Grappling on the edge of madness. A grim future awaits in the shocking conclusion!
My mind swam and boiled. Unexplainable horrors mixed with reasonable explanations. It was not professor’s belt I saw buried in the wall (it was and I knew it), if it was his belt (it was), he had been helping his neighbor to fix a broken brick (while wearing his gi??) and had somehow dropped his belt into the concrete before it set. Yes, stranger things have happened.
No, it was simpler still. I was being pranked by Bentley (I wasn’t). Yes, it was an immature prank. We would laugh and drink with our professor soon enough (we wouldn’t) and I would head home to Tahoe in the morning with fond memories of my last night in Sopris.
I had returned to a town on the edge of a corporate-driven, state sponsored cataclysm. It was to be flooded in a mere 48 days, and I foolishly returned. For what? There was a letter, yes, a letter. My Jiu Jitsu professor beckoned me home, boasting of cryptic “progress” and “discoveries” in his art. The chanting, machines and singing bowls that he once used to enhance our Jiu Jitsu practice now seemed arcane and sinister. I regretted ever coming here, no matter how bleak my life in Tahoe actually was.
I caught my breath at the base of the stairs, focused on the pleasant sounds of the bar above - glasses clinking, the jukebox, the occasional guffaw from a patron. Anything but that damnable humming. It was the belt. The belt had set my mind spinning, but I slowly regained control.
My mission was clear: I would go to the other side of that wall. I would find the source of the humming and I would leave Sopris with an easy explanation for my Professor’s absence. My listless life in Tahoe would return as Sopris succumbed to the waves.
As I turned to walk up the stairs, I saw Bentley paused on a step. Still, as if he had forgotten something. His eyes showed a resoluteness mixed with concern. I showed him the belt and he said nothing, just turned and climbed the stairs. I followed. We both knew exactly where we were headed next.
We told no one in BJ’s Tavern of our plan. Yet another mistake, but I don’t know what anyone in that building could have done to help us that night. A night where earthly flesh seemed inconsequential. That procession…
But I must not dwell on that now. I must finish this tale and seal off this chapter of life forever.
We finished one more drink, hoping it would insulate us from the cold fear that swam in our bellies. We headed out into the night.
To enter the dojo, we went between, to the alleyway behind it. From that perspective I had a sense that I was no longer seeing the place as it existed, only the mechanisms that created it. Like seeing a tree for the roots and dirt before the leaves and sky.
The back of the dojo held a disused bread chute. A heavy iron door that Bentley swore was never locked. As we strained and cursed to heft it open, Bentley climbed out of his stupor into something of his old self. Our tension was unbearable, so he chiseled away at it the way he always did, by talking.
He called up a warm memory, asking if I remember the “graduation” party that Professor Combs threw us after our first year of training. The iron door chafing rust into my hands, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the mere mention of ‘graduation party’. It was an odd and humorous night. My heart was briefly lifted thinking of Combs’ version of ‘refreshments’.
“Those refreshments!”, Bentley said. “Was like Combs’ had never been to a party before. Or maybe he just didn’t care!” Sliced packaged cheese, strong horseradish, pickled herring and raw, cut up onion. Just sitting there on paper plates. As Bentley produced a small flashlight, I reminded him that the flavor was not bad, it was the smell! Ventilation was never a concern for our Professor, so technically, the party lasted for weeks. The smell of horseradish and herring had remained, a stubborn guest on the mat every time we rolled.
“Combs’ Dojo and Delicatessen!” We both exclaimed in unison, “And hair salon!”, setting us to laugh like wharfside drunkards. Tears streaming down our faces, our laughter slowly faded into silence and the sounds of Sopris returned - the distant rushing river, the crickets, the humming...
The silence took hold. There was no more laughing. We took the steps down, resolute in our grim task.
The bread chute led us down heavy iron stairs into a disused portion of the dojo basement. The water heater, a mop bucket, and a few short yards separated us from Combs’ office. The instant we set foot in that room, the sound of the humming increased exponentially.
Combs had about as much interest in formal meetings as he did in paperwork. So his office became a curious mix of “filing cabinet” and “personal dojo”. Standing in the doorway, we were facing the wall that he shared with BJ’s basement. To our left, the hallway took you upstairs and toward the streetside dojo entry. To our right was the back wall of the building and the bread chute.
Once inside the office, our feet sunk into the Jiu Jitsu mats that had consumed the entire floor. To our left there was a small desk overflowing with papers. Across from us and in the back corner, the wall was bare, showing discolorations where shelves had once hung, as if it was recently cleared for a move.
And to our right was the source of the humming. On a long workbench, surrounded by cables as if climbing out of a nest, there was a large fork, similar to the kind used by piano tuners. Except this was thicker and instead of being polished and dainty, its surface had a pitted, blasted look. Like it had been drilled and haphazardly splattered with strong acid. It was roughly two feet high, and surrounding it were items more familiar - stereo receivers, amplifiers, vacuum tubes and knobs of various sizes, all connecting to two mismatched and formidable-looking speakers that hung on the wall. And a switch, a huge relay switch that we could only assume operated this entire snaking monstrosity.
Bentley wasted no time in throwing the switch, cutting off the hum so abruptly that my knees nearly buckled. In that moment I swear I heard a sound, like a shriek in a distant room, that seemed to get cut off as soon as it began.
I found myself agitated with Bentley, so callously making decisions, throwing switches on devices he did not comprehend. But then I was thankful, to have my head rid of the humming. The room came into clearer focus then. The mat beneath my feet was more firm and the dim bulbs seemed brighter. With this new perspective, Combs’ fate seemed even more grim.
He had clearly been living in his office. There was a small blanket in the corner, a pile of unwashed Gis for a pillow. Jars of food were stacked under the desk and the room smelled of humanity contained and unventilated.
Though it was empty, my eyes kept returning to the back corner of the room. The convergence of the two walls, one at the back of the building, the other shared with BJ’s basement, was the clear focal point of the room. I cannot explain how or why, but everything seemed to slope toward that corner.
Bentley saw it too, because he ceased his chatter every time his eyes passed that corner. Then, as if struck by an epiphany, his glassy eyes cleared and he moved toward the switch with alarming speed. As he threw it, the corner seemed to...waver, like still water distrubed by a streaking insect.
He turned the device off, and then turned it on again. Then off, then on. Then off, then on. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. He was focused on the corner, eyes welling in the throes of some mad discovery. But I was looking at him. I hated that humming, and now he was turning it into some kind of repetitive torture. Each time he activated it, it felt louder, like a spike sinking another millimeter into my head.
I’m not proud of what happened next.
I asked him to stop. I yelled at him to stop. He ignored me. I put my hand on his shoulder. Gently at first, and then roughly. He would not relinquish control of the switch. I yelled again, anger consuming me. The red under his skin showed the same.
As he swung it “on” for the final time, I grabbed for his hand and tried to peel it off the switch. He made an angry sound, and then we were fighting.
I cannot say how long we fought, only how hard. What started first as a strained standing scuffle soon became much more than that. For the first time since I wore a white belt, there was rage. Instead of slowly starting a respectful roll with my partner, neither one of us held back. In seconds we were on the mat grappling and even striking, bruising each other’s eyes and lips, attempting chokes, enacting ruthless defenses.
I am ashamed and horrified to admit that I wanted to kill Bentley and I can be sure that he wanted to kill me.
But then something changed. The humming shifted in waves, and I experienced something like a rotation, each wave of sound was like a water wheel dropping great weights of liquid, crashing over the both of us in a steady, pulsing rhythm. We stopped choking. Louder still and we stopped striking. Louder still and we removed the pressure from our attacks. They became more performative and giving, our anger giving way to a kind of collaborative spirit.
Without realizing it, we were rolling. Simple rolling, as if we were back in time, a Tuesday night in Combs’ dojo. Lights blaring, fans blasting, sweat dripping. The sound of the rushing river just outside. A post-roll meal and beer waiting for us at BJ’s.
The mat was soft. Nothing seemed to hurt. Our flying feet would strike walls by accident. That didn’t hurt either. If what happened next had not happened, I would be proud to say that it was my finest Jiu Jitsu moment, and I can only assume that poor, doomed Bentley would agree.
The next moments are extremely crucial. I will attempt to be as detailed as possible. The more I can madly scrawl onto these pages, the more I can purge from my mind.
Bentley executed a throw. It was hard to describe its structure, but he caught me at the precise moment in which my body weight teetered, and used my imbalance to send me flying. I braced for what would certainly be a painful meeting with the wall. There was none.
Looking up, I saw the ceiling of Combs’ office. My chest heaving and full of heat, my legs suddenly cold. I turned to look at Bentley, who was not looking at me. He was looking toward the wall, the corner, toward my feet. His mouth was open, and his eyes were cast by an animal surging of light. A primal, alien look of fear that I had never seen before, but now I see every time I look in the mirror.
I looked down toward my feet. They were not there. They were through the wall, in the wall. I wiggled my toes, I could feel them. I bent my knees and found my legs pulling out of the wall as if through a thick, viscous liquid. I sat up and the humming seemed to match my movements, growing in intensity as I stared at something that simply did not, could not make sense.
Then the grubby cream paint of the wall changed color, taking on a reddish, purple hue. It was not gaining new color, no. It was becoming transparent, showing new colors from underneath, no, from through it.
I saw my feet there, through a thin wavering screen, nearly clear. Like clean water tainted by prismatic fuel from a passing boat. My thighs rested on the mat in the office. My calves and feet rested on hard stone. Deep black like obsidian but pitted like common concrete.
I pulled my feet back and stood. The clearing of the wall continued, revealing a transparent space roughly the size of a man. We looked through. The hum. Deafening. The tableaux through the wall was. I struggle to write this. A bridge. A sky, red, streaking jagged fluctuations into purple. The length of the bridge, impossible to determine. So long and so vast. Terminated at...a tower? A spire? So far in the distance. So, so far.
Beneath the bridge, some kind of roiling sea. Something disturbing the surface of the deep black waves, something miles from showing itself, but still showing itself. The bridge above it. The procession!
Coming toward me down the bridge, from the spire (the tower?), a long line of beings. ‘Beings’ is the only way I can describe. Some tall, humanoid and hooded. Some winged. Some seemed to cover large distances at great speed. Some had teeth, some had feet, some drilled probosci deep into the bridge and dragged themselves forward, drag, drill, drag. All were focused on me. Multitudes, the entire population of this place, staring from eyes in places where eyes should not be. At me. From there into here.
And, improbably, I was walking toward this. The hum. The hum propelled me. I was walking into this. I did not want to. I could only see, and walk. And as I did, the ground gave way, softening. The closer I got to the threshold, the more my legs sunk into the mat. There was a sound above the din. A muffled shriek.
I located it’s source. At the edge, where the bridge there met the wall here, I saw Professor Combs. Or, part of him. I recognized the fabric of his Gi. His shock of greying red hair. There was the top of his head, left shoulder, left arm, his left eye, and little more than a nostril. The rest was buried. Submerged in the obsidian bridge.
I assumed him dead. But he blinked. He was alive. He was alive!!! His eye spun in place, panicked and watery, his arm clawing for me, single nostril flaring wildly. I kept moving toward him, now with a purpose. But now I was sinking deeper. My ankles now completely buried. The procession...gaining, some of them also seemed to struggle with the elasticity of the surface that had claimed my Professor. Getting stuck. Getting angry.
I was reaching for Combs when I felt Bentley’s strong grip on my body. I was through the threshold and sinking! How Bentley did what he did, I will never understand. He grabbed my clothing, positioned his hips, and executed a throw that sent me flying well into Combs’ office. The humming soared to a new roar. I looked back and we had traded places. He now stood where I was, but the transfer of energy from his throw had driven him deep into the bridge. His body was stuck, the procession gained, claws grazed his back. I started for him, but his eyes stopped me. His eyes. Focused, staring, weeping. He was staring at the switch.
I threw it. Looked into his eyes and threw the switch. I deactivated the machine. I did so in shame. The threshold closed. The mat solidified beneath me. I stood weeping in shame.
I ran. I told no one. What would I say? Who would understand? I ran. Up the iron stairs, leaving the bread chute door open. I passed BJs, then the water tower, crossed the bridge and followed the road out of town at an unstable, wobbling sprint. It was miles later when dawn broke and cleared my senses. The town, the river was all behind me by miles. And it was still too close.
Through a combination of walking and hitchhiking, I made it back to Tahoe. For months I avoided sleep and food as much as I could. I needed to survive for 49 days at least, and only that. I became thin. I wandered the streets, now disregarded as a mad beggar by those who didn’t know. By those who never heard the humming. I look between, and between looks back. I ask questions. How long was Combs in that state? Was it weeks? Days? Minutes? How long would Bentley last? How long would I?
I am now in a boat, leagues above the town I once called home. The flooding went as planned, new hydroelectric power humming power into homes ignorant of my tale, Bentley’s tale, Combs…
I have finished this account and I will drop this entire record, wrapped with stones, to sink deep to the bottom of the Sopris Reservoir. If it is ever discovered, may God help us all. The procession will not cease, and they are there now, battering at the walls, piling up, trampling and snarling against our thin borders, awaiting the hum. Yes, I am nearly above the spot. Above the dojo. Above where it happened. I will drop this now, but what is that sound I hear…?