Making out faces in the shadows thrown by the porch light or the torches gave Cortez a moment’s pain similar to that one gets in the tooth due to abscess or injury, something she addressed habitually with poultices and plasters and riddles she recalled from a youth spent in the caverns close by. The riddles she composed and told to herself so as to ward off loneliness and the fear of annihilation promised by long hours spent in near total darkness, the one concept playing off the other and informing it at precisely the same time it was denying and counteracting it the way antimatter is said to cause devastating explosions when it comes into contact with its opposite – but then, when have we ever witnessed that? When have we seen with our own eyes the consequences, good or bad, of any of the ethereal theories we have also seen with our own eyes? In the newspaper mostly, though occasionally we run across them in notebooks left behind when their authors had to flee suddenly and for no apparent reason. The toast is still in the toaster, the blinds opened wide onto a view of enormous ferns and the ocean in the distance looking a little like the waistband of someone’s designer underwear. Cortez lifted her pan up from the cold stream and searched the sentiment for gold but she knew whatever mineral wealth had occupied this stretch of river at one time was now washed further west through the mountains named after obscure birds of prey or it was already in the possession of the indigenous peoples of the region, those she had glimpsed from a distance in the valley once and had attempted to communicate with through the use of hand mirrors and an aria she had been working on since she stepped off the plane. She was forced to render it, of course, a cappella because she carried with her no instrument large enough to make a noise audible from that distance and she didn’t know how to play any instruments at any rate, other than the zither which she considered crude and potentially insulting to whoever happened to hear it. It was the type of instrument people constructed and then learned how to play (learned how to bang on, really, in a semi-rhythmic pattern) when they didn’t actually believe in the harmony of the cosmos around them. When they simply paid lip service to the concept and argued with themselves at night when they thought they were alone. About the implications of their beliefs, or the lack thereof, and how they were supposed to reconcile it all with the sound of the water forever plummeting over the edge of a cliff a thousand and more feet tall just up the road, the mist and the consequent rainbows and that feeling you get sometimes when you look down into ravines and valleys, into what passes for an abyss this side of the Milky Way. Not a longing, exactly, not a desire for annihilation made manifest in your leaning precariously forward, mere millimeters away from immediate and irreversible descent. But rather a strangely painful recall of such longing, a conjuring it up from a past immersed in it, intoxicated by it, and then bringing it, rashly, into a present where it no longer exists, where it no longer belongs. It has been banished by decree like a grubby gunslinger or (perhaps more to the point) your run-of-the-mill income tax cheat.