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Authors: John Domini

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Bedlam and Other Stories (7 page)

BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
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At first, in order to be sure of the efficiency of our new tack, we had to descend among the damned and inspect our audience after each show. They were not writhing, or clawing at their eyes and hair, or biting themselves in a mad frenzy, as they had done earlier, and so we had to investigate. It was upsetting to walk among them—so near, so repugnant and so fascinating at once. Could we possibly understand them? How did we ever hope to know what caused them pain? Would they
never speak
? But then Miplip and I discovered they were weeping. Open, unchecked; it had been millenia at least since we had seen such weeping. We looked closely, making sure, because as devils we lacked the physiological tools necessary for crying. When we saw their puffed, blinking, quivering eyelids, and their wet cheeks and lips and chins, we rejoiced. Their silence was not free from pain.

We took to punishing our audience immediately after each show, as a vivid reminder—made more vivid by what they had just seen—of where they were and where they would stay (on the negative side, this did seem to stop their weeping; they did not weep as we beat them). Then we added music to our charades. The single earthly tune Miplip could recall was a mere jingle, something he said he once heard a boy singing to a girl, but he sang it nonetheless. Assuming the form of a sweet-looking girl, on a swing perhaps, or sometimes even in the form of both children, wrapped in each other's arms, Miplip would then screech out, malevolently, in his harsh and lowdown devil's voice:

Kookaberry sitting in the old gum tree:

Merry, merry king of the bush is he.

Laugh Kookaberry, laugh Kookaberry,

Gay your life must be.

With all these new cooperative ventures, the relationship between Miplip and myself changed. I say it changed, but I cannot define that change with any real precision. We never became friendly, exactly. My overseer never once accepted any of my proposals for our shows, not without first altering it enough to call the proposal his own, and I continued to slip away by myself and try to speak in a human voice, so that I might hear once again that forgotten sound, echoing among the stony retreats of my world. Yet the relationship
did
change. I do believe that the ferocity of his insults declined, and the number of them as well, but that is only a feeling. And so the one concrete proof of our changed relationship that I can offer—if indeed it is concrete proof, if indeed it was a changed relationship—is the fact that Miplip and I became lovers.

By accident, during an unusually lengthy show, I discovered that if my designs were done with proper force they would remain as they were for a good long while, without my attention. I began joining Miplip onstage, after that. At first, having nothing better to do, we depicted the story of that man who had passed through unscathed. Miplip played him and his guide (they were reporters of some kind, investigators, we had learned by then), linked at the hands, while I did my best to represent the many fearsome torments of Hell. Our goal was to stir up jealousy and despair in our audience, but it just seemed unrealistic to expect
only
jealousy and despair—that is, jealousy and despair unmixed with a sense of human triumph—and so that show was dropped. Our next idea was to parody the human sexual act.

Most of our charges had been rendered impotent, in their post-Judgment bodies, and the others had been condemned to insatiable lust. Therefore sex was the perfect subject for a show, dividing our audiences into mutually antagonistic extremes. We would pit some picture of innocence, such as Miplip's girl on a swing, against my febrile approach, and the effect on our guilt-ridden spectators, all of whom had at one time or another allowed their own good natures to be usurped by evil, was immensely gratifying. Even those that did not leap upon their fellows in a paroxysm of need were nonetheless overwhelmed: they wept, waving their arms, clapping their hands, flopping about, and they silently shouted and shouted. During one such performance…

Oh yes, I remember. I may not remember the moment Miplip and I were first brought together—thrown together, forced together—but this I remember. My overseer had assumed the form of a loving and discreet young mother, sitting in a rocker, smiling gently, knitting some garment for a child while at home alone one evening (that I had painted, darkly shining, outside windows I had painted), and then I finished my painting and climbed in through one of my illusory windows, menacingly drew near, and took hold. Him? Her? Miplip? What did it matter? A human form. And I went into my puppet act, the same act that according to Miplip tired husbands and tired wives had once enacted repeatedly in their own incomprehensible imaginations, and not just tired husbands and tired wives but lovers too, lovers, imagining other races and mechanical devices and other species when they had no devils handy, because somehow that husband or wife or moment's lover was
not enough
(in all that magnificent world's variety—not enough! Perhaps the idea was only one of Miplip's tales, something to keep me cynical and in control of myself), but even while meditating this way I experienced the impossible tremor that uprooted my stagnant spirit, shook it so it would not be held still, and informed me that there would be no puppetry because this was no act, it was not a suggestion but an order, and Miplip heard the order too because in wholehearted response he at once caused his wifely clothing and rocking chair and uncompleted knitting to disappear, and lay naked beneath me on the air. I closed my eyes; they were all too familiar with his deceit. In my arms he became human.

Unfortunately, genuine sexual congress between myself and Miplip had a ruinous side effect. I did not notice this side effect that first time, because I kept my eyes closed, and my overseer remained blind to what was happening a much longer time, a lack of perception which would have disastrous ramifications. This side effect occurred, always, at the moment of climax. Devils do experience climax—the letting go, the timelessness. At his climax, Miplip would lose control of his morphology and revert momentarily to his natural state. On top of that, he would return to himself as he was at that moment: in transports.

From his natural ugliness he then always returned, as the orgasm wore off, to his previous shape. Whatever small changes were thus produced he either ignored or failed to notice. It was a humiliating, not to say sickening, process. And as for myself, well, I lacked the heart to tell him. Implausible as it sounds, centuries passed before Miplip learned what our lovemaking did to him.

Look at that: “It was a humiliating process.” For
him
, of course. “And as for myself, I lacked the heart.” The word for it is
revenge
, one might think. But I cannot agree that revenge was my sole motive in continuing our onstage trysts, even as much as I hated Miplip, even as long as it had been since I held the upper hand. I was shocked, more than anything else. In the rising steam of new emotions brought on by our lovemaking I lost sight of any one particular feeling; only much later on did I recognize sour little Revenge among them. By then I had long since gotten even, long since, so debasing were Miplip's transformations.

Indeed, in all the uncountable times my overseer and I had intercourse, his sudden metamorphosis never caused me to feel any emotion but sadness. How could it have done otherwise? I made sure always to finish quickly, while I was still connected with a human being, because when Miplip reverted to his natural shape my blood shrank with acute, total disappointment. To fall from inexplicable rapture to this repulsive eyesore of a rutting partner from whom I was never free…who can find revenge in that? Oh, there was some satisfaction earlier on, before I finished. I do not deny feeling happy then, in those brief moments. But then, to wait…to know what was about to happen…every single time I wondered if I could possibly survive (though how I got the idea that there is anything besides survival, I cannot imagine), and yet every single time I survived, and Miplip survived, and together we would return to ourselves, transient Lords of partial Torture over some of our unforgiven subjects.

If I was cruel about keeping what I knew from Miplip, it was not so much because of him and me as because of our audience. What happened to Miplip during ecstasy was, from the point of view of our spectators, hilarious.

It soon became obvious that our public intercourse was having an opposite effect from the one intended. When, at the close of each performance, Miplip and I broke apart and attacked our charges, pronging and clawing and whipping, they seemed to welcome us. They laughed—or grinned and shook, at least. They toyed with us, feinting and parrying my thrusts, trying to grab hold of my overseer's whip. They picked up flakes of stone or handfuls of excrement and heaved them at us. Worst of all, they clasped each other and rolled around in vicious imitation of our intimacy. Miplip recognized what they were doing, but unlike me he did not understand.

Yet my overseer did not, as I was certain he would, put an end to our shows. His reaction, in fact, was unlike anything I had seen in Miplip before.

Concerning other matters besides our assignations, he became meaner and more superior than ever before. He strutted and floated around our domain in every kind of insulting disguise, railing at me, bragging of trips to earth and to Dis, drumming in his greater knowledge, greater status, greater gifts. At no time did he let slip an opportunity to tear at the skin of my feelings and expose—
there!
—one of my nerves. Perhaps my memory is not entirely accurate, for his infinite unkindnesses do tend to become confused, but I know that it was during this period that once in a while I looked upon our love-making as a form of revenge:
well, it serves him right
. More often, however, I got my revenge simply by keeping silent. Whenever I could summon up the strength, I fielded his insults without a word. I would not give him the satisfaction; I made no response. And Miplip, Miplip. This forebearance, when I could hold it, drove you to your wildest excesses. It was degrading. Even I was surprised, my overseer lost control of himself so utterly: falling into apoplectic riots of crack-voiced provocation, involuntarily changing shape, becoming several different creatures at once with several different parts of his body, and descending even to physical abuse. Miplip, what did you need, to put yourself through such abasement?

Yet concerning our performances his behavior was just the opposite. Miplip became uncertain, tentative. He made four or five suggestions, more or less along the lines of dropping the show, or nine or ten suggestions, or nineteen or twenty-nine or maybe ninety, but all of them were no more than the merest suggestion. “Only mentioning it,” he was, in a voice devoid of belligerence, sounding halfhearted, half himself, half afraid. He sounded a bit like those demons with whom we had discussed the human passerby. I find I cannot fully reconstruct any of these conversations in which Miplip spoke of putting an end to the performances, and this lapse of memory is the natural result of the way in which he always handled the subject. Miplip talked of it as if he wanted me not to notice.

So our trysts continued, if somewhat less regularly than before.

Perhaps my overseer's problem was essentially one of conscience. He wanted to do a good job, but he could no longer be sure what was torture and what was not. Certainly, our duty had never been so open to interpretation, so questionable, or so strangely involving. It was infuriating to admit not knowing where you stood. Myself…but I have already explained my feelings.

During one show—during one climax—which Miplip had begun as a ferocious woman with soft fur covering her hands, one of the damned threw a stone at him. At her? At Miplip? What does it matter—the form was no longer human. The stone struck on the wing, hardly hurting Miplip, but shattering his mood once and for all. He knew that the woman with furry hands was not supposed to have his wings. He jerked upright in the air, in his natural ugliness, alert enough to realize what had happened and smart enough, of course he was smart enough, to understand in a moment that this could not have been the first time.

I cannot describe, because I lack the ability, the look with which Miplip regarded first the audience, convulsed with laughter, and then myself, still straddling him. There was an awareness of betrayal in the look, I can say that much. And a great deal of pain, as well, a pain too large for me to comprehend, because I have never seen anything that large, consigned as I am to a single blankened Division here, above the City of Dis and below Limbo.

This impossible look was quickly gone. Almost immediately his eyes resumed their customary irony. He may even have winked. What had he thought? Nothing. What had he felt? Nothing, nothing. Then he dropped away from me and began to give his usual vigorous lesson to those who had laughed.

For a few long moments I watched him, making sure.

Not that I was frightened of what Miplip might do to get back at me. What more could he possibly do to me? But I wanted to make sure…he was all right. That look he had given me—well, never mind the look, a look can be misjudged, but I knew Miplip better, and I had more tangible cause for worry than a mere look. I mean that my overseer now knew that I had successfully hid something from him and kept it hidden, and so, if one was inclined to put these things on a competitive basis, the day was mine. Miplip now knew that for once I had won.

Can I be blamed, at all? How had I done wrong?

He lay into our charges with a will. After a while he called up to me, perhaps not with all his usual vituperative gusto, but with most of it. How loudly could he shout, anyway, out of breath as he was? So I dropped down beside him; everywhere devils work in twos. What happened just now was only an incident, as much his fault as mine, and Miplip was not one to be bothered by incidents.

While I was distracted—while my back was turned—he disappeared. I found his whip, but he was gone.

With thoroughgoing care, I searched the corridors and enclaves of my Division. I examined the eyes and body of every demon that came through, and those of the Centaurs and hounds as well. I went so far as to embrace them, and whisper in their ears suggestive phrases Miplip would understand. This only served to increase my isolation. I bent my fork on freestanding rocks, hugged riven trees, kissed small dank pools, and caressed shafts of fire. Stumbling and uncaring, I made a blind descent to the monstrous City of Dis and, far exceeding my authority, interrogated the fallen angels guarding its gates. They punished my insubordination. Seeing the bored expressions on the harpies who administered the punishment, and noticing its ritual nature, I understood I was not the first to be disappointed and reprimanded.

BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
9.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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