Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, blanketing downwind Pacific Northwest regions in volcanic ash. I was five years old at the time, and I recall my grandmother mailing us a vial of the stuff she’d collected from her suburban Portland backyard. I would turn the vial over and over and over again, marveling at the silky smoothness of the gray soot, how it refused to pile or peak, each little hint that it might retain a slope thwarted by how gracefully it slid off itself. Unlike the hearth ash I knew, this substance was alien, magical, an elusive pen-light shining into a bizarre natural world whole generations could arrive and vanish without ever witnessing except through the tales of long-forgotten ancestors. It was only later I discovered the more prosaic reason why volcanic ash wouldn’t pile, and it had to do with microscopic friction ratios and the type of basalt in the interstitial region between the San Juan de Fuca and North American plates and so on and so forth. Once again, microscopes mercifully murder mystery.
Boyhood fascinations have a funny way of returning every so often. It could be just a trick of the brain, associative memory being the most powerful of all, but I think we all fancy in the dark of night when the moon hangs low and languid over the horizon that there’s more to it than that. That there’s a hidden order to the universe, a sly little conspiracy being played behind the scenes that we occasionally glimpse but never fully gaze upon lest we gibber out the rest of our sad, lonely lives in a padded cell. In the case of grandma’s ash vial, what escaped my notice at age 5 came roaring back at age… whatever. I can’t keep track anymore. Can’t or won’t, or maybe both. What came roaring back is the rather astounding discovery of basaltic volcanic ash capacity to act as an incredibly effective asphyxiation agent. Its fine structure, sharp edges, and tendency to rapidly thicken when wet means that aspirated volcano ash kills faster and more humanely than the traditional fire residue collected for executions in ancient Persia, as described in 2 Maccabees 13:5-8. Put another way, volcanic ash enters the lungs quickly and easily and once there, forms a sort of gruesome cement that can later be harvested for display. I didn’t know back in 1980 that most of the ash that was plowed from Multnomah Country ended up in a little coastal town called Brookings on old route 101 near the California border.
Holding a spyglass steady while standing atop a pitching deck is a sailing art easily enough described. If you’ve ever seen how a steady-cam rig works, you can get the basic idea. The elbow of the arm holding the telescope should float in front of the body, with the off-arm acting as a brace from hip to the floating elbow. Keep your knees bent and your feet a bit wider than shoulder-length apart. Stand abeam, twist at the hips. You’ll be fine. Just make sure you keep your ears open for tack announcements from the helm. It won’t do you too much good to see what’s ahead if you end up with a mouth full of seawater. Perching the glass atop a foppish palm-up gesture, pinched between thumb and middle finger is optional, but highly recommended.
It was this trick I was teaching Anika and Brigit as Brookings rolled into sight. We were in maybe seven or eight knot winds, so we had plenty of time to scan the town and countryside for hostility. We were far enough north by now that interdiction was unlikely, but eternal vigilance is the price of keeping your head attached to your neck.
Anika: “I think I see a town.”
Brigit: “Is anyone there?”
Anika: “I don’t… I can’t get this thing to work. The picture keeps moving away.”
Clay: “You have to keep your eye pointed straight ahead and move the end of the telescope to change what you’re looking at. The lenses focus the light on a tiny little window at the end of the eyepiece. That’s what you’re looking at.” He’d gotten better on the tiller since Crescent City, but “better” is subjective.
Me: “Change heading twenty degrees left please.” I held my hand out towards Anika and she passed me the spyglass.
Brigit: “Left? Shouldn’t it be port?” I’ve never been very good at reading tone, so I decided she was being sincere instead of condescending.
Me: “Left and right are headings relative to the bow. Port and starboard are sides of the vessel relative to the centerline.” A halfassed response was better than no response at all. “Anika, can you let out the kickstrap a couple of inches?”
Anika: “Aye aye skipper.” I have to admit, she was a natural out here. Agility and attention matter more than strength or intelligence at sea. She had salt in her blood if not yet in her skin.
Clay: “See any details yet?”
Me: “Looks like folks are living there. I see some tended fields, some houses that look lived-in, and the water tower looks in good repair. The town’s still blue though, so it’s hard to say for sure.”
Anika: “Blue? What do you mean ‘blue’?”
Me: “More distant objects take on a bluer tint. The sky is blue… well it’s usually blue… because the red wavelengths get scattered away as they pass through the atmosphere. As above, so below.” The wind picked up a little. “Spend enough time out here and you’ll be able to read the wind, the currents, the land, and your rigging well enough to estimate your anchorage within 15 minutes.”
Clay: “Have you always been this pompous or did you study in college?” I was too busy scanning the town to grin back over my shoulder. Friendly insults were another pleasant symptom of this diseased part of the land. Fellow-feeling friendship was dead elsewhere, reduced to companionships of mutual convenience. I collapsed the spyglass gently, silently cursing every second-string Golden Age Hollywood director who thought it dramatic for the pirate captain to snap his expensive brass spyglass shut with a satisfying flourish. These things are neither cheap nor indestructible. A man treats his gear with respect. Only play-acting buffoons can afford the high price of being cavalier with props.
Me: “We can drop anchor over there and scout on foot.” There was no way I was about to try mooring at a dock under sail with an improvised crew. “If we’re lucky, we might be able to sleep under a roof tonight.”
We were lucky. Sort of. Brookings was a necropolis. A necropolis of a very particular sort. Viewed from a distance, it looked like any other battered coastal town. Up close, the many faded, hand-painted road signs pointing to the “ash dispensary and crematorium” hinted at the brutal purpose of the settlement. Naturally, we decided to check it out. More specifically, Anika decided to check it out, and the rest of us did our best to keep up. I silently swore to upgrade my crutches from the deadfall stick I was still using.
The ubiquity of the signs led us to believe that the facility was of central importance to the town. Their unadorned mien suggested official purpose. Beyond that, our best guess was that this town still had a large-scale crematorium in good working order and that neighboring communities would ship their dead here to be disposed of with alacrity and sanitation.
Our best guess was less than accurate.
The Brookings Ash Dispensary and Crematorium was located near the intersection of Western Ave and Highway 14 in converted municipal utility offices, and it consisted of the following buildings:
- A combination processing center and administrative office.
- Holding cells for the condemned.
- Four large storage silos filled with volcanic ash from the 1980 eruption.
- A 24-bay crematorium.
- The Museum of Glass Lungs
The other buildings had already served their useful purposes and had been largely decommissioned by the time of our visit. but the museum was open. By the time I hobbled up to the rest of my party, the guided tour was already underway.
Some things I did not know prior to our escorted tour through an industrial grotto of twinkling, brachiated lung sculpture backlit with LED carefully balanced to produce the sickliest green light it has ever been my displeasure to see reproduced, almost as if they had bottled the corrupt sky after the bombs and were using it as background tone for their hideous art:
- Basalt melts just shy of 1300 degrees F.
- Modern human cremation is done somewhere between 1400 and 1800 degrees F to ensure that all of the organic compounds are fully incinerated. Any remaining ash is fine and carbon-free.
- It is possible to cremate human remains at lower temperatures, but the results will contain bone fragments and other clinkers.
- The glass lungs on display at the museum require a highly precise combination of time and temperature to emerge from the cremation oven intact.
- This precise combination, based on subjects’ body mass and thoracic diameter was charted by some dude named Evan.
- Suffocation in ash was rediscovered accidentally when an overcurious sullenness of teenagers broke into one of the old silos and one fell in. Death was rapid and silent. It is hard to yell with lungs full of wet cement.
- The condemned were lowered into the ash silos one at a time with a specially-tied knot around a peduncular area prescribed by statute:
- Ankle for any police officer who had fatally discharged a sidearm in the line of duty. This was the most common, since “fatal” included family pets.
- Waist for any police officer cleared of misconduct charges by an internal, unaudited investigation.
- Neck for police union and Patrolman’s Benevolent Association representatives.
- Wrist for all remaining violent offenders in the region’s prisons.
- The execution rope was secured to a free-spinning spindle that would release additional length on even the slightest tug. This rope was calculated to be long enough that anyone attempting to use it to climb back out would kick up enough particulate that there would be little practical difference between breathing the air void and sticking your head right in the ash pile.
- Most of the condemned attempted to use the rope to climb back out. None succeeded.
There was more to the tour, including a special display for Gary Ridgway. We skipped it, citing fatigue. Our tour guide directed us to appropriate lodging for the night. Dinner was fish and watermelon, just like mom used to make. I could tell that Templeton was on Anika’s mind again.
Anika: “Why is it always like that?” Brigit and Clay froze for a moment, confused by the nonsensical question.
Me: “This isn’t the same. Templeton was innocent. These people weren’t.”
Anika: “How can you say that? Shooting a dog for no reason is bad, but not bad enough to end up like…” She was getting indignant again. “Like that.” An imperious finger snaked towards the day’s diversion. “Being mean shouldn’t get a death penalty.”
Clay: “So justice should be proportional?”
Anika: “If that means that the punishment should fit the crime, then yes. It should be apportional.”
Clay: “Do you know how big the criminal code was when the world was still alive?”
Clay: “It was enormous. Too large, in fact, for a single mind to contain it and the many ’emanations and penumbras’ it implied.”
Brigit: “That just means the law was a lot bigger than what you could find on paper. It included cases that hadn’t been to court yet. Does that make sense?”
Anika: “I guess so. What does that have to do with suffocating people in a pile of volcano ash?”
Clay: “Every citizen who applies to be a police officer knowingly signs up for the job to enforce laws, both just and unjust. Moreover, that person signs up to enforces any changes to the law while he still wears the uniform.”
Me: “Or she.” Eyerolls from both Clay and Brigit at this. I permitted myself a tiny smile.
Clay: “Cops sign up for the job knowing they’ll have to enforce drug statutes, they’ll have to harass hookers, they’ll have to bust kids just trying to blow off some steam on vacation, they’ll have to be muscle for some politician’s cheap vanity. Sure, the job is also finding actual bad guys, actual robbers and rapists and murderers, but it’s a package deal. You sign up to enforce the law. You don’t get to sign up just to enforce the good laws.”
Brigit: “So it’s okay to execute anyone who paid taxes since that money went towards fighting unjust wars and throwing pot smokers in prison?”
Clay: “I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. There’s a special responsibility to wearing a badge and a gun. The social contract is implied. The police employment contract is specific, enumerated, and enforceable. The lame-ass ex post rationalization for paying taxes is just some philosopher’s masturbation.”
Me: “That’s how you talk in front of a kid?”
Anika: “I’ve heard worse.”
Me: “That’s not the point, Anika. And that’s not the point, Clay. Without police, the only people able to provide law and order would be the exceptionally wealthy. And they’d probably hoard it, keeping their private security forces behind the walls of gated communities. I’ve heard some pitches about how that’d work, and none of them sounded convincing to me.”
Clay: “I don’t know, man. It seems to work pretty well now.”
Me: “Seriously, dude? Now? If the solution was to kill off 2/3rds of the population indiscriminately and raze most major metropolitan areas, something tells me that not even the most nihilistic anarchist would have gone for it.”
Clay: “Don’t be too sure about that.”
Me: “Well, okay. Point taken. Still, I think Anika’s right. Puppycide was awful, but it didn’t justify extermination. Exile would have been sufficient.”
Brigit: “Why complain about it anyway? What’s done is done. We still have to get to Seattle.”
Me: “You know, I never asked. Why are you guys going there?”
Brigit: “To see the Hecate.”
Me: “Oh come on, that’s a myth. They can’t still be alive.”
Clay: “What about the M notes?” What was once called a blog was now back to being penny handbills mimeographed onto surplus newsprint. Mistress M was one of the most ubiquitous. Her byline hinted that the handle was a pseudonym written by three people. The Hecate. There were a lot of other unusual rumors about these folks, ranging from delirious accusations about fertility magic to more mundane claims that they’d managed to preserve an impressive cache of the history and archaeology of ritual, worship, and mysticism. Quite a coup if they actually managed it. I thought it unlikely.
Me: “The M notes aren’t what they used to be. If Mistress M ever did exist, whoever’s running print under the name now is almost certainly a forger. But don’t let that stop you. Even if you’re on a wild goose chase, there are lots worse places to live than the Puget Sound. Good fishing there year-round, so long as you can stand cold water. If you can handle rain half the year, the rest of it more than makes up.”
Anika: “Sounds too good to be true.”
Me: “For all I know, it is. I haven’t lived there for a while, and I don’t know what the politics are like. If it’s anything like Sacramento, I might think twice about setting up camp.”
Brigit: “I’m still surprised it didn’t get nuked. Aren’t there like a bunch of Army bases around there?”
Me: “Navy and Air Force too. The Pacific Trident fleet is just across the Sound in the Hood Canal.”
That night, the deep eye gazed at us from afar, hidden behind a raft of algae and unnamed filth, studded with the sparkle of iced lungs.