A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
—From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wastelands”
Welcome to A Read of the Dark Tower series. Join me each week as I, Constant Reader, tackle the magnum opus of Stephen King’s career for the first time. If you want to discuss in general terms or talk about these first sections, join me by commenting here.
We last left our quartet as held palaver with the very, very old folks of River Crossing, the remains of the first town they come to on the road into the city of Lud.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 11
At the end of section ten, Jake had asked the Elders to tell him about Blaine the Mono and Engineer Bob. The name Bob doesn’t seem to mean anything to the old folks, but they know Blaine the Mono very well. The elevated, single track sits high on a column of manmade stone near the river, Si tells them. Si says the train hasn’t run in a while, but he remembers hearing it—“a low humming noise, a sound like ye sometimes hear when a bad summer storm’s on the way—one that’s full of lightning.” Blaine the Mono was very long (maybe “two wheels,” which was apparently quite a ways), and very fast. And there was a loud explosion, or bang, a few seconds after it passed—enough to knock cups off shelves and break the glass in window panes.
Eddie instantly figures out that it had to be a sonic boom, even though he’s never heard of a train moving faster than the speed of sound.
To Roland, the interesting thing is that it ran toward Lud, coming from the forest where they’d just been. A voice pipes up from outside their group and says, no, there was also one that went out from the city—and “mayhap that one still runs.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Both Eddie and Roland make note that Jake seems to know about this train, when neither of them do. Or at least Eddie and Susannah don’t. Who knows what Roland knows? We rarely get anything from Roland’s point of view anymore. And why is that, I wonder?
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 12
The voice from the garden belonged to Mercy, Si’s blind wife, who Aunt Talitha hadn’t included in their palaver. For that reason, Si seems alarmed that she’s there, and chastises her for interrupting. Aunt Talitha defers to Roland, who invites her to join them. When the older woman expresses doubt as to Mercy’s information, she responds that she probably hears better than Talitha herself. Roland quietly pulls a cartridge from his belt and tosses it to Susannah as a test, and Mercy knew he threw something to the woman—something small, like a biscuit.
Roland is convinced of her hearing, and asks what she meant by her comment about Blaine. She says there’s a second monorail—or either the same one running a different course, and it was running as recently as seven or eight years ago. It would leave the city and go out into the waste lands. But no sound trails this one. This makes sense to Eddie. If the train originated in Lud, by the time it passed River Crossing it wouldn’t have built up enough speed yet to produce a sonic boom.
There’s much bantering and arguing among the old folks about who heard what, and when. But at the end of it, Roland says he believes Mercy. And he wonders if the train might still be running. “Choo-choo,” Jake thinks, and shivers.
What Constant Reader Learns: The reverence with which all the people treat Roland is interesting, and I think says a lot about the importance of gunslingers in their world—maybe they sense he’s the last of a way of life that’s gone and of which they themselves are relics.
The old timers refer to the night Big Charlie Wind came through…the only Charlie we’ve seen so far was Charlie the Choo-Choo. Are they related, I wonder?
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 13
A half hour after the palaver, they’re all back in the town square again, getting ready to leave. Not only the ones who shared the meal, but even more people, have showed up to see them off. They again go through the receiving line thing, kissing Jake on the cheek, shaking hands with Eddie and Suze, and kneeling to be blessed by Roland. The last one through is Aunt Talitha, who Roland will not allow to kneel before him. Instead, he kneels and asks for her blessing: “Will you bless me, Old Mother? Will you bless all of us as we go our course?”
She does, and gives Roland a silver cross on a chain she has worn for over a hundred years. “Now you shall wear it,” she says, “and lay it at the foot of the Dark Tower, and speak the name of Talitha Unwin at the far end of the earth….Go your course in safety. Stand and be true.”
Deeply touched, they set off toward Lud again. Jake looks back at the old people and bursts into tears. Eddie tries to comfort him. “It’s ka,” he says automatically. “Wel ka sucks,” Jake responds, and Eddie can’t argue with him.
What Constant Reader Learns: This was a really touching scene to me, with the old people paying homage to a part of their world they’d thought lost to them—and might yet be. I’m also glad to see Eddie bonding with Jake a little—although it’s interesting that he’s quick to trot out “ka” as an explanation. Roland’s really rubbed off on him.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 14
They walk about seven miles before the sun starts to set. Jake wonders why they didn’t just spend the night in the town. Eddie explains that if they’d stayed, they’d have found things that needed doing for the old folks, so they’d end up staying another day, and then another and another. During this explanation, he realizes he’s starting to sound just like Roland. This does not make him happy.
Over the campfire, Roland picks up the explanation—that while it would have been the right thing to do for them to stay and help the old folks, it’s a “small right” alongside the “big right” that lies ahead of them. If they stayed to help the twenty or thirty people left in River Crossing, there might be twenty or thirty thousand suffering because they hadn’t reached the Tower.
To which Jake asks the million-dollar question: “What is this Tower, anyway?”
“I can’t answer those questions,” Roland says. Which is a lot different, Eddie notes, than saying “I don’t know.”
What Constant Reader Learns: From the trivia files: Eddie’s full name is Edward Cantor Dean. Eddie Cantor was an early entertainer who had a hit with the song “If You Knew Susie.”
After his big meal, Eddie’s looking forward to a big dump in the woods. Thanks for sharing, man.
Despite his discussion of bodily functions, Eddie seems to be maturing a lot as he becomes more Roland-like, which is sort of like more zen-like, only with weapons.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 15
They have a light dinner, being still full from their feast. Jake scolds Oy for not talking in front of the old folks. “You made me look like an idiot,” he says, to which Oy replies, “Id-it.” Bumblers are choosy about who they talk in front of, Roland tells him, plus he thinks Oy was driven away from his pack…maybe because he was still trying to talk. Apparently, in the old days, bumblers were even known to do basic math. But then again, Roland might have been joking. He’s doing more of that these days.
They’re all about to go to sleep when the drums start back up, and Eddie notes that it’s a rock’n’roll backbeat—sounds a lot like ZZ Top’s “Sharp-Dressed Man” or “Velcro Fly.”
Eventually, everyone goes to sleep except Jake, who lies awake listening to the drums and thinking about Blaine the Mono.
What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie asks Roland if it isn’t about time for them all to share their experiences, to pool what they know. I think that’s a splendid idea, but Roland wants to sleep and doesn’t want them to tell their stories in the dark. Which leads to the question of why...Is he afraid they’ll freak out if they compare their parallel thoughts and experiences? Afraid he’ll lose some control? Not sure.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 16
Jake dreams that he’s standing on a stretch of highway in western Missouri, and Oy is with him. Railroad warning signals are going off, a hum rises out of the southeast, and a “vast pink shape two wheels long” slices toward them, filling Jake with fear. Oy leaps onto the track and snarls, Jake leaps to save Oy, and before Blaine the Mono (or Charlie the Choo-Cho) mows them down, he wakes up in a sweat. He knows that Blaine is dangerous, but he also remembers the line from his final English essay: Blain is the truth.
What Constant Reader Learns: Just before Jake goes to sleep again, he whispers, “Oh Jeez, what a mess.” Uh-huh. I cannot wait to see how this train thing goes down! Talk about a buildup.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 17
Next day, they catch their first glimpse of the big bridge over the River Send. Eddie, Susannah and Jake are all freaked—it looks like the George Washington Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River into Manhattan from New Jersey. “But what’s the GWB doing in Missouri?” Jake asks—which takes Eddie by surprise. “Mid-World, I mean,” Jake says, which surprises Eddie even more—he wants to know how Jake knew they were in Mid-World since they’d seen the sign before Jake came across. “I dreamed it,” Jake says. “You don’t think I booked this trip with my dad’s travel-agent, do you?”
As they look at the bridge, Roland realizes it’s no longer level, to which Eddie says it doesn’t look that bad. “Don’t hope for too much, Eddie,” Ro says. Eddie bites his tongue, tired of Roland talking down to him and making him feel like a kid. “Is it so wrong to hope our luck might be turning?” he asks—he’s really hoping they’ll find machines they can use, or people who will help them. “No, it’s never wrong to hope,” Roland responds, and Eddie is surprised at the kindness in his voice.
Finally, Roland says, “It’s time we had our own palaver, I think.”
What Constant Reader Learns: It’s definitely time for our guys to trade stories. This should be good. And why do I suspect something awful’s going to happen on that bridge? I hope I’m wrong. It’s never wrong to hope—Roland said so.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 18
Susannah realizes she’s seeing Roland differently now—before River Crossing, she’d thought of him like he was Marshal Dillon in “Gunsmoke.” “He was not broad-shouldered, as Marshal Dillon had been, nor anywhere near as tall, and his face seemed… more that of a tired poet than a wild-west lawman… Now she understood that Roland had once been much more than a cop riding a Daliesque range at the end of the world. He had been a diplomat; a mediator; perhaps even a teacher. Most of all, he had been a soldier of what these people called ‘the White.’”
She sees how Roland has been managing them since the morning in the speaking ring, keeping them from comparing notes by changing the subject, so smoothly none of them had noticed. She thinks he’s done it to give Jake time to heal.
What Constant Reader Learns: Susannah makes an interesting comparison of Roland with JFK, “the last gunslinger of the western world,” according to her chauffeur. And she thinks that while Roland possesses little of JFK’s imagination (because Roland, as we’ve often been told, is more plodding than imaginative), he does have romance, dedication and charisma—and guile. To prove her own point, she asks Roland how many languages he speaks. Five, he says, although he only remembers how to curse in the Sellian dialect. He gives a demonstration of a curse, but when Jake asks what it means, he only says, “That we have a lot of things to talk about.” Wily old coyote.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 19
Okay, here we go.
Roland begins by telling them that they are ka-tet, a group of people bound together by fate, that can only be broken by death or treachery—and maybe not even then. Taken together, they form a part of a picture—it can take a great many ka-tets to finish one picture. As members of a ka-tet, they can know each other’s thoughts. He doesn’t share thoughts with them but he can send thoughts, as he did when he told Jake to try pulling on the other board. This closeness and sharing of minds is called khef.
Jake wants to know if Oy is a member of their ka-tet, and Roland gives it serious thought. He isn’t sure yet, but he thinks maybe so.
“We are ka-tet—one from many,” Roland tells them. “Let the palaver begin.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Let’s go with the palaver already, Ro.
So, Roland says he’s been able to see the thought-sharing in the other three better because he “is not a full member of this ka-tet.” Is this because he isn’t from their world, and only people from the same world can be a full ka-tet member? Why is he not a member? I found this odd.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 20
It takes them the better part of a day to go through their stories.
First, Roland begins. He starts with his trip under the mountains, and ends with his own palaver with the man in black, and Walter’s talk about a Beast and someone he called the Ageless Stranger. He told about his dream ending with a single blade of purple grass. Eddie looks over and sees recognition on Jake’s face at that.
What Constant Reader Learns: Stephen King can stretch out a scene until it’s absolutely maddening.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 21
Eddie’s heard part of Roland’s story before but it’s new to Susannah, and she begins to see parallels in her own world, “like reflections in a smashed mirror.” She doesn’t know who the Beast might be, but think the Ageless Stranger might be Merlin.
Next, Eddie takes up the story with the finding of Shardik. “That’s the name of a book in our world!” Jake exclaims, and Eddie finally remembers Watership Down. “How is it that the people in your world know about things in ours?” Eddie asks Roland. “There are doors, aren’t there?” Roland answers.
Eddie talks about his vision at the deli, and the field of roses spreading around the dark gray tower.
Susannah picks up the story then, talking about Eddie carving the key and them following the beam.
And, finally, it’s Jake’s turn.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland compares Eddie to Cuthbert, not for the first time. I’ll be anxious to see some more scenes from Ro’s youth.
Damn it, I was right. Susannah thinks she’s pregnant. Is it an invisible demon baby or an Eddie baby? Oh, God, this scares me because Steve, I love ya. You write brilliant kids and guys and monsters and gross stuff. Women and womanly things, not so much. Sigh. Maybe it’s ka.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 22
Jake talks a long talk. He starts with his final essay and ends with the doorkeeper. When he’s finished, Roland turns to Eddie with what Eddie realizes (with alarm) is both excitement and fear. He makes Jake go through the scene in the vacant lot again in more detail, and the boy ends with the story of the middle of the flower, and the bright light inside, and how it was a sun…but not just one sun… “It was all suns,” Roland says. “It was everything real.” But something was wrong with it, Jake reminds him.
What Constant Reader Learns: And…and…and. Come on. Seriously.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 23
Finally, Jake pulls out Charlie the Choo-Choo. Eddie realizes he’d had the book when he was a kid, but he lost it. He hadn’t liked it either—didn’t trust Charlie. Susannah also had the book—and it also scared her. She’d lost her copy when the brick fell on her head.
Jake reads the book to them.
What Constant Reader Learns: They’re scared and not a little bit freaked that they all not only had the same book—but that this is probably the same copy of the book. No kidding.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 24
After Jake finishes the book, they talk about whether they should just go around the city after all and stay away from Blaine the Mono. Roland turns to Jake for his opinion. “I don’t think we’re supposed to,” he says. Eddie thinks about it—and as much as he’d like to avoid it, he suddenly realizes this is no longer him being dragged along on Roland’s quest—that it’s his quest too. Susannah too thinks they should move ahead.
What Constant Reader Learns: There’s still the issue of Jake’s book of riddles (Riddle-De-Dum), but Roland doesn’t want to deal with that yet. He thinks they need to get some sleep.
The Waste Lands—“Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Town and Ka-Tet, Section 25
Roland can’t sleep, so he walks back to the road to look at the bridge again. Eddie follows him, and almost slips up on him—surprising Roland enough that he reached for his gun. Eddie’s earned a lot of respect from Roland; in many ways, he thinks, he’s already surpassed Cuthbert. “If I underestimate him, I’m apt to come away with a bloody paw,” he thinks. “And if I let him down, or do something that looks to him like a double-cross, he’ll probably try to kill me.”
But Eddie wants him to understand that they’re there with Roland not just because they have to be, but because they want to be. “I want to see the Tower,” he says. “You don’t have to drag me anymore…We’re coming of our own accord.”
Roland’s first thought is that they’re only coming along because they have no other options, but he realizes he shouldn’t confuse ka with free will. He tells Eddie he believes him, but Eddie isn’t done. He wants Roland to stop treating them like sheep he has to herd. “If we’re going to die in the city or on that train, I want to die knowing I was more than a marker on your game-board,” he tells him.
This makes Roland angry at first—but he’s angry not at Eddie but that Eddie has seen a truth in him he hasn’t acknowledged.
Roland takes a deep breath and says, “Gunslinger, I cry your pardon.”
Eddie tries to get him to say how much trouble might be ahead, and Roland says he fears for Jake, but that maybe the men in the city are too old to fight. Satisfied that Roland’s at least been honest with him, Eddie heads back to camp.
Roland watches him go and thinks, “He’s what the old woman called a Pube. She said both sides would want him.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Good for Eddie on calling Roland out. But love that ending sentence…I’d thought Jake faced the greatest danger in Lud, but mayhap it’s Eddie, too.
That’s it for this week. Join us next week, as we begin the next section of “Lud: A Heap of Broken Images,” Bridge and City.