Tickets for the West Mountain Vintage-Voodoo Rogue Slave Cannibal Encounter could only be purchased on the other internet. There was danger, undocumented disappearances. Same could be said for Mount Everest. No one was stopping you. You just had to look harder for access. For some it was their first time on that internet. These days you must look deeper into the dark for an authentic cultural experience. It was at West Mountain, uncharted Appalachia. A map can’t cover every little thing. The group we descend on are mostly white, some ethnic, but all a mix of curious progressives and edgelord vets of dark tourism. All share an all-knowing fraternal glee, a fizz of courage and camaraderie. If any are nervous, nothing is revealed.
The tour guide is a man, a black man. He wears an Indian (or something) headdress of multi-colored feathers and skulls. Are the skulls real, someone asks. My name is Sisyphus he answers, I’ll be your guide. Feel free to ask any questions but wait until we are done. West Mountain is an imposing presence but because it’s an old coal mine it won’t take long to reach the top through its circuitry of tunnels and switchbacks. Now we begin, says Sisyphus, leading the group into the trailhead. For the duration of the short thirty-minute climb he doesn’t say a word, even when someone asks him if Sisyphus is his real name, how funny that we are climbing a mountain led by someone named Sisyphus, if people ask him that a lot.
West Mountain is among layers of dense green lush and neglected forest. They’re not sure how they got there since they were all busy talking, getting to know one another on the bus. When they reach the top of West Mountain, the road has disappeared, it’s just all green, as far as the eye can see. The Mountain is tall, but the trees are taller and now they are without sky.
At the top there is a large basin, or pool, or what is this, someone asks. Gather around and I will explain, says Sisyphus. This is the sacred pot of the tribe where they would make their stews, family style as you say. Are you a descendent of the tribe, someone asks. Miss, the only tribe I belong to is the human tribe, he says. The group laughs in righteous solidarity, maybe they’re relieved the experience is not that authentic. It would be irresponsible for me to say all lives matter but I am from the human tribe, your tribe, he says, outstretching his arms, presenting themselves to themselves. Smiles smatter across engaged, giddy faces, a feeling of all is one now that the tribe’s drink is being distributed and consumed eagerly, a delightful, fermented fruit juice someone exclaims as wow boozy.
This pool is a natural hot spring, he says. When the rogue hybrid slave tribe would make their stews, any liquid removed would be replenished within minutes, a miracle spring. Is it hot, someone asks. It’s a hot spring, he repeats. Can you get in it, someone asks. Oh yes, it’s very lovely, he says, his inflection hillbilly with Creole sophistication. I love your accent, someone says. They were cannibals, right, someone else says, impatient Sisyphus might be holding back the good stuff.
Yes, they would capture and kill humans—you know, our tribe, he says, serving themselves to themselves again. Leftovers were preserved in the mines below. Some early canning techniques were used as well, to sustain them into winter, he says.
So the slave tribe believed in human sacrifice then, someone says. Was it to appease a God?
Yes, killing and consuming humans was to appease their tribal Gods, but they clearly picked up the brutality of their slave-masters who were practicing similar ruthlessness. Some were born into the slave-masters’ atrocity, so they knew no difference, no contrast to the barbarism—through submission, they learned the goal was to dominate others until they could no longer speak. Cannibalism would be the logical conclusion of dominance. But things are different now, as we know. Please, won’t you step inside the spring? Clothing is optional here at West Mountain.
Some are trepidatious, change the subject, under the guise of processing information. Others disrobe completely, naked for the full-effect of submergence, sticking toes in first to check temperature. Satisfied, their whole bodies sink into the soup. Those who changed the subject feel major FOMO since they paid the money, so they follow the leaders while Sisyphus remains stoic when he isn’t nodding his head for encouragement. Don’t worry, if it feels too hot at first, your body will adjust, he says to one woman who is having second thoughts, but she doesn’t want to be the only one to doubt the hospitality.
All twelve of their bodies do adjust, surrendering to the heat quickly just as Sisyphus said. Their heads hit the water with a splish-splash stagger until they go face down, bubbles rising as the bodies bob freely, now lighter, free from the weight of spirits. With only their backs exposed from the scalding liquid, it looks like they’re playing a game, a game of endurance, yet no one has endured, so that’s the end of the game.
Three other men, three other black men who are dressed like Sisyphus, emerge from the corner, they heard the crowd’s silence as their queue. One holds what appears to be a boat paddle until it begins to stir the soup. Sisyphus leads the other two to the other corner to retrieve the tables and place settings. The one who stirs prods the bodies, making sure they’re lifeless, cooking evenly, while the others set up the tables, which will soon be covered in expensive white linen clothes, then large white bowls. The men, only men, who just arrived at the bottom of West Mountain will sit two to each table. Sisyphus begins his thirty-minute descent to lead them up.
One by one, the new arrivals reach the top, led by Sisyphus. They are men, white men, dressed in expensive suits to match the expensive meal in synergy with their overall expensive tastes which, to their frustration, they must go painstakingly out of their way to savor. Until the meal begins, where all is forgiven, where this forbidden luxury is almost tangible. It’s an eternity to their impatience until they hear the sound of the chainsaws. At least it’s a start—the broth will now be made, so they are not bothered by the invasive noise—some even wink to one another, here it comes, it’s getting ready. The only ones who would be ruffled by the screeching machinery are no longer conscious, so they will have no chance to point out that it’s inaccurate to the period, to the authenticity they were seeking.
Once Sisyphus and his co-workers ladle up the stew to the client’s bowels, they are dismissed to leave until clean-up the next morning, so the guests can commiserate in privacy. There is much to talk about and must be done so without prying eyes or ears, even though they have all shared the most intimate exchange, other people’s blood. Likely, they are dismissed because they have all just shared the most intimate exchange, other people’s money.
Sisyphus and his co-workers descend West Mountain, removing their incongruent Indian voodoo headdresses on the way down. They board the bus they came in, now empty. Sisyphus will drive, but since the costumes have been removed, they can now call him Bill. As Bill starts the engine, he sees the new guy in back lean over his seat, staring at the aisle until he vomits. I’m sorry, Bill. It’s okay, he says. We’ll clean it in the morning, and eventually you’ll acclimate to that feeling.
Gabriel Hart lives in California's high desert. His new poetry book Hymns From the Whipping Post is out now (First Cut/Close to the Bone). He's the author of neo-pulp collection Fallout From Our Asphalt Hell, and the dipso-pocalyptic twin-novel Virgins in Reverse/The Intrusion. Other works can be found at Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Shotgun Honey, Bristol Noir, and Rock and A Hard Place Magazine. He's a contributor at Lit Reactor, Los Angeles Review of Books, and a co-conspirator at The Last Estate.
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