Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (5 page)

BOOK: Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
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He didn’t know what a poem or an infrasystem was either, but for some reason the memory of the canyon, with its rocks and clouds he’d once shot through, returned. He tried to put both words with the memory, as he had once tried to speak properly the signs,
Radical Anxiety Termination
.

She frowned – possibly because his lips were moving, in much the way that, years before, his feet had gone on shifting in the sand after he could no longer walk.

She pulled the braking lever. Through the sandshield, brown and red evening reached in to colour dials and switches.

The transport stopped shaking.

The desert stopped moving.

‘Well,’ she said for more than the fifth time, ‘let’s get on with it.’

Sliding from under the restraining bar, she pushed some small bubble-switch with a foreknuckle.

Behind them, six metal bars fell into the floor, and the bottom of the left wall swung out an inch. Pneumatic arms on the ceiling flexed, and the wall swung up to make an awning over the sand.

Heat slathered in over the top of his foot, flopped against his shin, slid in between his fingers spread on his knee. Then, under the awning’s shadow, sand divided as though a blade, parallel to the floor, had sliced it, as some force shield went into operation. The regulator thrummed; cool returned.

‘Come on,’ she said.

He turned in the chair, not knowing where she wanted him to go.

The wall-become-roof shaded a flat of sand scarred on three sides by the shield’s bottom.

She walked to the cabin’s cluttered rear, tugged aside one carton, pushed another with her sandal toe, stooped over a third, and pulled out a circular plate with worn straps on one side. Slipping her fingers through, she stood and walked back to the middle of the studded floor as, plugged to some many-jawed connector on the plate’s rim, the pink cable dragged from the carton, flopping coil on coil. ‘Well, let’s get –’

She paused. Then, with a frown more to herself than to him, she said:

‘… I mean, get up from your seat and go stand out on the sand there.’

He did. It was a jump. The sand inside the shield markings was cool.

She came to the floor’s edge, and stepped down the half metre, awkwardly, one knee stretching her frayed pants there, her other foot making a wide print, sliding where it landed.

She walked towards him, fingering the plate.

A coil flopped over the floor’s edge to mark the sand.

‘This may tickle.’ She did something with two fingers at her wrist; the plate hummed.

He watched her pass it over his shoulder. It more than tickled. It burned – for a moment, then reduced to a faint vibration in the skin.

On his shoulder where she’d brushed was a streak of grey-brown powder, which she beat away with her free hand, revealing clean, red-brown skin and its feathering of hair. ‘My lord! You
are
filthy!’ She moved the plate down over his arm, around it, beneath it, brushing the
powdered dirt and skin away. ‘That’s amazing. I honestly hadn’t realized you were that colour.’ Her skin was brown with little red at all.

She rubbed the joint between his upper and lower arm, now on the blackened elbow, now on the crook where veins wriggled across the high-standing ligament, banded with paler creases – till, with the third pass, it was all one colour.

She rubbed his hand, the back, the palm. It made the sides of his fingers itch. Once she turned the plate on its strap to the back of her own hand and took his two great ones in hers, stepping away.

One arm glowed clean in evening light. His other was the fouled grime-grey that, since his return to the station, he’d never thought of as other than part of him.

‘Rats aren’t supposed to forget stuff they knew before they went to the Institute. Do you mean to tell me you’ve
never
used one of these before?’

‘I didn’t …’ he began, unsure if the question was about meaning, telling, or use.

‘“Let’s get on with it …” Your father never called you in from some social therapy group like that? Where I grew up, that always meant to a kid it was time to come in and get clean – with one of these.’

‘No.’ He frowned at her, realizing she wanted something more. ‘Didn’t have no father.’ But he wasn’t sure if that would do.

She dropped his hands, stepped up again, reversed the plate again and moved it over his cheeks, his hair, his forehead. With a quick turn she trowelled its edge along the crease beside his left nostril, beside the right, now up behind his right ear, behind the left, across his eyebrows – ‘Close your eyes.’ (He already had.) – brushing off the slough every two or three passes. ‘Pay attention to what I’m doing. Because I’m going to want you to do the same
to me, later. Having someone give you a clean-up like you were a little kid is the most sensuous thing in the world, I think.’ She passed the plate on to his chest, down his stomach, along his hard, dry flank. ‘Does it feel good?’

‘Yeah.’

She gave him a grin and a small push on one shoulder. He sagged backwards a little and came forward again. So she said: ‘I meant, turn again.’

He started turning.

‘Eh … stop. With your back to me. No, like that –’

The tickling dropped down one shoulder, began again along the valley of his spine, then repeated down the other. It moved about one hip, circled on one buttock.

And stopped. ‘Wait a minute.’ She stepped past him.

He watched her put the plate down on the transport floor and climb back in. Again she squatted in the shadowed clutter. When she stood, stepping back to the edge, she held a … black, ragged glove?’ ‘We might as well try this, too.’ She jumped to the sand with the awkwardness often shown by the very tall. ‘Hold out your hand. No, the clean one.’

His knuckles were large as sun-wrinkled fruit, his wide nails still as gnawed as in childhood.

Both forefingers in the wrist opening, she slipped the glove over his hand – not really ragged. It had been slit in a dozen or more places, the bands held here and there by lengths of metal fixed inside. He felt them slip over his fingers’ broad crowns, his knuckles, under his palm’s callus.

Elastic bits stretched.

His hand distended the bands as far as they would go, so that what had been a glove was now a web of black ribbons across the rayed ligaments that ran from wrist to knuckles or over the veins that raddled across them.

‘Let me turn it on now –’ which apparently meant snapping the metal clasps together at his wrist:

What happened next was fast and complex, but he followed its parts as though he were being patiently taught and rehearsed and taught and rehearsed again in their workings by the most skilled Muct instructor.

A pedal voice – ‘… stupid, stupid, stupid …’ – that had begun sometime in unremembered childhood whenever he’d been asked questions he couldn’t answer, that had continued whenever he’d been asked questions he’d had to answer ‘no’, and that had finally come whenever he’d been asked any questions at all or even had to ask them, suddenly became audible. A tiny voice, still it had insisted as relentlessly (and as unobtrusively) as his own heartbeat, at least since the man in a circular desk had told him to say, ‘Yes’.

But the reason he heard it at all, now, was because another voice, which felt and sounded and settled in his mind as if it were his own (but
had
to have come from somewhere else), suddenly took that small voice up and declared: ‘… stupid’, on the beat, and then went on, off the beat and overwhelming it: ‘stupidity: a process, not a state. A human being takes in far more information than he or she can put out. “Stupidity” is a process or strategy by which a human, in response to social denigration of the information she or he puts out, commits him or herself to taking in no more information than she or he
can
put out. (Not to be confused with ignorance, or lack of data.) Since such a situation is impossible to achieve because of the nature of mind/perception itself in its relation to the functioning body, a continuing downward spiral of functionality and/or informative dissemination results,’ and he understood why! ‘The process, however, can be reversed,’ the voice continued, ‘at any time …’

The plate circled his other buttock. He felt her slide
the edge between them. She paused a moment and said, ‘Jeeze … ! I never … well, I guess they just didn’t think about toilet cloths for you guys out in the cage!’ But what he was much more aware of was that they stood in some tiny, shielded space of coolness on a scorching desert, over which, if you went long enough in one direction, you’d encounter a magnificent canyon, while if you went in another, you’d find a huge city with filthy alleys and deep underground passages and the RAT Institute in it, while a journey in still another would take you back to the polar station; and that there were tunnel tracks between them - he knew all this because someone he didn’t remember had once mentioned in his presence that his world was round; and knew also that he could go to any of them, because he knew how to drive this particular transport: its controls were identical to one of the ones whose workings he’d been patiently and repeatedly taught, along with its care and maintenance, by the man in charge back at the Muct.

Another voice, begun even further back in childhood, had, in the interstices of ‘… stupid … stupid …’ been muttering, ‘I know … I know …’ And though the man at the Muct had reinforced this second voice by telling him, ‘You know this, now. Remember, you know this,’ he had never really heard it before. But it too became audible because the strange voice that sounded so much like his own took it up: ‘… I know, knowledge: another process, finally no different, in its overall form, from the one called stupidity. Information is not taken into the human organism so much as it is created from the strong association of external and internal perceptions. These associations are called knowledge, insight, belief, understanding, belligerence, pig-headedness, stupidity. (Only social use determines which associations are knowledge
and which are not.) Only their relation to a larger, ill-understood social order decides which categories others or yourself will assign them to …’ And he understood that too! Like a genius, he thought; and amidst this new, responsive excitement, the disgusted comment of someone to whose care he’d been briefly entrusted when he was ten came back:
Well, he’s sure no genius!
‘Genius,’ the new voice took it up, ‘is something else again …’

She said: ‘I guess it doesn’t make too much difference, does it?’

Her cleansing strokes against his thigh, his shin, were firmer.

‘No … yeah … I don’t know …’ He looked down at her bushy hair, on which was a powdering of his scurf. ‘I don’t know how to say.’

Frowning, she sat back and looked up.

‘Not “no.”’ He said: ‘I know …’ It took an astonishing effort to put words to that internal voice while the other drummed (‘… stupid … stupid …’), meaningless now, yet no less insistent for its meaninglessness – an effort that made the back of his neck, his inner arms, and the rear of his knees moisten, not with the sweat of physical strain, but rather the sweat of fear – though fear, along with pain, was something he hadn’t been afraid of since the Institute … no, he did not know how long ago now. Nor did he know how he might create that information from what, as yet, he had in mind. ‘I know,’ he said, out of momentum, ‘but I can’t say.’ Though that was a response to something his mind had abandoned … long ago, it seemed.

Long ago.

She sat back on one knee, with her powdered hair, looking at him with a series of slightly changing frowns, some of which called up expressions he’d seen on other faces from so long ago there was no way to remember
what those frowns meant nor what their order might signify, though their opaque suggestion without resolution seemed marvellous and baffling.

‘Do you
feel
any … different?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know how to say,’ which sounded hugely and hopelessly inadequate (‘… stupid … stupid …’) so that he turned to some ancient feeling in him called rage that welled through his body but, because of what they had done to him, connected with nothing, breaking instead like a water jet in some city fountain, reaching its height to fall in white foam, flashing drops, grey spray, and falling, falling …

Rage, which he could name now, had been erupting at least as long as the voices’ drumming.

‘Ah …’ which was more guttural than the syllabic with which it was written – the words moving through his mind were
all
attached to a bevy of written signs! ‘Radical … Anxiety …’ he whispered, and took a breath; ‘Termination …’ pronouncing the three words clearly, seeing the three supernumerary hieroglyphics that supplemented the syllabics and the alphabetics which, till now, had merely been marks on cubes that danced on the fountain’s ever-shattering tip.

She blinked. ‘You mean that it really …? Well, I guess the transition must be kind of … difficult!’

He watched her decide she could not comprehend what he was going through. Those were the words that her frowns, finally, had led him to. She went back to cleaning his thighs, his genitals, his shin, his ankle.

‘Transition,’ he repeated. ‘What is …?’

Stupid, stupid,
stupid
, it roared, because he was asking a question. Not to know, to have to ask, was stupid, stupid, even while the new voice explained, yet again, that that was knowledge. But – and this came with words too – whatever the glove had done had not changed who
he was any more than the invisible gamma lasers had changed him years back; and for nearly fifteen years now he had been a man who was not afraid of the most astonishing and monumental inner occurrences including his incomprehensible stalling in the great desert of no occurrence at all. He asked, ‘What … is transition?’

‘Change,’ she answered thoughtfully (though the glove had already told him), running the plate’s edge under the inside of his foot’s ball, then the outside, then beneath his toes. ‘It means change. The change you must be going through is probably quite hard. I think your feet are beautiful.’ She brushed him off. ‘I’ve never been much of a foot fetishist, but I’ve known a few who were. Here, give me the other one.’

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