a passage from
The Western Lands
by William S. Burroughs
There is no way in or out of the Valley, which is ringed with sheer cliffs with an overhanging ledge. How did the people of the Valley get in there in the first place? No one remembers. They have been there for many years. Children have been born, grown old and died in the Valley, but not many children. Food is scarce. A stream runs through the Valley, and they have dammed up a large pond to raise fish. There is an area along the stream where they grow corn. Sometimes they kill birds, a few lizards and snakes. So most children must be killed at birth. Just an allotted number to continue the line.
Maybe, some say, they will be seen, and people will lower ropes. There is a legend that one man built a flying machine from lizard, snake and fish skins sewn to a frame of light wood. It took him all his life to build it, and he was seventy when the machine was finally finished. It looked like a gigantic dragonfly with sixty-foot wings.
The currents rising from the Valley on certain hot afternoons, he calculated, could bear the ship aloft. It could carry only one person, and that person must be very light. A boy of thirteen was chosen. The Builder was by then comparatively corpulent, since he was granted extra rations for his work, which they hoped would be their means of deliverance: Esperanza.
The Builder had a device like a dowser’s wand, carefully constructed of the lightest fish bones. He would hold the wand out, testing the air, and the wand would seem to be an extension of his hands, gnarled and twisted by their years of painstaking work. He would shake his head.
But finally the rod seemed to leap and vibrate and point straight up to the sky beyond the cliffs. He nodded.
“The time has come, but you must act quickly.”
The boy took his place. No time for goodbyes. The men and women of the Valley gently lifted the huge craft above their heads as high as their arms would reach.
They launched the craft into the air. It sailed forward and seemed about to crash, then the current caught it, wafted it upward, further and further, almost up to the vast overhangs now, as the scales of the fish and snakes and lizards caught the late sun and sparkled with iridescent lights, for the Valley was already in shadow.
A powerful updraft from the darkening Valley, up, up, riding the wind like a vulture . . . then one wing tore loose and the craft dipped and veered. The other wing broke against the top of the cliff and the boy plummeted down, trailing gossamer rags of the torn fuselage, down, down into darkness.
That was many years ago. How many, no one knows. There is no point in keeping any sort of time here. Only the old men remember, and no one knows how old the old men are. No one has tried to build such a craft since.
The Valley is narrow, only six hundred yards across at the widest point, so that there is sun in the Valley for only a few hours each day. They have developed a strain of corn that grows by the light of the moon and the stars, a pale blue corn with a metallic taste, that emits a faint luminescence. The corn is nutritious, but it rots the gums, the teeth fall out, and the corn attacks the palate . . . finally the tongue and gums and lips are eaten away to the bone so that the Corn-Eaters resemble grinning skulls, their contaminated flesh glowing in the dark. Most of us avoid the deadly corn, knowing where it leads as the corn attacks the bones, until the spinal column is eaten through . . . even so, the head still lives for some hours.
The only thing that keeps us alive is music, and in this the Corners excel. They sing through their rotting gums, a strange, viscous sound, exquisitely sad, a lament of living protoplasm, and they strum delicate instruments of feathers and fish skin and leaves and insect wings . . . the instrume
nts disintegrate under their hands, the delicate flutes split and flutter to the ground. . . .
At one time we were able to grow chilies, but a blight killed the plants. I think we would all kill ourselves except for the grifa. We have planted it where it will reach all of the sun each day, in the middle of the Valley by the stream. The plants are of a very dark green, almost black, and oily. One whiff on the pipe is enough for hours. Like everything, the grifa is carefully rationed. How is this enforced? There is no need to enforce anything here, where we all know the precise limitation of needs. The fish, the grifa, the nettles, the ants, the lizards and snakes, the moss from the edge of the cliff, the birds, everything is precisely doled out. Those who are working on instruments take precedence and are allotted extra rations. Sometimes a Corner will spend years on an instrument, preparing a single song.
How else do we occupy our time? Every day we must plan for the food of the day. This involves elaborate calculations: counting the fish, the number of moon-corn plants, the nettles, the moss. A miscalculation could mean starvation and the extinction of our line. We must believe that our line is precious, and that it must be maintained.
Often the word comes: “No food today.” Or there may be just a meager allotment of boiled nettles. Fire is a problem, but we have the Burning Crystals. Occasionally there is a feast, perhaps two large snakes have been killed and one fish can be spared. On these rare occasions the Corners perform, and some of them die the following day. Their bodies must be hacked up and used to fertilize the moon-corn patches for future Corners.
Corners have the calling, like a priest. It is both an honor and a disgrace to have a Corner in the family. But at the age of puberty, the mark of the Corner can be perceived: a look of dreamy despair, the look of a hungry ghost in time of famine, but a noble resignation that transcends the hunger. At first the Corners are supple and strong. At this stage many attempt to climb out of the Valley. A few have been known to reach the overhangs.
Soon the rot sets in. They wake up spitting teeth and blood and pus. It is time for them to learn the ancient songs and music, time to start making their instruments. They also make a moon-corn beer to be used at the festivals. The Death Brew is lethal. One cup will kill in three days . . . three days of agonizing bone aches and hemorrhaging through the skin, literally sweating blood. To avoid this horrible death the Corner chooses someone to kill him at dawn. This is done by thrusting an obsidian knife under the rib cage and into the heart.
Escape from the Valley occupies our life. We could tunnel out, perhaps. Such a tunnel was undertaken, but after five years of work there was no way to supply air and the tunnel workers suffocated. The tunnel has long since fallen in, but you can still see the entrance. It’s a good place to catch snakes and lizards.
Some devote themselves to exercises to escape from the body and soar out of the Valley. The Soarers receive extra rations of grifa, but many feel that they are simply lazy parasites.
“Well, man, I gotta get it together, you understand?” And they go on getting it together, as the light comes and goes, babies are born, old men die.
There is no possibility of sending messages out of the Valley. Tied to the leg of a bird? We don’t even know what that is. And we have tried smoke signals, but we must ration our meager supply of fuel.
The Soarers are into mind-to-mind sending. One of them rigged up a contraption with a piece of quartz crystal and some wire he had made by putting certain rocks in a fire and some bright nodules melted and ran out. These he pounded into thin strands, and he formed fish gills into caps for his ears and ran the wires from the crystal and wire unit to the ear caps. With the ear caps you could hear crackling sounds and snatches of music and human voices. We could hear them . . . they could not hear us. But we knew they were there.
It was occasion for a festival. Everybody was drunk. The rations of moon-corn beer were brought out, and extra grifa. We didn’t go overboard, but this was something to celebrate. We are not alone! Others live outside the Valley. They will find us. They will lower ropes. They will take us out of the Valley, to where the sun shines all day. We will have enough to eat. We will be in Heaven.
One day it happened. We heard a roaring noise overhead and looked up to see what looked like the legendary Dragonfly, hovering there in the sky. We waved and shouted. The craft hung there and then turned and headed away. Next day it was back over the Valley, with several more just like it.
Now one came down past the overhangs and landed by the stream. Immediately the Soarers rushed forward as two men got out of the craft.
“Mucho gusto . . . buenos diás . . . muchos años aquí.”
The men explained that we would all be evacuated, but that they could only take five at the moment. And five Soarers got into the craft, which lifted off.
Now another settled, but the pilots started back at sight of the advanced Corners.
“These gooks will have to be quarantined.”
“They don’t go in my chopper.”
“We’ll contact Atlanta.”
Gingerly they tossed out some food packages.
A strict quarantine was imposed . . . soldiers were stationed around the Valley. Armed helicopters stood by to turn away any attempt to approach the Valley by air. A helicopter chartered by the Press was turned back, having been warned that there were orders to shoot down any aircraft that violated the quarantine.
The entire population of the Valley, forty men and thirty-five women, was transported to Atlanta by technicians in protective clothing, and placed in isolation. The Valley itself was in Colombia, but the local authorities were glad to turn matters over to the gringos rather than risk responsibility for some horrendous epidemic.
The Corners were found to be suffering from some form of radiation sickness. However, neither the corn itself nor the lesions responded to the most sensitive and advanced radiation detectors. The investigators concluded, “If radiation is the etiological factor we must conclude that it is some form of radiation unknown at the present time.”
The Press, of course, wallowed in speculation and clamored to be allowed to interview the Valley people and take pictures. They were firmly admonished that the possibility of a virgin soil epidemic imposed emergency conditions. No one but scientists and doctors from the CDC would be allowed access to the Valley people, unless or until there was no danger of an unknown disease agent getting loose in the world’s population.
The Press grumbled and prowled around the Center, thrusting their microphones at anyone who came in or out. Exhaustive tests determined that the Corn Disease was not directly contagious, but resulted from some substance in the corn or in the soil upon which it was grown. But this substance defied isolation.
Finally the Valley people were released, and a press conference was held. The Soarers took over the conference, recounting the legend of the Dragonfly, Esperanza. The question as to how they got into the Valley was a subject for endless conjecture and speculation: the Valley had been sealed off by an earthquake and a landslide—the Valley people were survivors of a wrecked spacecraft—they or their ancestors had entered the Valley by rope ladders, which pulled loose from their moorings.
The Corners formed a rock group called “Glowing Corn” and became fabulously wealthy. When they stopped eating the contaminated corn, the disease was arrested. They resorted to plastic surgery. The other Valley people scattered, gravitating to the Hispanic barrios of Los Angeles and New Mexico. A few went to New York.
In a few years the Valley was forgotten.