Out of Whole Cloth

Carlos cut himself off at age 21, severed his part as neatly and effectively, as far as other people were concerned, as six inches of hair. He bluffed his way into a graduate program (not that he didn’t deserve to be there, certainly he was smart enough, whatever that meant), somehow giving no home address, no telephone number, no school records; nothing but his name, and that almost certainly made up. He had no birth certificate, no social security number, no discernible source of income — in other words, an enigma. He was an anthropologist, and would disappear for days at a time, weeks, theoretically into the desert, where he was (apparently) studying the local Indian traditions. He had apprenticed himself to a shaman, or a plausible crank — from his stories, and the half-ironical twist of his mouth as he told them, he gave the impression of not knowing himself which it was — who was teaching him sorcery and the use of most-likely illegal hallucinogens.

He’d reappear, stinking and vile, and lock himself in his rooms for days on end, furiously reworking his notes, setting them in order, fleshing out the conversations and the epiphanies into a half-scholarly, half-fantastic drama, peopled with men with the heads of animals and animals with the heads of men, strange, soft-shelled walking eggs and luminous reptiles. These he passed to his advisor with the proud, shameful air of a teenaged boy whispering tales in a locker room. He baffled the faculty: was he fiendishly original, or fiendishly depraved? a prophet or a fraud? The strange consistency of his reports eluded them, hinted at a legitimate philosophy, an underlying cosmogony.

In the end he got his doctorate; his papers were published in a series of quite popular books. Once they’d been put forward, of course, he vanished: those who followed after him, whether to pursue the discipline he’d revealed or to debunk the myth he’d created, found nothing. The shaman he’d studied with was gone; the sorcery he’d taught, and the visions he’d vouchsafed, bore no resemblance to the legitimate lore of the people of which he’d supposedly been a member.