The Strange Case of David Lang
I was named for my great-grandfather, David Lang. David has long been a source of speculation and fascination owing to his disappearance near Gallatin, Tennessee, on September 23, 1880. He supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. Nor was his disappearance without witnesses. It was twilight. The afternoon sun had dropped behind the hills. Yet, even in the grainy light, David’s wife and children, sitting on the porch, saw him disappear.
As a boy I was teased beyond thought at the story of my great-grandfather. Imagine my delight when his saga appeared in 1959 in a book titled Stranger than Science by Frank Edwards. Edwards’ account squares with the stories I’ve heard at numerous family reunions:
David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.
Before my grandmother, David’s daughter, died in 1965 at the age of eighty-seven, she told me as I sat in wide-eyed wonder what happened afterwards.
“Six months or so later, my brother and I were playing near the spot. I don’t know why. We were just drawn to it. It was, after all, the last place we’d seen him alive – assuming that he was, in fact, dead.”
That last bit always intrigued me. Did my grandmother harbor a suspicion that her father’s disappearance had been the result of some inexplicable supernatural phenomenon? As a boy, I’d also begun to investigate paranormal subjects. I had a special interest in UFO sightings, radioactive mutations, and time travel. By some odd confluence of circumstances, had my great-grandfather been plucked out of this dimension and placed into another one? Was he a quantum being? My grandmother would bring me out of my reverie by returning to the spot of her father’s disappearance.
“As I said, my brother and I were drawn to play there. About six months later, we were searching for four-leaf clovers on Daddy’s grave – that’s how we’d come to think of it. All of a sudden we heard our father’s voice – both my brother and I heard it. It seemed to be coming from the base of a large rock. He was calling to us. We tried to answer but with no success. An hour later the voice faded. We never heard it again. Years later we hired an excavation crew to dig on the site. It didn’t take long before they struck a solid floor of granite. No sink holes were found, no wells, no Indian burial mounds – just rock.”
My grandmother’s stories lured me to the place of David Lang’s disappearance. I half-heartedly hoped that he would call out to me from under the big rock. Maybe I was under my grandmother’s suggestive spell, but I sometimes thought I detected the echo of a voice I’d never heard. Breezes in the trees can play tricks on the ears.
My grandmother’s death only intensified my interest in unusual happenings. I devoured as much information as possible on such diverse subjects as UFOs and alien abductions, séances and Ouija, the Illuminati and secret societies throughout the ages. I collected coins in order to detect Masonic symbols in U.S. currency. I spent hours contemplating the possibility of time travel. To that end I wore out three copies of H.G. Well’s Time Machine. I also encrypted codes and memorized the Cherokee alphabet, developed by a club-footed chieftain named Sequoyah, whose English surname, enigmatically, was Guess.
High school found me abandoning these interests in favor of other pursuits. Girls, cars, and sports comprised the reigning trinity of my teenage years. Girls, in particular, were just as mysterious as Stonehenge or Area 51. In short, space aliens had nothing on a species of nymphs whose innocence inspired in me the rankest sort of lust. No wonder Odysseus had ordered his crew to tie him to the mast of his ship so he couldn’t jump into the sea in pursuit of the sirens.
Senior year offered time to re-evaluate my priorities. I decided to enroll at Vanderbilt University to pursue a double major in English literature and particle physics. I wasn’t unaware that these subjects were at far ends of the academic spectrum. What I hoped, I now think, was that I’d find a theory unifying all fields of knowledge. What can I say? I was young. Shouldn’t youth be a time of enthusiastic speculation?
I didn’t give up on girls – certainly not. Nashville offered plenty of opportunities for romantic couples desiring to couple. Music bars like the Mercy, eateries like Holland House, and art crawls through the galleries on Fifth Avenue and the arcade, were part of an elaborate courtship ritual leading back to dorms where couples, inebriated, needed no justification for enjoying some midnight delight.
That was mostly on weekends. Vanderbilt is often termed a “Southern Ivy.” Its professors and courses proved rigorous during my days there. Classes, labs, and study sessions often meant sleep deprivation. There never seemed to be enough of me to go around. A date on a week night could ruin a GPA. At times I envied my great-grandfather’s seeming ability to be in two places at once.
Then one day two seemingly random events occurred but with such synchronicity as to erase any doubt they were somehow connected in ways unfathomable to me. The first took place in my eight a.m. American lit class. I’d been unable to read the assignment the night before because I’d been writing a physics lab report, already two days overdue. My English professor, a man in fifties with a shock of white hair and a goatee, and wearing a sport coat embodying Vanderbilt’s ideal of the shabby, genteel college don, told us to open the book to page 243. There on the printed page was Ambrose Bierce’s story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” As was his habit, the professor provided a summary of the piece, knowing that half the class was barely awake at eight, the other half hungry for having skipped breakfast.
“In this story,” the professor said, “a man is seen crossing a field, then disappears from existence.”
But wait! That’s what had happened to my great-grandfather. I strained to hear what else the professor was saying.
“Such a story could be thought of as a foreboding prophecy of Bierce’s own unexplained disappearance.”
Bierce disappeared? I cursed under my breath for not having read the story and the accompanying biographical notes before class. The professor went on to say that Bierce’s disappearance was one of the great mysteries in American literary history.
Between classes I rushed to the library, looking up Bierce and his work, awestruck that the author had written about a disappearance like one experienced by my great-grandfather. I got chill bumps as I read the inspiration for Bierce’s story: a sensational narrative evincing historical accuracy based on testimony by witnesses. In this account, said to have occurred on a morning in July, 1854, Bierce reported the fate of a planter named Williamson, who lived six miles from Selma, Alabama, who vanished before the eyes of his wife and child, and a neighbor and his son.
I could hardly tear myself away, but I’d spent all night working on the physics report and needed to attend class in order to turn it in. As it was, I was late on entering. I took a seat in the back. The young man next to me reeked of marijuana. In 1973 pot was pervasive on campus. When people weren’t toking, they were popping amphetamines like candy. Some nights it was the only way to prop up when studying. The professor was in mid-lecture – something about a thought experiment by an Austrian physicist named Schrodinger. The professor read a passage from our text summarizing the experiment:
A cat is placed in a steel box along with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer, and a radioactive substance. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger detects it and triggers the hammer to release the poison, subsequently killing the cat. The radioactive decay is a random process so that there is no way to predict when it will occur. Physicists say that the atom exists in a state known as a superposition – decayed and not decayed simultaneously. Until the box is opened, an observer can’t know whether the cat is dead or alive.
A person didn’t have to be a theoretical physicist to understand the implications of Schrodinger’s theory. In a quantum dimension, a thing could be in two places at once, could, in fact, be both alive and dead. Just because I was dead in this dimension didn’t mean I was dead in another. Envisioning time as a continuum meant that I was already dead as some point in the future. In that nanosecond in class, I had the undeniable sensation that a spark had crossed a commissure in my brain, resulting in an instantaneous linking of disparate entities: my great-grandfather’s bizarre disappearance, Ambrose Bierce’s prophetic vanishing act, and the paradoxical time-bending properties of quantum physics.
My epiphenomenal moment didn’t last long. People diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy sometimes describe experiencing an aura. There’s even a menu of diagnostic auras. If I had an aura that day, it dissolved quickly. Still, I was determined to discover what role I played in the cosmic theater of space-time.
However, every new discovery meets resistance almost at once. It’s as if with every intoxicating insight, a corresponding impulse arises to slam shut the windows of perception. The demon of doubt rears its head.
My own misgivings emerged with a reporter’s attempts to prove that my great-grandfather’s disappearance was a hoax – a species of folklore perpetrated after the publication of Bierce’s story inspired by a mid-century planter’s disappearance into the vortex of time. I was furious! Why was one story easier to believe than another? The reporter even conjectured that David Lang never existed. If so, then what did that say for me?
Still, I found mention of another reporter’s account, including an interview with David Lang’s daughter, Sara Lang, my grandmother! The reporter noted that Sara was reluctant to grant the interview but granted it to substantiate her family’s earlier claims about her father. She had verified the events of that day, acknowledging how eerily strange it was to be the daughter of the ghostly David Lang. She’d said little else, a fact consistent with my grandmother’s shy character and her almost obsessive desire to shun publicity beyond the scope of her family. Remember. My grandmother died in 1965, years before the Internet with its ubiquitous splash of images and lurid appeals of self-promotion. Hers was a mindset that doesn’t exist anymore. She was born and lived in a southern version of the Victorian era. She was a genteel lady and, as she was fond of saying, a lady’s name should appear in the newspaper twice only: once, when she was born, and once, when she died.
“These stories – do what you will with them,” she’d said to me.
I promised to revisit them in the future. That point would not materialize for years. After Vanderbilt, I pursued graduate degrees in English literature at Harvard, then at Christ’s College, Oxford. On completing the D. Phil. at Oxford, I returned to the happy coincidence of an available professorship at Vanderbilt. I aced the interview, was hired for the position, and settled into a comfortable life as a gentleman scholar. I taught and conducted research. Two years later I married my graduate teaching assistant. We had two children in fast succession – a boy and a girl, named David and Sara. Oddly, my wife chose both names. Our children are grown now. David teaches art at Vandy. Sara is an osteopath in Memphis. She’s expecting in November – a boy, according to the ultrasound. As for my wife and me, it’s as if we’ve hurtled through our children’s lives in a time machine. Imagine the bewildering effect of prolonged cosmic jetlag. That’s how it’s been for us these past few years.
Up until a few months ago, the only touchstone with any reality I’d known could be found only in dreams. In one of those dreams, I was a boy, walking hand in hand with my grandmother across the expanse of a field. She stopped and pointed to the spot where her father had disappeared. He seemed to vanish with the haze. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that my quantum state of dreaming seemed more real than the hours and days ticking off the clock with its assumptions of real time. Was I coming unhinged – besieged by regressive psychosis? I felt shaky and diaphanous. My doctor prescribed Beta blockers to stop my hands from trembling. The only time I seemed to relax was when attending the extraordinary lecture series hosted by Vanderbilt’s physics department in the Central Library. Lectures were open to the public, but I always received curious stares from the scientists who sensed that I was a creature not of their world. After all, mathematics, not words, comprised their code of communication. Sitting in the auditorium, I sometimes wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn, pursuing literature instead of physics. I suddenly felt as if I were living in two dimensions – torn between opposite modes of apprehending human existence.
However I might wish to pursue another life, I’d been hired to teach literature, and that’s what I’d done for almost thirty years. I consoled myself by thinking that if I hadn’t gone into literature, I might never have read Bierce’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” a story that haunted and intrigued me and that, in proprietary fashion, I’d come to claim as my own. For years I scoured the story for a key to the mystery of my origins and to the cosmic landscape swallowing up my great-grandfather before his family’s eyes. I sometimes intuited that through the medium of the story Bierce was speaking directly to me across a continuum of space and time.
So great was my obsession with Bierce that I offered a graduate seminar on his work two years ago in the fall. One brilliant October morning, I drove to campus, pulling into my reserved parking spot. On exiting the car, I dropped a Cross pen that I assumed rolled under the vehicle. When I bent to look, there was no pen in sight. I got back in the car, pulling into the parking space in front of me. Exiting the car once more, I scanned the lot. Still no pen. A young woman, an assistant professor in the history department, pulled in the spot beside me.
“Lose something?” she asked, striding over to help look.
She joined in the search. “Looks as if it’s vanished,” she said finally.
“Has anything like this ever happened to you?” I asked.
“Once,” she said, “a few years ago. My daughter was a baby. She threw her pacifier out the car window. My husband and I looked and looked for it but never found it. I suspect that there are cracks in the space-time continuum and that things disappear all the time.”
Had she said that? Did she mean it?
“Even people?” I ventured.
“Maybe. It would have to be an awfully big crack, I would think.”
A week later Nashville hosted its annual Southern Festival of Books on the capitol mall. Publishers, authors, and editors occupy booths, selling books to the throng of conference goers and tourists converging for the event. A fixture at the conference is an author who bills himself as an investigative mythologist, whose ranging interests include aliens, alchemical symbolism, and esoteric geometry. He theorizes that, like Rome, Nashville’s seven hills comprise “light centers” like those found on the site of Stonehenge or the Mayan ruins. I’ve visited those ancient artifacts and can attest to a confluence of strange, almost psychedelic, sensations associated with those places. Nashville, according to the author, emits the same patterns of energy.
“If you could unfold the universe,” the author told me in our last discussion, “the cosmic-axis would be on the spot where you’re standing.”
Although regarded by many of the locals as a star-gazing fanatic, he is the only person I know who’d ever investigated my great-grandfather’s disappearance. He also knew more about Nashville’s history than anyone I know.
“I’m curious,” I asked before leaving his booth. “Was Ambrose Bierce ever here?” Bierce, the cosmic trickster, seemed to make the rounds. It was safe to assume he’d been here too.
“December 1864. Battle of Nashville. Union side.”
In subsequent weeks, I visited Peach Orchard Hill, site of a two-day clash that broke the resistant back of the Confederate army in Tennessee. Bierce had been a cartographer during the war. Had he mapped this battlefield? Was I walking in his footsteps?
A month later I picked up a copy of Nashville’s weekly entertainment magazine, Metro Pulse. Between classes I browsed its contents when something caught my eye, then struck me with the force of a hammer. It was a full-page splash ad for the 2013 season for the Nashville Opera. Among the chamber listings: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. Imagine my shock when learning the name of the composer: David Lang! In what quadrant of the universe had I been not to have heard of this David Lang? He’d won a Pulitzer Prize in music and written an award-winning opera based on a story by Bierce, a writer, who by all rights, belonged to me. I stood in direct line of succession to the original David Lang. How many David Langs were there? My temples throbbed. I logged on to my computer to ask it my question. In the snap of a genie’s fingers, it found the answer: 1,216 people in the U.S. were named David Lang. Did we all exist at once, or did some of us disappear only to spring up in another dimension with only hazy recollections of our former state – what Wordsworth called “intimations of immortality”?
To make things worse, David Lang’s online bio contained the following paragraph:
In 1999, Lang and playwright Mac Wellman based their opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, about an Alabama planter named Williamson who purportedly vanished while walking across a field in 1854. Bierce’s story recurs in urban-legend form, in which, coincidentally, the vanished man is often given the name David Lang.
Not only had the composer David Lang co-opted my great-grandfather and his disappearance, but he’d also conflated my real ancestor with the character in Bierce’s story. Undoubtedly, David Lang the musician was attracted to the story because his name was the same as my great-grandfather’s. That was no coincidence, a synchronicity, perhaps, but no coincidence. Sitting at my desk, I envisioned the gifted composer as a time-traveling thief, wiggling in and out of dimensions, stealing identities in the name of David Lang, then arranging them like notes on a score to be played like a celestial ensemble at the end of time. I felt diaphanous again – like a ghost walking over my own grave.
Of course, there was another, more disturbing possibility. My ancestor had disappeared, stuck between the walls of time. A diaphragm between this world and that had reverberated with sounds of his voice which his children heard six months after he’d vanished. What if my great-grandfather had felt his way along the warp and woof of time’s curtain until finding a portal, enabling him to re-enter this temporal world on a finite continuum designated on the calendar as January 8, 1957 – musician David Lang’s date of birth? What if the composer was my great-grandfather? Or, a more disturbing prospect – and one just as likely: What if my great-grandfather was me?
I attended the opera, staged exactly a century after Bierce’s disappearance, long a subject of speculation and controversy. Consult a literature anthology, and you’ll find that the year of Bierce’s death – 1913 – is almost always followed by a question mark. No one really knows what happened to him, just as no one knows what happened to the planter in Alabama in 1853 or to David Lang in 1888.
Legend has it that Bierce went down to Mexico and joined up with Pancho Villa and his forces during the Mexican revolution. Someone reported that he was later executed by a firing squad. The problem is that these rumors don’t square with the fact, attested to by friends, that Bierce found Villa reprehensible and would likely never have joined his ranks. Then where did Bierce go? Did he engineer his own disappearance, or did the cosmos engineer it for him? How many people on the surface of the planet disappeared each day? And what of other famous disappearances in history – Amelia Earhart, entire ships in the Bermuda Triangle, and the lost colony at Roanoke?
These were my thoughts as I sat watching David Lang’s alluring and eerie opera based on what Bierce billed as fiction. Lately I’d noticed a phenomenon while teaching I’d never experienced before. I’d chalked it up to a widespread attention deficit disorder inspired by the memetic bombardment of e-mails, texts, and twitters. The phenomenon manifested itself in the following way: I’d offer some information or instruction and, after a discernable lapse, someone would ask me to repeat what I’d said, with my words, to my thinking, still hanging in the ether. It was on the order of saying, “We’ll have a quiz on Thursdays,” only to have someone ask, a bit later, “Will we have a quiz on Thursday?” This echoing pattern began to occur so frequently that I started checking my watch, seeing how long it would take for someone to ask me what I’d just said. On average, the lag time was two minutes. Odd that. I could only wonder: Were they two minutes behind on the cosmic clock, or was I two minutes ahead? Did thoughts travel at different speeds? I couldn’t help thinking of the words of Alice’s mad rabbit: “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!”
On my way home from the opera, I recalled something from an astronomy class I’d taken at Vanderbilt thirty-five years earlier. It was that it takes light 4.37 years to reach the earth from Alpha Centauri, the star closest to our solar system. That meant that if Alpha Centauri exploded, it would take 4.37 years for observers on earth to notice its absence. By analogy, would it take my students two minutes before noticing that I’d had a heart attack and died? In that period of time, would I be both alive and dead, theoretically speaking?
I went home, finding my wife asleep. Not wanting to disturb her, I sank onto the sofa in the sun room, glass of Chardonnay in hand. The more I sipped, the drowsier I got. I was beginning to feel like the speaker in Poe’s poem: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary…” I decided to stretch out, too tired to make my way to bed. My eyes folded on the next lines of the poem. I never knew if I finished reciting them: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly, there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
There he stood, a misty figure in a Victorian gentleman’s broad coat. It was not the image I expected, making it plain to him.
“But you were a farmer,” I said.
“A gentleman farmer,” he said in a soft drawl. “They left out that part of the story.”
“Are you the southern planter or my great-grandfather?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not.”
I could have been staring at my own face in a mirror – or mirrors. The effect was like one I’d experienced as a boy getting a haircut in the barber shop. The barber had mounted a mirror on the wall directly in front of his chair and a mirror on the wall behind it. Sitting in the chair, I could see an infinite succession of ever shrinking images of myself, exact replicas disappearing in a continuum. David Lang and I were seeing our past and future simultaneously.
“Are you and I the same person?” I asked, taking a sharp breath.
“Not exactly,” he drawled, “though we obviously share the same DNA. Our psychic fingerprints are different, however.”
“Did you ever wonder,” he asked, “why you’re interested in the things you’re interested in, why you pursued the career you did, why you married the woman in the next room?”
He clearly intended the questions as rhetorical.
“Everything,” he said, “everything in your life has led you to this point in time.” He paused, letting it sink in, before resuming. “Your childhood fascination with the disappearing David Lang, your curiosity about physics, and your odd penchant for always being a bit out of synch with time – are all manifestations of the David Lang that you’ve been in the past or will be in the future.”
“How many of us are there?”
“Oh, my,” he said. “Try to imagine an infinite number of David Langs living in an infinite number of dimensions running parallel to one another like cosmic strings.”
“But you and I are both in this dimension, at this point in time.”
“Do you recall from your physics classes years ago at Vanderbilt a concept known as superposition?”
“Yes. It occurs when two or more waves in the same place are superimposed on one another, meaning that they’re all added together.”
“Right!” He clapped his hands approvingly, sensing that I understood. “The principle of superposition tells us that waves cannot affect one another: one wave cannot alter the direction, frequency, wavelength, or amplitude of another wave.”
“Then how do you explain the presence of more than one David Lang in a single dimension?” I was thinking of the composer Lang, almost sure that he was a time traveler, too. My next thought was what if we met, would we superimpose upon each other, becoming one person?
“It will aid us conceptually,” he said, “to consider the ancient symbol for infinity: the shape of a sideways figure eight, or a snake eating its own tail. The figure folds upon itself at only one point.”
“The point of superposition,” I said.
“A point of timeless infinity. Another way of putting it is that we David Langs always arrive on time when it comes to disappearing.”
“You’ve discovered the blueprint of the universe. Why not go public with it?”
“Do you recall the Inquisition? Throughout history, David Langs have popped into this world intent on sharing esoteric knowledge, only to find extraordinary resistance. We’ve been drawn, quartered, hanged, drowned, and burned at the stake. The Illuminati? It’s why they went underground cloaking themselves in a tapestry of symbols decipherable only to a few. While we’re on the subject, I wouldn’t tell anybody about this dream if I were you. Your wife already suspects that you’re mentally ill given your habit of trying to decipher codes in the diagonals of crossword puzzles.”
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Go? Everywhere. Nowhere. Do you recall the origin of the word utopia?”
“It’s a Greek pun meaning no place and every place at once.”
“Utopia – that’s where I’ll be,” he said, with the conviction of a man who, like me, would experience no difficulty crossing a field.