The rector ushers my father and I to a ——— where we must formally present a valediction to one of the rector’s subordinates, standing there on behalf of the rector himself, a surrogate-of-all-trades, for the inauguration of the holiday season. He is nearly half my size, with a slight hunchback, grizzled pewter mustache, and a purposeful flicker in his eyes. He grips my elbow firmly with one hand and strokes my spine with the other. “This is the best thing for everybody,” he utters in a pan-seared Russian drawl.
“Thank you, Rector.” Nodes of synthetic pain dart to the surface of my skin whenever I speak. It hasn’t always been this way. And yet I talk now more than I used to.
My father hasn’t spoken in decades. I forgot what his voice sounded like long ago.
“Behind the word is chaos,” says my father, quoting a dead killjoy. The apparatus of his frame has become more of a stockroom object than a human thing, tempting users to hang tools on it before the prospect of interaction even enters their scope of reckoning. I nod in affirmation of his broken silence. Melancholy, the rector signals a punisher from the Bronze Turret and my father suffers a fasttime blow to the kidneys. Blood races down the back of his thighs like molten insects . . .
The rector apologizes. As we move forward, he metes out additional encouragement in clipped, controlled soliloquies. I study a red mole on the shoulderblade of the man in front of me. Finally the line dwindles and my father and I face the effigy of the rector, who has disappeared from my side.
“I am the rector,” says the effigy. “I hereby sentence you to a means of escape.”
My father emits a liquid croak and we take a tour of the refractory before leaving and walking thirty miles across savannahs and flatlands until we reach the tall house on the grassy, hilly frontiers . . . Halfway there my father dies. I carry him onto the porch and prepare him for burial with a portable first-aid kit. As I clean wounds and plug outlets, his last words, relegated to a save station somewhere in the hard palate, flees the wet cavern of his intellect . . .
“Father.” The word bounds across the landscape with the soft antagonism of a lunar rover . . .
Immediately I am drawn to a soldier in the valley. We run towards the enemy, muskets in tow, passing a flask of dirty whiskey back and forth while assuring one another that pain operates more or less like a troll: feed it and eventually it will feed on you. The soldier is fat, with rumpled eyebrows, wearing exaggerated civilian attire and Calvary headgear. I can’t tell if this is the American Revolution, the Civil War, or World War II: the bright colors of the British bleed into racingstripe confederate regalia that bleeds into Nazi chic armbands and logos and Luftwaffe dreams . . . Struck by an electromagnetic projectile device, the soldier devolves before my eyes into an ur-man, boneless and primordial, but spry. He flows into a bush and either disappears into thin air or succumbs to a weird symbiotic process of herbal assimilation.
I hide in an outhouse and wait for the battle to end. I study and assess the mélange of voices I hear between gunfire, indulging the accents like battered memories . . .
The outhouse door creaks open and I enter the studio.
Directors dart back and forth across the floorboards in an orderly frenzy. All of the actors have been raptured. Residual costumes litter the place in hot clumps, steam rising from their sequined folds into the heavens. The directors sense my presence and surround me in a regimented square. They tell me to prepare for an audition, but I know they need me – I know everything about them, incidentally, their modi operandi, their dark secrets, their sordid histories and beveled futures – ontologies ripped open and elongated into spacetime worms – and I state my terms before administering an impromptu soliloquy that engages Shakespearean and Beckettian discourse in equal measure. I ignore my skin. Stupified, the directors call attention to the hangmen lingering on the outpost. One false move and the hangmen will attack, swinging nooses like lassos. A deliberation ensues and hot words are traded for dejected underpinnings. Nothing is resolved.
As I hang up my coat, a windbreaker with the clergical facilities of an Edwardian snapjacket, a man (latino, thirtysomething, emaciated yet well-groomed) steps beside me. He holds a burlap sack with a child in it. I recognize the man as the keeper of the ———. He places the sack on a low-lying worktable and stomps on it, then picks it up and twists the drawstring, pulling it taut, and twirls the sack back and forth, from one hip to the other, violently, methodically, at skewed angles of incidence, destroying the child inside. He leaves the sack on the worktable and retreats into a storage elevator.
My anxiety describes itself with a bolt of elocution. Paralyzed, I wonder what to do. If I tell the police, the killer will likely hunt me down and dispatch my immediate family, a memory at best, but a family is a family. If I don’t tell the police, I may be held in contempt, by the Law, and by society in general. Another factor races to the vanguard. According to the news broadcasts streaming overhead, the killer has never killed anybody before, i.e., nobody has ever witnessed him commit a killing. A timelapse of his deeds runs backwards across the screens and no incriminating evidence comes to fruition.
I recall the ninth of September. Something ominous happened on that “fateful day,” as the newsman refers to it, over and over, until the rhetoric usurps the authority of the teleprompter and I can only refer to my diary, which I began to keep shortly after my father and I were incarcerated in the refractory. I scan the entries and they seem foreign, obscure – articulate, but written by another person. For a moment I doubt the existence of my body, spreading my fingers and scrutinizing their terrific span. A wide clerk in a three-piece suit interrupts me with a dramatic, democratic promise. Spitting image of Boss Tweed . . .
“The nature of war implicates the push-button dynamics of certain overpowering stimuli,” he intones. “Your contribution to the system of human corruption will stain the future like a crater in the ozone layer. You will in fact become the ozone layer – simultaneously all-encompassing and nonexistent – a god in the making – a god at the end of time.”
Spatial conundrums exit my body in expanding ripples, searching for the joy of concentric precision.
The impact delivers me to the basement where the enemy performs a sacred rite upon a man who may or may not be the rector. The technique descended from an old Viking technology of fear and liberation. Called the bloody eagle, it entails cracking open the sternum and removing the lungs, each of which are nailed to sideboards running just above the victim’s body so that, in effect, the lungs, still connected to the chest cavity by various sinews and tendrils, resemble wings.
“He had been enjoying a glass of wine when we found him,” says the enemy, cleaning his arms and hands with a wet towel. “I think he expected us to join in the merriment. He certainly didn’t expect to die. Who does? This is the best thing for everybody.”
Intuition transports me into an historical claptrap, and I finish the rector’s drink. It has no taste. It slides off of my tongue and down my throat like synthetic oil. I express regret, formally, loudly, and my skin doesn’t react; I realize it hasn’t reacted for years.
I spend the rest of my holiday waiting to be reborn . . . Then I am reborn, and I don’t go back to the refractory. I drink too much beer at a pub and end up stumblebum, waddling down a wooden staircase, the creaking of which, given my frame of mind, I don’t take into consideration. The lord of the manor awakens and calls the police and they arrest me and lock me in the hangtank. I place my nose against the plastic wall. I run my fingertips across the breath holes. Another drunk claims to be my father. He looks like my father in healthier days, despite the glazed eyes and bristled face. He wiggles his toes as if to assure me of the inevitability of genetic inscription.
Nearby an atomic bomb test site becomes fully operational. The building shakes and the walls crack open . . .
With trembling fingers, I take two acetametaphine and two aspirin and swallow the pills with a cup of coffee. I read the paper. I even consider going to work. Things become unfathomably normal, appallingly real at this point. I almost forget about what happened, about history altogether, my own, and that which unfolded in the objective world. And then I do forget . . . My headache dissipates and the coffee goes cold, stale, even as secure I the cup.