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Authors: John Domini

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Bedlam and Other Stories (17 page)

BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
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We were shocked, we were desperate. We made the worst possible mistake. We began to argue with these ghosts. And:

“Don't tell us we've got no choice!” The horrible thing about their screaming was that the only times we'd heard it before, we'd all been howling together at someone else. “It's the
Names
that don't give us any choice. They're just toying with us!”

But, we tried to say, the masters didn't mean to —

“Masters? The last masters we had
murdered
us! These people are the
enemy!”

But surely the truth had to come from them (here some of us jerked a thumb at the dismantled goddess behind our backs). Surely Truth itself was a hard slog, a prolonged evolution which, in time —

“Get out,” they said. “You're starting to sound like Names yourselves.”

Already however it was they who were getting out. Already they'd dropped back so far that they began to lose themselves in the ruthless dark. We squinted, leaned forward from our threadbare ranks. But not one of us felt sure enough of his former soulmates to take a step in their direction. If they'd gone so far as to revolt, they were capable of anything. We strained our ears, but the last words came from a voice too well-hidden to place.

“If you get in our way again,” it said, “we'll stop you once and for all.”

Understand then the raw universe that confronted us as, this last time, our remaining squad inched across the dark to discover who we were.

We didn't know how our traitor comrades might stop us. We could only creep along wide awake, no longer chalk dust, now instead toughened to chalk. We let our fingers stretch and go webby like antennae, our eyes poke from our faces telescopically. So, full-grown and fully equipped at last, we few saw the limits of stars and sky. The universe, we saw, was a gourd. All these millenia of chasing, we'd merely rattled loose inside its hollow. A dustball inside a saddleback rind. Then we went frantic trying to doublecheck without dropping our guard. We threw a frightened glance behind us, and when had we ever imagined we'd care to look
behind
us? But there we only got worse proof of how little our travelling mattered. The love-planet, back there, was pulling herself together again. Tomorrow at sunset she'd rise again. The system remained unchangeable. And thus with our next inchlong forward sneak — realizing that even the fathomless black itself must be enclosed, that all was sealed in the universal rind — we saw that every one of our earlier dropouts must still be here. The hard logic of it made us click our joints together, terrified. Because between the speed of light and the ease of talk, every one of them must also have learned how little we'd come to. Still here and still travelsick, they'd seen us go on grinding against the night. They must hate us too.

Revolutionaries, dropouts, it made no difference. Every dark step here might turn up someone new to worry about. Every unlit fold might take us as implacably as the wrinkles snaking over a person's looks. Could we find no sanctuary?

We looked for help, as a final straw, among those shadowy newcomers who'd died with names. Those mica-chips against the black gravel, spatters of rain against our glassed-over eyes. We could see them quite clearly now. But all these new ghosts' energies were given over to a crablike scramble for position. These sketchy apprentices clawed across the night's stick-figures; they pressed against each other with a terrible blind need to grow larger, to have the safety of numbers. And if one of the new dead found the least extra flyspeck of space for himself, his childish face would stretch in a machete grin.

The grip of enclosure, the grin of endless cold. Could we find
no sanctuary?
Then just here . . . dead stop.

We'd pick up a low but unmistakable sound, a shuffle or scrabble in the dark nearby.

Dead stop. The one part of ourselves we allowed to move was our ears, which spread wide and turned outward like immense, rotating dishes. Nothing. Our nightscope eyes scanned, scanned. Nothing. But then a crack outfit doesn't back away when the going gets a little complicated. A crack outfit doesn't run scared. We kept up our alert. We did manage to tune in that low shuffle again, never mind how long it took, and a few additional web-fingered probes into the dark at last flushed out the kind of rocklike clump we'd been expecting. A stack of stones head-high, wide as my spread arms, and black.

Rebels? Dropouts? No matter. We hit them with every hard side we had. We got our full weight on them. When we started trying to find out the extent of the danger, asking questions, they proved hard to crack. But their silence didn't stop us either. After all they'd been through interrogation before.

Our knees thickened, broadened, because in that shape they provided better support. Our feet stitched together in order to counterbalance our interlocked shoulders, and our heads bobbed as one back towards our waists. Maximum pressure on the prisoner. We gave it question on question bangbangbang, with so little room to breathe in between that we started to go red from the exertion, then to shimmer with a cauterizing white heat. The light intensified. It began to infuse our victim as well. Indeed before long we both would have burned explosively enough to gleam across a galaxy, except that some in our squad still misfired. One or two among us still lacked that final efficiency. But as the rest continued to get off questions as fast and hard as the work demanded, outlines of the piece beneath us started to appear. They were visible at least to us, from within our new-made shine. We saw their faces blown open by the firing squad's nervous
coup de grace
, their slashed throats and the burn spots where the electrodes had been strapped. All as expected since that first glimpse of the universe unwrapped. Next however — next, unbearably — we heard the new question we'd started to ask. By now our scrap of the dark had been fired into place once and for all, understand, and so it began to send back an echo.

Never mind who we are
, we heard come back at us.
Who are you? And who's that under you? And who's that under him? Look, never mind us; we'll ask the questions here. Who are you?

I myself have since heard, often, the words used among the living whenever news comes of injustice and violent death.
Despair
, I've heard.
Outrage
. The childish
I didn't know
especially. Yet I've begun to wonder lately if the words these bright labels are supposed to represent can ever tip my heart off-balance again. Yes that's the trial I must endure every moment, lately: the doubts about whether I still carry living feelings at all. I can't be sure I'm still human, at all. I know only that when I heard those nameless insensibly give back the hard question my squad had come to, I found myself as well.

I didn't drop away because I'd recognized my own kind, their agony this time my own doing. That would have been the human response, but no. I dropped because I didn't belong. I mean
I
heard myself once more letting down the troop, failing to get off my question as I should have when the rote of interrogation came round again to me. I heard myself proven the nonfunctional piece. And no sooner had
I
realized my own voice was absent from that yowl of confrontation than, with the rubbery chill that spanks us when out of nowhere we get room to move, I found myself absent as well.

The living say, when the bad news comes,
I suffer with them
. But I suffered alone. I moved without even the will to move, that sleepless pal hauling you by the hair from crib to deathbed. I suffered alone. I wonder if I can so much as say
I
know what suffering means.

That I have since stumbled into a destiny of my own, managed actually to come across my own name, in no way eases my doubt. I came to my present place merely because after my involuntary fall I started to drift. Past shooting stars and speaking dark, I floated paralyzed by shame. In this condition I became an easy target for those still-living souls who practice the arts of communication with the dead. The mediums, the psychics — I became in fact the first one they'd ask. Because I'd travelled so far earlier, understand; because I‘d been through such a rough history. With that kind of background, I could go quiz some grand Name about the future at will, and I'd feel no worse during the visit than some toy bird might while it was fooled with by a sleepy king. I can't be sure I'm still human at all.

So, once, I happened to work for a psychic named Miriam. She wasn't special. Unless it matters that, as an older person, she seemed a little gentler. But as soon as I entered her trance, I found my name.

Blind luck? I can say only that since I discovered myself in Miriam I can't work for anyone else. I know only that I've been part of her makeup since the morning she saw my frozen body, fetally curled, hauled out from a dumpster under her kitchen window. I'd died a baglady.

And prison? Torture? Once more I can't say. A greater soul than I will have to flash the tablets on which are revealed the degrees of namelessness. I see nothing except what Miriam saw. Apparently before crawling into her dumpster, in desperation I'd padded my coat with paper. Not that anyone lent me a quarter for a newspaper; not that any super or liquor-store clerk on the block could spare me an empty box of good corrugated cardboard. No. The only paper I could get hold of was light-gauge stuff, covered with dates and details from history. The sort of flyer you can pick up for free all over Boston. So fetally curled, I spent the night in a metal box too large to keep a person warm. Yet I wonder how many who lived to see morning, that sunless December morning, realized their own blankets were in the end no better than mine. I wonder how many understood that the living can claim no better entitlement than the dead. Let a person chase the sun from horizon to horizon, still his day's work will result only in a few extra dollars to line his resting place. Dust to cover dust. I can see it no other way. After all I've travelled through every such flimsy self and place my times offered. Beginning as a nameless tribe forced from their homes by a glacier, I then was left thunderstruck by the world's first alphabet, made to suffer as a lost crusade, cut to pieces as a heretic, and next I knew the queerer destruction of a mob in revolt, tearing itself apart to find a better way. Finally I'd just tried to hold my direction as the latest news and technology set their traps. History's a meteor. Beside its millenia of hurtling, the house it drops on amounts to ashes, the gold letters on the door to dust. I can see it no other way. Only the stones last out the impact.

But my
name
, you ask finally? The handful of syllables I have to show for all my deaths, all my doubts? This answer comes hardest yet. I've stopped caring about my name. What matters to me instead is simply that Miriam learned it. Yes she learned the baglady's name, she approached me and spoke with me. Miriam did this even though her own rooms are always snug, her own clothes unfailingly light and fresh. I in turn spat out the name Vera and frightened her off with drunken flirty winks.

Vera. I don't care to know more. I discover again I don't care. Then does all our history, all each one of us has learned, move lockstep towards an ever-crueler question?

In fact my one glimmer of a more human certainty these days has to do with my former troop. That self I knew briefly between freezing and falling. I find I retain a living soul's wish to see them again — but only in the way a living soul can. After all I could still go visit, any time I chose. I could stop by that newborn star and hear it force its question down the world's throat. But what I wish now, maybe the one wish I've got left, isn't a matter of visiting or listening. Miriam, I . . . I just want to
see
them. To stare at the stars through your living eyes, rather than always from this stunned overlook that shows us nothing except the tortured and doomed; to gaze, without feeling driven to follow the dots across that icy random glitter, without getting desperate for some escape from the severe twinned outlines of one story and all history; to bear witness that eternity may be etched in better than brute black and white. But Miriam, you . . . you won't grant me my wish. You won't release me from my doubt. You keep your eyes shut whenever I'm called on, the nameless here inside.

Whenever you're faced with the dead and forced to speak in a voice not your own.

— John Domini

An Encounter

Did you tell him there were heavy tornado warnings? Did you tell him snow was expected? Did it ever make it? Did you describe the coastal hurricane? And the high pressure, could he relate to that?

Did you tell him you had read all his books? Did you tell him you had understood all his books? Did you confess to not understanding one? Didn't you have one read to you? Does it make it any easier to understand? Did you tell him it doesn't?

How well do you smile? That well? Did this communicate?

Did he respond to the new oil problem? Did he suggest old oil? Mention India? New Orleans? Was it, in his opinion, murder or democracy sales? That is, good for democracy sales? Isn't he opposed to democracy sales, quivering excitedly when it's mentioned, like someone hitting the old oil again? Did he demand you take down a call, his call to the people? You told him to get himself some other wimp, didn't you? “Fetch Bas!” for example?

Did you tell him your father invented the pedal steel guitar? Did you tell him your mother read in her sleep? 85% retention? Did you try the brother business? Did he think it was important? Did you mention your sister, who never—not
once
—made an irrational decision? Whose family
is
interesting? Did you ask him that?

And then did you tell him you liked sex? Did you like sex? And now? Did you mention that thing about ribbed, button-up sweaters? How well do you smile?

Was God invoked?

Or only the famous? Handel, Abba Eban, Dorothy Day? Did he make a response? Botticelli? Or no games? Did Gustave Flaubert find a place? Was the difference between the number of famous you could summon up and the number he could summon up sufficiently exciting? Painful? Is pain still the only form of excitement in social encounters? Did you relate the meaningless advice of Erasmus's fool? Is Erasmus still broad enough to block further progress down a conversational route?

BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
6.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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