the Milky Way, all seen from a cloud miraculously suspended in deep space. I held my breath. Suddenly the tour guide's butt seemed to lose its magnetic power. I swallowed hard.

I felt as if that statue might, at any second, turn its face to me, and say in the resonant voice of Jesus the Christ, "What are you doing here?"

And no sooner did I think that, than I actually heard those wordsmore or less.

"JESUS CHRIST! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!" However the voice that boomed out in that moment of mystic silence was not the voice of the marble Jesusunless he sounds like a cowboy with barbed wire for vocal cords. "I BEEN LOOKIN' ALL OVER FOR YOU, BOY!"

The tour guide's expansive smile collapsed. She stared at the blasphemer's three-day bristled face, and hissed, "Sir!"

He ignored her and walked straight up to me. "Boy, let's get the hell outa here before they throw us both in a baptismal font." He turned back to the guide, "I take my bath on Saturday, Sweetie."

What else could I do? I followed the old character, in his stained bib overalls and once-plaid coat, mostly to see what he might do next, and only slightly because I recognized him as my grandfather.

Outside the visitor's center he started talking to me over his shoulder as we pressed through the suitcase carrying crowd. "They got this idea that their way of seein' things is the one and only," he expounded, loudly, as we neared the temple grounds entrance.

"Lots of religions think that," I muttered, not thinking he would hear me.

He stopped dead. I bumped into his back.

"And it's a pitiful shame! It's all politics and power. Got nothing to do with real spirituality. That kinda crap is behind most of the misery folks have ever inflicted on one another since the day Adam found out what his dick was for."

Two passing blue-haired ladies gasped and hurried toward the visitor's center.

The old man followed them with his eyes. "Not bad, for a couple of rabid grannies." He winked at me and I couldn't help laughing. "You may laugh now, boy, but some day you'll come to appreciate experience in a woman."

"That's gross."

His eyes narrowed dramatically. "And just what do you know about it, Mister? Just because there's snow on the roof don't mean there ain't a fire in the furnace!"

At that moment, a no-neck giant security guard in a blue blazer tapped the old man on the shoulder. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave, Sir. You're diminishing the spiritual atmosphere."

"What'd I do, fart?" The old man grinned wolfishly.

I groaned.

The security man showed no reaction. "Do you need help finding your way through the gate?" His voice had turned icy.

The old man didn't lose his grin. "Now, now, Bluto. Don't threaten an old man. Bad public relations. 'Sides, it'd break my heart to see you mess up them spiffy duds rasslin' me."

He seemed to think about this a moment before forcing a tight smile. "I hope you won't make that necessary."

The old man put his arm around my shoulders. "My grandson hopes the same thing. He's Mid-western Golden Gloves champ."

I choked.

"Easy, Killer. It'd be unchristian to humiliate the man on his own turf."

The security man dropped the pretense of a smile as he followed us to the gates. A group of pre-schoolers squeezed past as we stepped through them.

"Hey kids!" my grandfather shouted cheerily as he jerked his thumb back toward the security man. "Don't feed the gorilla!" The old man almost pranced down the sidewalk. I followed, avoiding the eyes of everyone.

"Mega-bizzaro," I muttered as I climbed in his ancient truck.

The pickup, a '49 GMC, had turned the odometer over twice and finally stuck on a line of zeros.

"This old Jimmy's about the best truck ever build." My grandfather proclaimed as we passed the refineries in North Salt Lake. "Course I keep one of these outfits in business pourin' oil into her." He patted the dash affectionately. "That's okay, though. Better to wear out than rust out, eh boy?"

I nodded as if to reply, but only to keep him from making me talk. It was fine with me if he rambled on all the way to his farm up near the Idaho border. I didn't want to talk to anyone, least of all, a loony old man with sheep shit on his boots.

The fact that we looked alike meant nothing to me. We were, as he would later say, "Cut from the same cloth." Subtract the stubble beard, and half a century of mileage, and it would have been hard to tell us apartsame deep-set, blue eyes and prominent cheek bones. But that was an accident of birth. Genetics aside, I didn't see how we could ever have anything in common.

About the time we passed through the wind tunnel called Weber Canyon, the old man's rambling finally ran down.

All the way through the sprawl of Ogden City, we didn't talk at all. Although I welcomed the silence at first, after a while, it made me nervous. He kept glancing at me with a thoughtful look on his face. I figured I'd better come up with some conversational material before he started asking too many personal questions, started prying at my scaled armor. The anteater was going to have to come out of his ball as a defensive measure.

"So how'd you know I was in that visitor's center?"

The old man shrugged. "Where else? That place draws tourists like flies on shit."

A chuckle escaped me, and I winked. "You hate them don't you?"

"Who?"

"The Mormons."

"Who told you that?"

"I thought from what you said. . . ."

"Whoa! Don't be confusing philosophical objections with antipathy.

"Huh?"

"Bet you didn't think an old sheep dipper like me would know them dollar words," he said, arching an eyebrow. "Just so happens you grandpa's kind of a history buff."

"No kidding."

"No kiddin' at all. Mormon history's my specialty. Ol' Brigham Young is my favorite historical character."

"Wasn't he the one with about thirty wives?"

The old man laughed and slapped my knee. Hard. "Twenty-seven, but old Brig had more goin' than a big appetite. Did they tell you in that visitor's center how he rose from a fever to say, "This is the place?"

I nodded, listening, but looked out the window, hoping to see a rabbit in the dusky sage and dark juniper dotting the foothills of the northern Wasatch Range. My knee still stung.

"That weren't the only time ol' Brig done that sort of thing. He picked the spot for the Salt Lake Temple by divining. Kinda like water-witching."

Water-witchingthat rang a bell. I remembered then that my mother told me that during the depression the old man had kept them in pocket money by finding wells for drought-stricken farmers all over the Mountain West. "Did he use a forked stick, like you?"

My grandfather laughed and shook his head. "I s'posed your ma mighta told you about that, huh?"

"She mentioned it."

He laughed. "Bet she got that beady eyed look of hers when she did."

I laughed, too.

"Yep. I tried hard to teach the art to her, but the little gal just didn't have the juice in her."

"Juice?"

"The gift. Seems like sort of electricity. I don't know how else to explain it. You either got it or you don't. It's like being able to play the piano by ear. You either can or you can't. She couldn't find a lick of water, but she could make a piano sing."

"My mother played the piano?"

"Used to play in church every Sunday."

"I never heard her play."

The old man nodded sadly. "I'm sorry to hear that." After a moment of silence, he continued. "I know your father's death was hard on her. What with you being hardly more than a baby, maybe you don't recall."

I shrugged. It was something I didn't want to talk about.

"After the accident, I wanted you both to come live with me. Course she stayed put. Always was stubborn."

My chest felt tight. I had to get going on some other subject. "So speaking of ancient history, did Brigham Young witch for water?"

"Not exactly, he wasn't lookin' for water. He was practicin' what's called Geomancy. Witchin' for a spiritual well. He knew something about spots where the earth focuses her powers. A different sort of witchin', but related. It ain't called divining for nothin'."

The truck skidded to the right as he turned off the asphalt road, onto a gravel lane.

"Used to be a stunt driver, huh?"

He laughed and reached over to tousle my hair.

"I hate that." I said as I smoothed my hair back down.

He smiled gently. "Lemme show you somethin' special and maybe I'll buy you a jar of Butch Wax to hold that down."

"I'll pass on the greasy kid's stuff," I said, but couldn't help smiling a little.

About half a mile further on, he turned off the gravel road onto a dirt track running along a line of telephone poles, between two alfalfa fields.

The sweet smell of new hay made me wish I could get out of the truck, lie down and take a nap in the soothing warmth of the afternoon sun.

I closed my eyes and maybe dozed off for a minute or so. When I opened my eyes we'd come far up the mountain. Just ahead, the road led to a mass of rubble and boulders at the base of the mountain.

Close up, the mountain, looking like a block of granite rough-hewn by a giant hand, could have been an unfinished pagan altar.

When he reached the end of the track, my grandfather turned the truck around to face downhill before shutting off the engine. "Always like to have her in position for a bump start."

A yawn forced its way out of me. "Long ride."

"Got a bit of hike to get up there. We can do it another time if you ain't up to it."

"I'm okay. Where we going?"

"You're thirsty after that long ride, right?"

I nodded. My throat felt as dusty as the road we'd just driven on.

"Good. There's a little spring up here runs the sweetest water you ever tasted."

It was some "bit of a hike." We scrambled several hundred yards up a narrow canyon to its terminus. There, from a rusted pipe extending from the cliff, flowed clear water, feeding a pool a dozen feet across. The little pond nearly spanned the width of the shadowed canyon and looked like a fairy garden edged with ferns.

Cool and moist, the air carried the scent of the wild roses blooming at the mouth of the little canyon. I inhaled deeply. I sensed something in the air even sweeter than the wild roses. "I like it here."

"Glad to hear you say that. I planted this old willow here on your mother's first birthday. That makes it your tree, too. Sort of."

"Sort of." I wondered why he'd brought me up here. My twin, the pangolin, readied himself to curl into an armored ball. The old man just wouldn't quit prying at my armor.

"Your mother used to come here all the time. She ever mention it?"

Looking at my feet, I shook my head.

Once again the old man put his arm around my shoulders. "It's not her fault you know. And not yours either. It's just the way she's made. Chemicals or something. They explained that to you didn't they?"

I nodded. "Depression."

"When she was just about your age she started having these spells of the blues, for no reason I could see. I thought it was pure orneriness at first. But your grandma said she'd seen the same thing in her mother and there weren't nothing for it, but to wait 'till she come out of it."

"Did she get better?"

"Off and on. Seemed to be the worst right around her time of the month, so I chalked it up to some woman thing."

"Didn't anything help?"

"Coming up here. This was a healing place for her. That's why I tried hard to get her back."

I looked up into the old man's eyes. Maybe I saw only reflected light from the pool, but they seemed to brim with tears.

"Look," I said with what I thought was great tact. "This is a real nice spot and all, but . . . " I didn't know how to say it.

"But what?"

"I'm not into this bonding thing."

"Bonding thing?"

"I'm here because I have to be. If I had a choice I wouldn't. Let's not turn this into The Waltons."

"If you don't like The Waltons, how about Grizzly Adams?" Suddenly my grandfather squeezed me in a bear hug.

"Hey, I can't breathe!"

"Good!" He squeezed even more tightly. "If you can't breathe, you can't talk!"

"Let me go!"

"Not 'till I'm done "bonding" us!" He squeezed again and the breath went right out of me. Then, with a laugh, he let me go.

I fell to my knees, gasping for air.

His laughter echoed from the high cliffs.

"Suck it in, boy! That's the secret of a long life. Keep breathing!" He laughed again. "That, and don't smart mouth nobody you can't out rassle."

Kneeling by the pool, I nodded.

"You really look like you could use a drink now." He slapped me on the back.

"You got something stronger than water?"

He grinned. "There ain't nothing stronger than this water. Give it a try."

I scooped a handful into my mouth. Cold as the prairie wind, the water soothed my burning throat. Half expecting a sulfurous after-taste like the artesian well water in South Dakota, I instead found it faintly sweet, and bubbly.

"What do you think?"

"Real good." I drank more. "Is this one of the wells you found?"

He nodded, knelt down to quench his own thirst and stuck his face right in the pool.

After a few gulps he came up smacking his lips. "Yup. One of my failures. Sort of." He wiped off his dripping beard and winked. "I was hoping to find a real big flow up here for irrigation." Jewel-like droplets dripped from the irregular fringe of his moustache. "No such luck. I musta walked back and forth along this front fifty times and didn't find nothing but piddling streams that didn't do more than make the willow fork give a quick bob.

"That's how you tell how big the underground stream is? By how hard the stick pulls?"

After pulling a knife from his pocket, my grandfather cut a small branch from one of the overhanging willow limbs. "Best way to find out is to try it for yourself." In seconds, he fashioned a Y-shaped fork with two long handles and offered it to me.

I stepped back. "I don't think I can do it."

"Sure you can. Witchin' runs in the family."

"Is this some kind of black magic?"

The old man shook his head and chuckled. "Some of your friends down at Temple Square might say so, but then they'd be the sort who think Ivory Soap comes from the devil 'cause its got the moon and stars on the wrapper. Witchin's a natural thing, just feelin' the forces of the earth. Like the way birds know which way is north and salmon find their way back to where they hatched."

He led me to the mouth of the canyon.

"There's another flow near here. I won't tell you where, just hold your hands palms up. That's it. Now point the fork up, and put a little twist on it for tension."

After a couple of tries, I got the grip right.

"Now what?"

"Underground streams hereabouts run west toward the Great Salt Lake, just like the surface ones. Walk north 'till you feel the fork pull down. When it's straight down, that's the center of the flow."

Although I found myself wanting to trust my grandfather, I wondered if this might be a "snipe hunt" sort of practical joke. But after walking a few dozen feet I felt, or perhaps imagined I felt, the fork quiver in my hands. "I think I felt something!"

The old man laughed. "By George, I think he's got it!"

I echoed his laughter uneasily.

"Keep goin', boy. There's a trickle there, but that's not the big'un."

I kept going, holding my breath.

A dozen yards further on the fork quivered again, and then with each step forward twisted further downward, as if some unseen finger pushed on the tip.

A mixture of excitement and fear ran chillingly down my spine. Part of me wanted to jump up and down with joy, but another part urged me to cast the stick aside. I hesitated. I doubted.

"Don't stop now!" Even from this distance, I could see the merriment in my grandfather's eyes. Was he proud of meor making fun?

I knew only one way to find out.

The coin-like pieces of shale slipped and crunched beneath my feet as I walked on.

No other sound disturbed the mountain's stillness.

Immediately, the forked branch pulled downward again.

After three more steps it pulled straight down, as if seeking the center of the earth. I felt a rush of uneasy elation.

"Got it!"

"What you got is the gift, boy." The old man looked at me with something in his eyes I'd seen so rarely I hardly recognized it. Again, I felt a charge run along my spine, but this time it felt good and warm.

"Do I really have it?"

"No doubt about it! Never saw more of a natural than you, son. You done good. Real good!"

Those words sounded better to me than any I'd ever heard. I raced back to my grandfather. "That was so cool, I can't believe it!"

He put his hands on my shoulders. "Just like my father and his father before him, you're part of a long line, for sure."

At that moment, it seemed as if I could feel them there with meall these people, all the people I'd come from, but never knowncrowding that little canyon, their hands, with my grandfather's, upon my shoulders. I felt like crying. That couldn't be. No way.

I shrugged his hands off my shoulders. "There's nothing I hate like a long line."

My grandfather laughed. "Well, maybe I'm jumping to conclusions. Better have you try something tougher before I give you a big head."

"A stream that's small and deeper?"

"Tougher than that. Let's see if you can witch for more than water."

"What do you mean?"

"You know the story of Brigham Young seeing the Salt Lake Valley and saying, 'This is the place,' don't you?"

"I think so. He was feverish and sat up from his sickbed in the wagon, right?"

"Sounds like you saw the movie, but that's close enough to what actually happened. Important thing's he was dowsing all the way west. Dowsing for a special place where his people could take root and grow strong."

"So that's dowsing, too. Right?"

"Divining. Dowsing for a spiritual place. The Indians called them 'Power Places.'"

I felt my old skepticism creeping back. "Oh yeah. I saw that on Geraldo. Yuppies meditating on red rocks from Atlantis. Mega-bizzaro."

"Sedona, Arizona. It really is an Indian Power Place, but you're right about the yuppie infestation."

"Whatever." I studied his face for some sign he was kidding. I saw none. "No offense, but you say the Mormons are full of it and you buy into all that New Age crap?"

He smiled very gently. "I'll tell you what kind of crap I 'buy into.' We live in boxes. We get in boxes to drive to boxes where we work. And that goes on and on until they put us in the last box and stick it in the ground. Those boxes keep us cut off from what we need most."

"A power place?"

"A place that helps us to feel what we really arepart of this earth." He picked up a handful of soil. "From this earth."

I nodded as if I understood what he was talking about and in a way I guess I did, but not like I was about to.

My grandfather let the sandy soil run between his fingers. "Some places are better than others for that, but any place is better than the inside of a box. I want you to use your gift to see if this place is going to be right for you." He paused. "If you should stay or not. It's up to you."

I looked into his eyes, as clear as a summer morning. "It's up to me?"

"Always has been, as far as I'm concerned." He nodded for emphasis.

I wasn't sure I bought that, but I nodded back. "Okay, I guess, but . . . "

"But what?"

"What about my mother?"

"Before you come out, I told her this would have to be between us. Man to man."

That one took me by surprise. "And she agreed to that?"

"Give her some credit, boy. She wants what's best for you."

"Okay," I said with resolution. "Do I witch just like before? Same kind of thing?"

"This time just open yourself up to what's around you. See if the feel of this place feels right for you. Don't think about the past or the future. Just witch for what's here and now."

My fingers tingled first, then my hands, my arms, my torso. In seconds, I felt something strange, an energy, like soft electricity, flowing up from the earth, into my feet, swirling up my legs, coiling around my spine. It felt as if a long thirst finally ceased.

My grandfather smiled at me as if he knew what I felt. "Let it flow its own way," he whispered. "Just accept it for what it is. Like the man said, 'Let it be.'" He winked.

Slowly the delicious feeling faded, leaving behind a glowing warmtha quiet balance and peace. I yawned.

"Go ahead, lie down. Rest. Sleep if you want."

Sleep. The sound of the word affected me irresistibly. I felt as if a veil started to descend around me. "Don't we have to be," I yawned again, ". . . going?"

"There's always time for what's important." My grandfather slipped off his plaid wool jacket and folded it into a pillow. "Lie down on the sand. I'll watch over you."

Like a feather bed, the sand seemed to enfold me. The worn wool jacket smelled of hay and horses, and my grandfather.

I sank into a blissful sleepand I think that was when it started to happen. One or two at a time, fluttering lazily, the scales of the Pangolin began to fall.

Dream, delusion, desire to please an old man who loved mewhat's the difference? I can, as the Mormons say, "bear my testimony" that something got through the scales of the pangolin.