MindWarp has been named to Kirkus Reviews' "Best of 2011" list. The Florida Writers Association also awarded the title novella its top prize for short fiction in the 2011 Royal Palm Literary Award competition. In this award-winning collection of short fiction, a deranged author turns a barroom buddy into his fictional foil as he “warps” his own and the friend’s reality beyond recognition…an ageless man sits on a rock in the desert on Yom Kippur waiting for a goat to be brought to him…a shanty-town child saves and befriends a crippled rabbit hit by a speeding car, only to face the impersonal cruelty of modern life…a woman rides a bus in silence to her family homestead once a year, concealing her personal mystery from the bus attendant, a neighbor who grew up in her sheltering shadow…a shell-shocked war veteran waits beside railroad tracks each day for his tormentor to pass… Kirkus, which bills itself as "The World's Toughest Book Critic," describes the work as a “scintillating collection…(that) uses offbeat character studies to wrestle with snaky issues of identity and self-knowledge…. Quirky, opaque figures abound…. (T)he quality of (Hébert’s) prose, his deadpan realism, mordant wit and acute powers of description ground his flights of abstraction in the soil of experience. A beguiling blend of high-concept narrative and old-school literary chops.” The entire Kirkus review can be accessed at h t t p : / / w w w . k i r kusreviews.com/book-reviews/indie/richard-hebert/mindwarp/.
From time to time he shifts his haunches on the hump of rock. He has chipped down and smoothed its roughest spots, but it is still stone and uncomfortably hard on his skimpy buttocks. He stitches tatters of tanned leather together into a spare tunic against the weather, using a needle made of bone and a thread woven of his own long, wind-tangled hair. He is a scavenger; the leather was taken from the hides of dromedaries and wild dogs found dead in the desert.
Even though working without hurry, he often pricks his finger with the needle and sucks droplets of blood from it. He is no seamstress; there are no seamstresses in the desert.
The intransigent, incessant desert is colored by the air that skims over it: star-flecked black velvet and purple at night that melt at dawn to a lavender ash; undulant buff startlingly luminous when the sun first looks in over the world’s windowsill; drawing in its shadows with the rise to full brazen day until the desert is as blinding as snow, releasing fawn-colored shadows again with the sun’s slow descent, bleeding orange and tangerine slashed with radish-red swords as it sinks out of sight; dusty pinks and blues and greens that sift down by turn out of the last western sky until it is all under mauve and myriad other mutations as subtle and fleeting as the moments mown down by the second hand of a clock. Azazel has watched the desert’s moments gathered into days, days stacked into years, years marched into millennia. Azazel is, above everything else, patient.
He stops often to study the distance, where a haze fuses the desert to the sky. His previous camp is a dried corsage left where it fell on the rim of the desert. He can still discern it from here, a mere smudge in the haze. The camp before that and those before have all fallen beyond the curve of the world. By his meandering rosary of dead corsages the attendants will always be able to find Azazel.
You would know him anywhere. He is old, lean, leathery. His hands are gnarled and yet the gnarls are polished as smooth as his favorite gripping place about two-thirds up his staff’s length, a staff that accompanies him everywhere. His face is deeply grooved with the troughs of empty riverbeds, his eyes blackly intense in the creases of his ruddy squints. His beard is full, a blend of salt and cinnamon, his mouth grim yet not harsh.
In the first years, he attempted to keep up with fashion. Every few years they seemed to change, from what little he could tell, and he’d had the devil’s own time altering his hair and the cut and color of his cloak. After a time, he’d taken the trouble to alter his style only every fifty years or so. Now he no longer does even that. It seems a ridiculous waste of effort.
You might mistake him for John the Baptist, or what most people seem to believe John looked like. It was the attendant who visited with him that time for forty days who told him he looked like the Baptist. The attendant said he was John’s cousin. That one had been one of the best visitors he’d ever had.
They had enjoyed making up stories by the campfire to pass the time. The stranger said it wasn’t important whether stories were true or not, as long as they were interesting, kept people’s attention and made some point; as long as they seemed to be true, or true enough that people would suspend their inclination to disbelieve; and as long as they made the listener feel something inside, even if he couldn’t define what that something was. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, he’d said. That was an okay rule to go by, Azazel thought.
That fellow had been an odd, brooding one, though. He seemed saddened by some of the stories he said people would be telling about him, as though for once he wished they could stick to the facts. They’d get this whole forty-day vacation of his all bass-ackward, for one thing. Azazel didn’t see that it made any difference how they got it, or that they got it at all. It made no difference to him. The other fellow thought it did, however.
“They’re going to have you trying to make me jump off a damn mountaintop,” he said. “They weren’t here. How could they possibly know that?” All Azazel could remember was gazing all about him, across the sandy waves of desert, not a mountain in sight.
That was long ago, about the time he stopped worrying about things like hairstyles and clothing fashions. Since then he’s been content to remain a resemblance of the stereotypical John the Baptist. Curiously, some years ago one of his callers remarked that quite a few people that year were wearing their hair like his, long and tangled, and even clothes like his, that the John-the-Baptist look was back in fashion. Which only proved that fashions never went away permanently, they always returned sooner or later. So why bother changing with them at all? Every now and then you were back in style regardless.
And who is around to notice or care? The goats? Azazel doesn’t even like goats. More accurately, he hasn’t enough emotional response toward them to work up a good case of either like or resentment. He can account for every last one of them, of course. That’s a matter of a different kind. He is, if anything, accountable.
The scruffy, skimpy, motley assortment of goat-dom is idly busy foraging in the rags of weed just beyond the next dune. They don’t care about him, why should he care about them? They don’t come to comfort him the way a pet dog might. In fact, they’re half dead. Their heads hang low, the nannies give no milk and bear no young, the billies yield no sperm.
They may as well be dead. They linger agelessly on the doorstep of death. You can’t kill them, dare not eat them (heaven forbid!), you merely have to let them be. They are the elect, the ones redeemed by sin into immortality, hardscrabble as it is. Still, even the elect must feed. It is for them, thankless as they are, that his camp is pitched near the desert’s edge.
They lead, he follows. Only as far as the last dune, never beyond its sparsely grassed slope. He remains of the desert and can never leave it. His tent is pitched safely on sand. There has never been need to police him; he honors his duty and will as long as there is desert to honor it upon. And there will always be desert. And goats.
Awards won by author and former investigative reporter Richard Hébert include the Royal Palm Literary Award (2011) and nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. Published works include both fiction and nonfiction, magazine features and documentary films. He currently writes about public affairs at jonettarosebarras.com from his home in St. Augustine, Florida.