Missing Variable

Literature by Casey Clabough
Issue 53 • July 2017 • Pamplin

Infinite seemed the road they drove with its curves, its hills, and its trees. It was no ordinary road, but a sinuous paved line cut into the red, dry earth. To those who knew it, it seemed almost human. It allowed them on it with scorn; insensible, without a trace of kindness. It might have been humanlike, but in truth the road was an abomination, nature in reverse. The mountain was allowed to exist because the road existed, rather than the other way around. And yet the mountain was there, and for one who saw as Pilot did, he would have no trouble saying which of its stones was hardest, even should he have lost his sense of touch.

The man riding in the back seat next to Pilot had introduced himself simply as the “the Colonel.” Pilot had not asked if he had another name. The officer was middle-aged, his features molded by an eventful life, or at least meant to appear so. His motions were energetic, almost in the extreme. A foot or finger tapped constantly.

Pilot peered back out the window. Without the mountain, the ember-red of the valley floor—its sandpaper quality amid all the small rocks in all the unplowed fields—would have possessed an almost desert appearance. The clouds would have been different as well, and the sky, that enormous true mirror, would have offered sadness with the image it gave forth.

The giant prizmoidal structures which loomed ahead upon the summit looked to be thirty or more feet in height. Around them the mountain’s topsoil had been abraded into a perfectly flat grassy surface. The structures stood tall, hard, sprouting from the mountain as though no force on earth could undo them. No spell on earth, Pilot thought, could obscure their presence, the odd trajectory they imposed.

He watched the clouds above the structures moving in from the southwest, splitting as they reached the chain of mountains. Constant and strong, wild and sorrowful, mountain and valley stretched together as if mutually wed to some as yet violent destiny.


“Progress keeps on,” said an officer briefing a group of new test subject arrivals which included Pilot. “At some point you’d think it would just stop, but it doesn’t.”

The officer’s aide clicked on a projector and moved to extinguish the lights.

“And that’s what you’re here for,” continued the officer. “The continuation of progress. You won’t always find it easy, but remember it’s among the noblest things you can do—not only for your country, but for humanity itself.”

A film crackled to life. On the screen a black cat with white markings shared a small steel cage with a white mouse. The feline, clearly distressed, leapt away from the smaller creature on every occasion the rodent scurried near. Some of the men in the room chuckled as if they were watching a cartoon, though the sound was not without an element of uneasiness.

“It appears a few of you may have noticed something unusual about this film,” commented the officer from somewhere in the darkness. “Normally a cat is aggressive and deadly when encountering a mouse. However, this particular cat appears incapable of attacking the mouse or even defending himself against it. He’s not acting like a cat at all. In fact, you might go so far as to say he’s become something else entirely.”

The panicked cat was seeking to climb the walls of the cage as the mouse skirted in and out beneath its tail and haunches. A few of the men laughed again, though not so many as before.

“This is called progress, gentlemen,” said the officer as the film suddenly ran out.

The subordinate snapped on the lights, leaving everyone blinking.

“And that is all you need to know for now.”


After the tests, Pilot felt himself a different person. His military career subsequently concluded at Camp Lejeune with a medical discharge and disability. Someone had asked him what he wanted to do and helped set him up as a neighborhood groundskeeper.

He peered at his file and what documents it held, but they had all turned black at Edgewood. There existed no record of family, schooling, and the like—only meaningless scattered words that the black had missed. And any memories he might have retained were long expunged from his mind. Even the lines at the ends of his fingers had been erased.

It was while mowing that he started having visions, especially on sunny days. Riddles or math equations would appear on lawns, but they were too difficult to perform in his head and whenever he lifted a pencil he discovered it was made of rubber. For some reason he had no paper other than the backs of receipts and failed at recalling where one went to purchase it.

“I can't do it,” he said, over and over again. When a homeowner brought him a glass of water and asked him what he’d been singing while mowing, he would always reply he was just crooning some songs he’d made up.

Pilot discovered a fearful abyss now rested between himself and other people. As a result, he realized that his best course was to remain silent, to keep his thoughts to himself for as long as he could. Yet he knew he was in trouble. It was impossible to say where his mind was taking him. If a dead body could move, it would act as his spirit did. He felt his blood moving, but otherwise all was lifeless and unconscious. He was autonomous; it seemed as though his self had departed himself.

One night he walked into the forest behind his little rental house to discern thick pale, low-lying clouds moving beneath the moon. To Pilot they appeared in the form of long lost bodies which had proceeded to get to their feet; voices were reborn and faces uncovered.

He walked aimlessly, peering at them, until he rejoined himself in a small marsh somewhere behind his home, gasping and shaking. He was holding his hands to his face, palms outward in defense.

He washed his arms in a little moonlit spring, one violently rubbing the other, like strange fighting fish.

When he ceased the washing, he brought his hands close and peered at the fingers. The digits felt his worried gaze.

There was a voice inside him that came from somewhere else. It said, “This cannot be your home.”

A state of sluggishness and numbness overtook him; it was like a pleasant fatigue or delicate waves emanating from his body. He felt his life was passing in reverse. Gradually, the stages and events of the past, fragments of his obliterated, forgotten childhood appeared before his eyes. Beyond observing, he was participating in the memories; he could feel them.

In the twinkling of an eye, he was living a life different from his own; he breathed in a variant atmosphere, distant from himself, as though he intended to escape from himself and change his destiny. When he closed his eyes, his real world, whose imaginary pictures had a life of their own, returned to him. These pictures appeared and disappeared at random, as though his will had no influence on them. But he could not be too sure about that either; the scenes that materialized before him were not normal dreams, because he was not asleep. In silence and with composure, he could separate these pictures from each other and make comparisons among them. As a result, it was becoming apparent that until then he had not known himself, and that the world did not possess the force and the meaning he thought it did.


He descended upon a little town, sleeping in its valley, with white columned buildings. Beyond the woods surrounding it could be seen a long range of smoky-blue hills. In the forest justice had asked no clarification; it neither judged nor condemned. The stronger or luckier might go unpunished, while never forgetting the mountains may or may not show their disapproval. Pilot knew the town would be different.

He came upon a railroad track and followed it in a northwesterly direction, occasionally glimpsing buildings and people through a barrier of trees.

As he walked on he spied a campus: the sun was flooding the long lawns bordered with trees and students walked about in a leisurely way. Yet further up, coming around a bend in the tracks, he discovered a group of boys in lettered shirts smacking a shirtless boy’s bottom with a stick of wood.

“Look!” one of them said as he stood watching. “A hobo!”

Then they were chasing him back down the tracks, a few pausing in stride to pick up a bottle or loose brick to hurl at him.

The pursuit ceased after a short distance, though the sprint left Pilot with a slightly twisted ankle and the mindfulness of an empty stomach. He backtracked and then moved on east along the tracks. Twilight was coming and his head felt light and warm. His eyes and jaws began to pain him.

He stumbled off the tracks drawn by the light of a fire. A man sitting in front of a defunct railcar was heating water in a pan over an open flame. He motioned for Pilot to join him and, when he had sat, handed him a Dixie cup of something strong and alcoholic that made Pilot’s head worse and better at the same time. The man alternately stirred the fire and the pan just outside the door of the railcar and it struck Pilot as if the place they sat overcame time and the valley, and made life draw closer. When they had shared a watery soup, Pilot stretched out in the dirt and slept.


“I’d never seen the like of your face in my life,” said the man in the full glare of morning. “It’s like you was afraid but also not—like you wasn’t even human or something.”

The man shook his head at the memory.

“Your eyes looked somewhere else,” he continued, “and your teeth was like a mad dog’s.”

Pilot stared at him. His head still hurt. After a while he got up and shuffled away. For days he frequented the tracks with their box cars and engines heading away from and into the sun. When the trains were not thundering by, there might come a fragment of birdsong, or a working man delivering a sad tune. Sometimes he heard the calls and laughter of children.

He shared fires with other wanderers who clung to the tracks or passed their time in the stained brick buildings of the abandoned downtown. Invariably some would ask of his past, but he knew nothing he told them would cohere. People could accept many things. Some had ridden the trains so far as Norfolk and glimpsed the ocean. They had seen Richmond and knew it existed, in truth, with its own filth and sloping downtown. But who could accept places where a man’s heart no longer pulsed like a human heart and his mind not only committed crimes, but was encouraged to do so?

The tracks, too much alive, were for the valley like its unwanted heart. They oriented the drunks and the dogs that were outcast and famished. They imposed a trajectory, a line with an unseen beginning. The valley floor beneath it was almost like lava that never quite cooled.

The tracks appealed to Pilot since the men who dwelt there, though strangled by booze and madness and many other things, were free. To them, the tracks seemed not of this world—a realm forgotten, where men were more human, possessed no fear of pain or fear, and did not bother to hide their anger. We are alive at least, Pilot reminded himself when he was cold or his stomach grumbled.

Sometimes he thought of the old sages and penitents; how the fervor of their lives developed special gifts: gifts of prayer, of healing by laying on of hands, of prophecy, of exorcism; gifts of judging and punishing, comforting and blessing. In Pilot too a gift slumbered and he was grateful that it slept.

In the past, he had seen and heard so many contradictory things that the very sight of his eyes—the thin yet hard substances behind which the soul abides—had rubbed itself over so many surfaces that he no longer believed anything. He doubted the weight and permanence of objects, even the visible and manifest facts that belonged to a single moment. Sometimes he would stop at the corner of a building and grasp its rough brick and mortar.

“Are you stationary and firm?” he would ask.

Even if it responded in the affirmative, he was never sure whether to believe it or not.

The healthier ones tried to bring him forth to places where free food was served or groups met, but he remained uninterested. He kept to the rail cars, aloof, mute, like a prisoner or a foreigner unversed in the words of the land.

Mostly he watched small fires cobbled together with trash or stared out a box car at the blinding light of day. It was the best he could do given all his relations with the world of the living were blurred: past, future, hour, day, month, year all overlapped.

Instead, he dwelt singly upon a question left open, and that would remain open until it answered itself and sank into oblivion. It would do so without ever having touched anything but itself. It was a pure question.

The question was as a remote encounter, it drifted into his vision unannounced: sadness and light, yet both adored. How quietly it rested upon his mind and then the seasons would come to their ends, offering something new and yet the same.

Casey Clabough’s books include three works of creative nonfiction, a novel, a collection of Virginia women’s Civil War writing, a biography of Virginia writer George Garrett, six scholarly books on southern and Appalachian writers, and Penguin’s latest Idiot’s Guide: Creative Writing. Clabough serves as editor of the literature section of the Encyclopedia Virginia and series editor of the multi-volume Best Creative Nonfiction of the South. He teaches in the Etowah Valley Writers MFA at Reinhardt University.

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