Tuesday, January 21, 2014




Lawrence Santoro

Published in "Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification"

Great Old Ones Publishing, November, 2013

"They are lean and athirst!" he shrieked... "All the evil in the universe was concentrated in their lean, hungry bodies. Or had they bodies? I saw them only for a moment, I cannot be certain."
—Frank Belknap Long, "The Hounds of Tindalos"

This began in circumstances ordinary for 1945: a boy and his mother leave home, travel north to be with a wounded soldier, their father and husband. Ordinary. But when the end comes, I will not have prepared you for the rest.
A cab brought us from the railroad station. The driver squinted in the dark and through the rain for the address mother gave. When we got there, the man said, “Why didn’t you just say it was the Cornelius?” He sounded annoyed, barely helped with our luggage, most of our summer things. Yankees, I thought to myself.
The house stood apart. There were others on the block but our rented place stood alone, taller, deeper. “Row homes,” mother called those others, first I’d heard the term.
Inside, she and I stood dripping just beyond the vestibule. The place stank. What houses are like in the north, I figured.
“Stale air,” mother draped her arm over my shoulder. “We shall air it out.”
I called, “hello,” to the empty rooms and the house welcomed us with an echo that was nothing I’d said. Later, there was singing somewhere far away, high-pitched voices and low drones like sacred harp back home but singing words I did not know. Still, they sounded like home and I cried.
When our things arrived, the house swallowed them. Our rugs were islands, our chairs, tables and lamps huddled on their shores surrounded by splinters and varnish.
I exaggerate.
I should tell you about Terry. He could not fly, he did not jump. He was an ordinary, skinny, blonde kid. Not a bad guy, he just did what people he clapped onto wanted from him. When he hung around with “Bluto” down the way, whom I will mention only here, Terry was forever in Dutch.
“What Bluto expected,” Leslie told me.
Terry was not a smart kid but, like Grampa used to say, “some people just know which way the wind is going.” Maybe that was the problem.
I met Terry right after I met Leslie and I met her on the day mother made me go to Fifth and Hawk elementary where I told everyone I was temporary and would be heading south soon as daddy got better. Daddy was in the big hospital in town, a special place. Burns from the war in the Pacific. He was a pilot.
My first day, Leslie walked me home. She’d run ahead then skip backwards to talk. She knew where I lived. See, while I had noticed no one, everyone had noticed us. Course they did. We were new, the ones in the big place, the Cornelius.
Leslie followed me onto the porch, still talking. She petted the woodwork. She watched the carpenter bees buzz the porch ceiling and not land anywhere. She kept trying to look in the window.
“What’s it like?  Living in the gods’ house?” she said.  I had no idea what she meant. “Living under the Mark?” Again, no idea.
She ran backwards to the sidewalk and pointed to just below where Tudor half-beam wood began at the third floor. A flat stone, about a foot on a side, was let into the brick. I had noticed, figured it was something Yankee houses had.
“Doc Cornelius put it there. Before my time, back when dad was a kid. One day Doc got out on the porch roof, right there, put up a ladder, measured, chopped out some bricks and cemented that thing in. The Mark. Something he found out there in the world. An expedition. Said it would bring the gods. What people said he said.”
“Gods. The gods.”
I squinted. There was a head with horns cut in the stone. Too many horns or too many arms, more arms than any animal I knew and I knew octopuses. We starred at it until afternoon heat began to make the head and arms wiggle. When I’d had enough, she was still looking.
“Yep. It moves now,” Leslie said. Then she ran down the block to her place.
Mother asked why didn’t I invite my little friend in? I said, “Well, I guess I will.”
Her first visit, Leslie could not stop touching and looking. And talking. She talked a streak about the house and Doctor Cornelius and the things he did.
“Cornelius was sta-range?” she wiggled her fingers and drew out the word.  “Here is one of the best hospitals in the world. Right here…” She spun ‘round to take in the whole town, “…and Cornelius would not doctor there, nuh-uh.  He saw people here,” she spun ‘round again. “Down there.” She pointed to the floor.
“The basement?”
“‘S’what they say.” She was amazed at my ignorance. “Cornelius dug things up in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Ultimate Thule. Went with Byrd to Little America—that’s the South Pole—chopped his way through the Darien Gap! He was a medicine doctor but he was a doctor of other things too. Things from old books. There any old books here?” I shook my head. “Well, he went on trips to find more books and maps and things.”
“Not like from the Esso station. Museum maps, old books maps, maps dead people pass down in families from time immemorial. That’s a long time. He kept them up there.” She pointed to the ceiling.
“In your attic. With his books and his things.”
“How do you…?”
“ ‘S’what people say!”
We went from room to room. Leslie looked on tip-toe or squatted down and looked under. “He had things. People say.”
“You keep saying, ‘things,’” I got in edgewise.
“Things like the Mark stone and more. People say he found lost Atlantis. That’s at the bottom of the sea. The Atlantic Sea I guess but some say it’s somewhere in the Greek Sea or the Arctic Sea. Imagine the things he could’ve brought from Atlantis? Right into your house. You know Atlantis, right? That’s the Ante…”
“Antediluvian continent. I know that much.” And I did. Antediluvian times were the old olden times, times before Noah’s flood, before God and everything.
She stopped talking and looked at me. “Antediluvian, indeed. People say he found relics and remains.”
“What people?”
“People. They say he found relics, remains of the great old ones. The ones who came before real people got created. Things! What’s in the attic now?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“No books, no maps?”
“Just grandparent’s stuff, silver cups from…”
Of course we went to look. She talked and talked and ran her hands over the flowered wallpaper in the side hallway and up the stairs. At the top of the steps, the air was gray and dusty.
“You get splinters going barefoot here?”
“I don’t go barefoot. I almost don’t come up here ever.”
“Well huh, right back,” I said.
The attic light bulbs had clear glass with little tips on the ends. Right away he saw those things, Terry called them “titty-bulbs.” The light they threw was hard. But I will not get ahead.
The few boxes we’d put up there were shoved into the middle of the room. Last I’d been there they were to the side under one of the angles of the roof. Or maybe not. I don’t want to make things up.
By the time Leslie’d gone through grampaw’s skeet shooting cups and such, mother called dinner and did my little friend want to stay?
“Can I use your phone?” she yelled and was already half-way downstairs, hands trailing the flowers on the wall.
“But I’d love nothing more!” She almost cried into the phone, “Please.” Finally she hung up and said, “I can’t.”  On her way out she turned to mother like she’d forgotten something. “Thank you so much I can’t tonight and maybe could I have a raincheck?”
“Why, of course,” mother said. Leslie was gone and the house was quiet.

I’ll get to Terry in a bit. That night, another sound began. The sound was in the hallway wall or maybe in the stairway to the attic. I heard it half the house away. This wasn’t singing like before. First, I thought it was a cricket. A cricket’s a hard little bug rubbing itself. But in the dark, this became less and less cricket-like and more and more like stretched skin might moan forth if bowed upon. Never heard the like. I followed. The noise stopped in the side hallway to the attic. The big flowers were gray and black in the dark. I put my ear to them and felt their soft roughness. Underneath was that one-string fiddle, faint beneath the flowers and plaster. Then the sound was inside me, inside my head.
Of course it was not. The sound was in the wall, in the stairway wall. I stood alone in the dark, a big space for my barefoot self to fill. Then–I don’t know why–my mind went to that Mark, the stone in the bricks just above mother’s bedroom window. The thing moved. I could not see it, but I felt the horns, arms or whatever they were writhing round that head and turning, turning inward, reaching inside and for us.
Then the sound was gone and I had a splinter in my foot, the which I pulled out in daylight digging with a needle, pulling with the tweezers.

Leslie and I began sharing nickel pops at Engquist’s Drug Store after school; did that pretty much right off. Terry joined us. Then he started walking home and going with us to the Saturday matinees downtown. Then that was us.
Terrence Adolphus to name him fully, got bad grades. He lied. We knew that. I knew because he was a bad liar. Leslie knew because she’d known Terry forever and knew what was so and what wasn’t. He stole things—from our house now and then, but always gave them back a day or so after. He stole a funnybook from Enquist’s, a Classics Comic Leslie and I wanted and couldn’t afford. We yelled at him. Then all three of us sat and read it in the shade of our house. “The Mysterious Island.” Very good. Terry let Leslie keep it. He would have gotten a licking he brought it home. His old man—what Terry called his daddy—gave out lickings (“Beats the snuff out of him,” Leslie said) for everything, things, if I had done them, mother would have just looked disappointed about. After one visit to Terry’s place, I never went back. He got a licking. The Old Man heard him cuss or maybe because he’d brought us there, but he got a licking like one I’d never had; got it as though we weren’t even there. Probably got one later for coming home with band-aids on, I don’t know. That was Terry and he started the real troubles at the Cornelius, but maybe that wasn’t his fault.
The House? There were still smells. Stale air? Mother was mostly right. We aired out the place and most of it went. Not all. Something alive-smelling remained. Probably from the basement.
We still had echoes and noises at night. “Old houses have old sounds,” mother said and put her arm over my shoulder. No idea what that meant but it made it better.
Sounds in the walls? I pretty much convinced myself of mice, bugs and such. But the echoes never went away. Every night-sound in that big old place brought its whole family of cricks and answering cracks with it, like some small and hard-footed thing was wandering.
Leslie and Terry liked the attic, two big rooms and a hallway. The front room looked through a maple onto the street, the other looked down on the two-storey ‘row homes’ that filled the rest of our block. The only things we put up there were the gramparents’ things I mentioned and some board games.
The attic’s smell was sweet and thick.
“Flour paste and horsehair,” mother said after one sniff, “flour wallpaper paste and hair-plaster that lies beneath.” The paper was rough and smooth. The big green and red flowers Leslie loved running her hands over, felt alive under my hand.
“Huh,” Terry said.
 “Old ways of making things, cher,” mother said. “Open the windows, young sirs and madam, the odor will depart.”
We opened them. The smell departed. Her arm on my shoulder cured my worries and embarrassed me in front of Leslie and Terry.
The basement really stank. Not like anywhere else I knew except the hospital where daddy lay, a place full of rotting limbs. Those stinks were alive.
“Why…coal dust,” mother suggested.  I knew coal to be long-a-gone ferns and dinosaur bodies squeezed into to black rocks. Daddy told me when I was young. So I credited mother’s assessment. Coal dust it was. Mother had ways of removing the dark from the world.
Apart from that, the cellar was jim-dandy, wide and deep as the whole house. Bigger, I thought. And three bulbs to light it all; each hung from a cord with a pull chain that dangled at tip-toe height. First time down there, Terry ran the length, leaped and swatted all three bulbs, set them to swinging. Shadows came dipped and spun, light and dark traded places, back and forth alive, each changing for the other. I didn’t like that.
The smell up where we lived had mostly departed but that living odor lingered below even when the outside hatch was opened to fresh the air when we played submarine, rocket, or bomber plane down there.
“Coal dust,” I insisted, defending my mother’s honor.
Leslie sniffed. “Cockroach,” she said, “maybe rat.  Probably Cornelius’s patient’s bodies.” She laughed.
Terry, who loved rumor, laughed. It was at the back of the basement, past the last bulb, where I was later found hugging the “crate of gut-jars” as Leslie called them, but I will not get ahead.
School eased us into October, then November. Leslie, Terry and I went to the Saturday matinees.  We improved the movies on our way home. Terry liked playing bad guys but was too nice for it. Leslie would not be the girl. None of us liked girl parts, anyway, so she was mostly the buddy who dies.
Four blocks shy of home, was the bridge that carried our street over the railroad yards. We hung over the cement balustrade to spit into the locomotive’s smokestacks. That was good and we came up sooty and smoked.
On our side of the bridge was a little triangle park. The park was thick with trees and tall grass and had a canon from the War of Northern Aggression. We frequently stopped there and used it for our improvements.
When we got home, we went to the attic and read aloud from “Tarzan” and such or played Monopoly, Parcheesi, or Mr. Ree. Terry found the hidden closet up there pretty soon after autumn had shortened our after-matinee time outside.
The door looked just like the wall with flowers and baseboard. But looking close, there was a thin line, a break that rose from the floor to about four feet, then over, then down. Right off, Terry started working to get it open. Why? Have to ask him, and you can’t.  He worked on that for I don’t know, sliding the blade of his Barlow knife into the crack and working it up and down. He was devoted, as mother might have said. Finally, he stopped playing Monopoly and just worked. We called him back for his turns and at first he came, then he stopped.
“What is wrong with you, Terrance?” Leslie yelled.
“Get this Goddamn thing open,” he yelled back.
“Why!” she shouted.
“It’s a goddamned door and goddamned doors should open.” There were other words, lots of cussing.
The hours he spent after-school and after-matinees cutting at whatever held the panel closed and the “bastard,” remained steadfast. I bet Terry had never worked so determined on anything in his life. He’d get it almost open, fingers halfway in, then it would slip and snap shut. He’d cuss and be back at it.
November. Leslie and I were settled into evening gloom, scaring each other reading A. Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World.” Terry worked.
“Goddamned cursing,” Leslie said.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I said.
We’d just finished the chapter, “To-Morrow We Disappear into the Unknown” when Terry, on his knees, shouted “Jes-us Fuckin’ Christ!” He’d gotten his fingers inside the panel. “Have the Goddamned thing. I got it. Now I got it.” The door and its flowers creaked and cracked.
“You’re fixin’ to break something,” I said.
“I’m okay. Sum-bitch…”
“Don’t give a fig about you, you’re fixing to break the damn wall.”
Then he stopped shaking with effort. The door stopped cracking and creaking, as though they’d come to an agreement. Suddenly Terry’s right arm—he was a south-paw—slid to the elbow into whatever was on the other side of that panel. At the same time, the titty-bulbs in our room and the hallway went out.  All the lights in the attic so far as I could see, maybe all the lights in the house went out. With the dark came autumn shadow from the street. I saw Terry’s shape, and that not so well. He looked to be hugging the panel, his ear against the door, his head turned so I saw nothing of his face. But he spoke and he spoke in whispers; not the usual Goddamn sum-bitches, now there was a smooth flow of whispered nonsense. Down home we’d call it ‘speaking in tongues.’ But this was quiet, personal.
“You all right?” Leslie’s spoke over my shoulder.
First, there was Terry’s quiet voice; then there was another, another voice, another presence in the shadows with us. I may be wrong when I say voice. But someone was there who wasn’t us. And, this may not make sense, but a darkness lay between Terry and me. Between where he was and where Leslie and I stood, a great gulf was fixed, as they say.
Leslie pushed the light button on and off.  I jiggled the titty-bulb in its socket. But that was us. And there was the other place where Terry and that other someone were.
Then the darkness between went away. Lights came on – all over the world for all I knew. The windows were black mirrors and Terry, Leslie and I were alone.
Terry’s arm slipped slowly from that little closet, like someone disarming a bomb in a movie. I expected horror and there was some blood, but nothing more than might happen to any boy on any day of work or play. For a moment, the skin of his hand and arm was bone-white and runneled, like he’d been too long in water. He held the edge of the panel with his fingertips.
“Terry,” Leslie said, “your hand.”
“Hell with it. I gave it. Almost. Shit. We got to find them jars. They’re in there, somewhere. Jars of guts, then the gods.”
The panel slipped from his fingers and slammed shut. Could have heard it all over the house. Mother was at the hospital, though.
“Guess not.” Terry whimpered with a sigh. Forgive me for it but I was thinking, ‘That is Terry, almost but not quite, never all the way.’ And whatever eluded him was always the goddamned importantest thing in all the wide world.
“I wanted? Maybe something. Shit, you know?”
“Sure,” I said.
Leslie steered Terry downstairs to the bathroom and ran cold water on his hand.  With the blood washed away, the damage was as I said, nothing that didn’t happen to a boy every day. The dead whiteness of the flesh, the wrinkles, that was almost gone.
“You’ve been bit; bit by something with tiny teeth. Something bite you? And who were you talking to? I could not understand a word, Terrance.” Leslie talked until the cold water stopped the blood. Terry dried his hands with toilet paper and she stuck three, four Band-Aids where he still oozed but that was that.
Terry shook his head and had no goddamn idea what the hell.
“Yeah, a goddamn bite,” he said, “you got something in there that tasted me.”
”S’what I said,” she said.
“Probably splinters, Leslie!  Anyway, you’ll keep the hand.” Visiting daddy I’d seen people didn’t keep hands and other parts. I loved daddy but did not like to visit that place. They did not like me being there, either.

I am now at the kernel of this. After being ‘tasted’ Terry was different. We played, still went to the matinees and improved them coming home, but Terry was more grown up. Mother said. I thought he was just queer. Leslie said he listened more.
“Not to us,” I said.
Okay, I have avoided this, this strange, impossible part. I’m not pulling your leg though. Here. The kernel. The horror.
We were coming up from town. Late November. A wonderful day, chilly but warm enough to stay outdoors until darkness came. Darkness was coming. Leslie and I were riding the canon—something we’d seen in a movie. Terry wasn’t on the gun with us. He was walking around the little park watching the sky.
“I wonder,” he said, “what’ll they give back?” 
“Huh?” we said. He’d been queer all day.
“I fed them. Gave them up, gave them me.”
“Queer,” Leslie said.
“Time you noticed,” I said.
We’d rutched almost to the muzzle of the canon when Leslie screamed. I thought she was fixing to fall and, since we were making like the barrel was pointed over a cliff, I turned to save her life. She wasn’t falling. She was staring, eyes-wide. The sun had just set and shadows were coming for us, crawling from under the trees by the west. There were lots of trees and wind enough to make the autumn grass whisper.
Terry stood on the bridge balustrade. He often threatened to walk the bridge’s narrow ledge, a good thirty-foot drop to the tracks. Leslie always talked him out of it. There he was standing on that cement rail, his back to us and I don’t know if he heard Leslie’s scream or not. I didn’t peep for fear he’d lose his balance. When Leslie drew breath to shout again, I turned to hush her and we both fell off the canon. Not hundreds of feet to the rocks, just three, four to the grass. For half a second she gave me mad-eyes then her face got bigger. I turned.
I know what I want to say: from where he stood, Terry just seemed to float on smoke or steam that huffed around him from a passing train. I want to say that but, no.  He was lifted, borne aloft on swirls of spark and soot. He was awash but not in train smoke. There was something—that dark something I saw when the panel had held him in its mouth, when he spoke in private tongues to the darkness. That something held him now.
We called. I think he did not hear. Leslie ran toward. I followed. Terry was still awash, lifted above and beyond our reach, over the tracks. He looked not at us but somewhere else, I don’t know where, but not at us. The long arms of darkness wrapped him. They were alive.  Sparks—what I thought were sparks—swirled and crackled like Christmas tinsel on the Lionel tracks. And there was a smell, that alive stink of something that had rotted its way from another world into ours, the stench of something from beyond and long ago. This was the full-out reek that lay under what the Cornelius sometimes fed us until mother made it depart through open windows.
Terry dissolved into the arms and the sparks. Leslie reached for him and failed. She began to climb onto the railing. I dragged her off. We argued, sure, but I was proud of her that she tried, and disgusted with myself that I hadn’t.
In a moment, the arms, the sparks and Terry whisked away, a meteor trail up the sky toward our house.
We ran. The Cornelius was just a half-mile but I’d never run that far, so fast. What was I going to do? Tell mother? What else does a kid do? The long wall of row homes passed in slow motion, our breath and legs held and slowed us. Ahead, where Terry and whatever it was had gone, time ran regular. Our feet were lead, our chests filled with sand and cement. When we reached the Cornelius we died for breath.
The Cornelius was utterly black. We breathed.
“Your mom? Not in?”
“Hospital,” I remembered, “daddy…”
“Then us…?”
“We’re it. The rescue.”
I never liked the house. That evening, it did not like me. Silly. Not the house, no. Houses do not like or not. They are. But something was there that wore the house, and that did not like me. Us. Leslie and I leaned on our knees and breathed and breathed and did not pass out.
“Look.” She pointed.
The streetlight on the corner was out and the house showed little more than angles, black brick and gray wood.  Still…a thing moved across the face of the Cornelius. A moth flickering on the screen is something like it. The whole rest of the block was dead. If not dead, then sleeping, silent, except for the flap of that growing many-limbed thing that was trying to enter our world from the Mark. I do not mean to be dramatic. I have tried not to be, but that is what it seemed. This thing rose and fell back, rose again, stretched, beat itself against the dormer above or strained down to where it rattled mother’s bedroom window. It was smoke learning to have muscle and teeth.
“Terry’s in there,” Leslie said.
I knew that he was. I just did not want to go in.
We went in. No lights, nothing worked. We ran upstairs into a darker place, down the side hallway, darker still, then climbed the attic steps. We climbed into a downpour of stench, a breath from some Cornelius place where his maps and books had taken him, maps and books that had been part of this house and had lived in these rooms. The thoughts ran through me. How? I do not know. The light ahead was not the hard-edged brightness of titty-bulbs but soft and smoky, a curling light that threw gray shadows. There were voices in that light, far-off but clear and foreign. The walls hummed with them, those flesh-strung violins sang. The sacred harp in tongues, fed our ears.
In the front room, the little closet stood open, a gap in the wall’s black and gray flowers. Something moved inside, a thing our size that crawled away from us.
Leslie called but Terry did not respond.  She dove.
I hesitated. Something urged me stay. The cricket in the wall, I now guess. I pictured Jiminy Cricket. Jiminy Cricket was in my hand, small with long antennae. He said, “stay.”
No. I gripped him hard and followed.
The door closed behind us.
I’m older now. I didn’t then know what being a child in the womb was like. I still do not, I suppose, but I do know now that at our beginning we are alive in the body of another, close and embraced by wetness and meat; outside is an alien world, untouched but at-hand.
That experience is probably kin to what Leslie and I felt crawling in that darkness, incomprehensible sound surrounding us. I also know that at our end, the earth will enwrap and hold us forever. A baby has no sense of beginnings or endings or of the world and I suppose a corpse hasn’t, either. We did. We knew we were inside a place both alive and utterly alien. The house? No. Was it a creature, one of Cornelius’s “old gods”?  I do not know.
Jiminy Cricket wiggled in my hand. We crawled, we walked, we ran. Light of a sort aimed us. We moved through rooms—or caverns—walls like slabs of meat rose around us, stars aloft and distant above. We kept on. Winds came. Icy arctic night roared from a side space. We went on, following Terry. From another side, a fetid corruption strangled me, heaving screaming jungle birthsoup belched on me, then vanished. We followed Terry. He’d been invited. We’d not. 
Jiminy buzzed reminders to my hand. “Not wanted (“needed,” “fit,” “required”),” it sang.  His antennae augured their way out of my clenched fist. I called to Leslie but she would not stop. We kept on. Places passed on either side, a black depth of water, living lights moving in it. Sometimes the way narrowed to a few inches and thousand foot drops gave way to either side of our running feet. And always and ever, alien winds arose from here and there. The smell was what a spider looks like.
Hours and miles later, the way ended. Ahead, Terry knelt by a pit. A greasy light arose around him. Terry reached into the light and, one after another, withdrew a series of glowing jars.
Leslie and I had stopped. I could barely move or breathe, but we stopped, how to explain this? We stopped because Terry seemed to know what he was doing. This not very smart boy had gathered around him a half-dozen of these jars. Various colors played over him, colors I knew and others I had no name for. Quickly, he opened one jar, put it down, reached, opened another, placed it at what seemed a measured distance from the first.
So it went, a pattern being made, colors and life oozing from the open jars.
“What in the hell…” Leslie said.
Jiminy squirmed and screamed.
“Jars of,” Terry said. He didn’t look but he was speaking to us. He continued to work. “Hearts, lungs, parts there ain’t no names for. God-parts, waiting.
“Leave now,” Terry said, “we have it to do.” Jiminy said, both of them said. “Leave now and the gods will be reborn. They have lain await here in parts and in many places. They begin again. Here the world begins. Anew.”
Jiminy gave me a jab. I opened my hand.
“Hell!” Leslie said, seeing the thing for the first time.
I don’t know, grabbing him had seemed natural. I’d loved his movie and he was a good little fellow.
“What the hell?” Leslie screamed.
Jiminy’s tail fired like a glow-worm. The air lit. Every mote in the world glowed. The Jiminy bug spread wings and flew.
Why?  I don’t know why I knew but I did know Jiminy was not Jiminy Cricket but something from Doc Cornelius’s dreams. The bug’s right name popped into my head but I have long forgotten it. I knew, too, that Jiminy must not get to those jars of lungs and parts and...
…and, well, I knew things and among the things I knew, I knew I couldn’t let that little bug go.  I grabbed him.
The which did not stop him. He flew higher and higher, me with him, holding him.
Now, I was not a heavy boy but I should have been more than a cricket-sized bug could haul aloft.
Leslie called. Her voice and she were dwindling, below. Jiminy screamed in the tongue of the old gods. From below, Terry looked up. His face was as full of ancient hate as the “old man’s” had been that one time I saw him reach for his son and beat him out a licking.
How high? Don’t know. What was I doing? Don’t know. Light and smell oozed from the jars Terry had opened. In them life crawled, craving substance and bawling like babies.  I knew (How? Don’t know…) that if the parts managed to gather and touch, the critter fluttering from the Mark would be with us in the world. And I knew that would be a very bad thing.
Then I fell.
Did I let go? Don’t know. From how high? Don’t know. A long drop, sure. Not as far as daddy falling from the sky in the Pacific but the light, colors, the jars, the pit rushed toward me and then I was in it all and overwhelmed.

Terry’s mom and old man were dead. Terry killed them the night before, killed the old man first, sleeping. A butcher knife. Many times. His mother fought but she was very small and he killed her too.
They found Terry on the tracks below the bridge. People said he’d jumped. A train had run over his body but he’d probably been dead before.
I woke, Leslie screaming and shaking me. She’d found me at the far end of the cellar. The lights were on and swinging and I was hugging a box of jars. Looked like old preserves in Ball Jars. But I did not look closer.
How’d I get there? You know by now.
Leslie verified everything I remembered: following Terry, the thing from the Mark, the opening in the attic, the trip through…?
What?  Through to the pit.  She watched me fly, she said, she saw me drop from on high. Then light like the sun and she awoke in the basement. I was a mess. We never told mother.
Leslie and I watched the Mark that night before we knew about Terry and his parents. After we knew, we watched the Mark for days in the cold winter sun. It did not wiggle.
My daddy passed soon thereafter, a war hero. Everyone was sad. And so soon after the shock about the Adolphus family, a whole family done in like/that!
We were sad, Leslie and I. I still am. But daddy could not have been whole again, and like I said, Terry wasn’t a bad guy, just someone who knew which way the wind was going. Sad, but I rushed to help mother pack the place because we were going home woth daddy.
When we left, I wondered what to do with those jars I woke up hugging. I would not open them even to flush or burn them or whatever. The box was almost full. Just a half dozen missing.
Sometimes I wonder about Doc Cornelius. What happened to him?  To his patients, the ones he saw in the basement, to his books and maps, his ‘things’?
The jars? I left the decision to Leslie. I still miss her and sometimes wonder.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

For BFS Award Consideration: "Instructions on the Use of the M-57 Clacker"



Lawrence Santoro

Published in "Fear the Reaper," October 2013, Crystal Lake Publishing

“She was among the recent dead, and walked haltingly from her wound.”
-- Ovid, “The Metamorphosis” Book X

“So, you kill anybody?” Arinello said. No one else had asked.
Libassi had put a million rounds into the dark. Careful three-round bumps or Mad-Minutes on full-auto, a thousand year-old wall between him and Charles, the stink of nitro coating his throat, muzzle-flashes right, left, forward, above, like stars.
“Probably,” he said. “Why?”
“Just wondering’s all. You was scared?”
The ceiling at O’Dwyer’s Fishtown Bar-Liquors-Beer was still pressed tin. O’Dwyer was dead, old age, cancer, something, but his ceiling? That was the same, sure-sure. Libassi’s eyes wandered. He read the tin landscape cold, like a field map of the Highlands. “Scared? Fuck yeah.” Then, “Okay no. Well at first, then it goes inside. Then, ‘I see the light,’ clack-clack,” Libassi said.
“Fuck, I know you, Libassi. Scared shitless! What’s that? Clack-clack?”
“Something. You want stories? ‘A Grunt’s Tale, or What the Fuck?’”
“Like Sister Magdalene reading, what was it? ‘The Red Badge of Who Gives a Shit!’”
The laughs died.
“How old you think Nam is? Country not the war?
“A thousand years.” He stopped for the memory. “‘Place is the clit of the South China Sea.’ Soc said that.”
“Look at a map.”
“Socrates. Socrates is a dead nickname. Words for everything that guy had. What’d he say jungle was?” Took a second. “Fecund!” The word popped out of memory. “Yeah, ‘fecund.’ Should hear what he called malaria and shit.”
The laughs died again but Soc was in his head now, whispering smells, tastes. “’Jungle’s the cunt of the world.’ Soc said. ‘War inhales us and the forest spits out death, rot, life; it is all the same. The end. Amen.’” Libassi turned to Arinello. “That’s Soc. Dead now, sure-sure.”
“A thousand years?”
“Them villes, yeah. Grass huts, ‘imagine.’ Not stone like Italy and the Greeks. A thousand at least, the butterbar said.”
“Butterbar. Yeah. Second lieutenant. We come out of the forest. A dog’s barking down in the ville, always a dog’s barking. The path leads down into whatever it was called. ‘Imagine,’ LT said. ‘Huts lasting a thousand years.’
“Then an RPG comes smoking out of that shithole, pins the man to a tree and…”
“…dog’s still barking. But LT’s greased. Quickly dead. Anyway, the round never detonated, Chicom shit, so I’m okay. But LT’s guts leave a trail from where we stand back to the fecund forest.”
Then memory. There in O’Dwyer’s Fishtown Libassi remembered: out of that ville had come the thing, the dark he called it. Nothing else to call it. He saw it there for the first time, he and another cherry; a crawling blackness… That’s all he remembered.
“What happened?”
“After? After, we Zippo’d the place. A thousand years those huts keep the jungle back.” His memory was alive in smell, taste, sound. “A couple Zippos and... Yeah, guess I got some then. The dog anyway.”
“Fuck. Gotta make ‘em pay for it.”
The dark—which did not care who was who or what side had to pay—had a time that day. After? After, it left for a time and for a time Libassi was good. Afraid? There was a respite, Soc’s word. That was before the tower.
The corner of Libassi’s eye caught a ripple, a twitch on the far side of O’Dwyer’s American Shuffleboard. Might have been his eye, might have been the beer. He almost turned, but didn’t. There was nobody, but there’d been a ripple. “What the hell?” he said to O’Dwyer’s ceiling.
Libassi turned to Arinello. Bobby A. Remember? Arinello, Bob whose fucked up ball-playing high school knee kept him out of the war? Ran numbers for some people? Nothing big. That was then. Now? Well, now the State is writing policy so what’s Arinello doing?
“You know, working. Arinello’s and Son Auto Body. Arinello rubbed the black lines in his knuckles. “Least I got a trade, huh?”
Libassi pulled his head away from the dark. “Me too.”
“Couple-a lucky fucks we are, huh?” He called to the bar, “Yo-there!”
The bar was a lady. O’Dwyer’s daughter. A little older, still… She came in slow motion.
“Hey, fix my friend, here. He’s just back,” Arinello said.  “Say, what’s this? Place is dead. Used to be something.” No answer. “Just back from Nam, my friend here.” Maybe she hadn’t heard.
Her eyes stayed rigid in her skull. The skull turned to Libassi. “That right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You can tell?”
“No.” Behind him, the shuffleboard went dong-ding, dong-ding. “Can I get you?” she said.
She went. Libassi could have sworn she sniffed and curled her lip.
“Smells it on me, though.”
“So you got a? What is it? Trade you say?”
“Oh, I wade nose-deep in shit without puking, stand stick-fucking-still till hell freezes. Won’t scratch, sneeze, fart or drop dead till told. We’re all meat for the market is what Soc said. Being ‘sardonic’ he said, ‘The end. Amen,’ he said. He said that.”
“Soc got shot?”
“No. Mosquito. Anophol-something. Bites and down you go. Malaria. Gets better, then comes back. Fifty years, maybe. You carry it. Then, snap, you’re dead. Soc didn’t wait.”
Dong-dong, dong dong.
A wet Pilsner touched Libassi’s fingers. The bar waited, her eyes on him. “Schaefer,” she said.
Arinello slapped a buck on the bar. “Chrissake. Guy’s been over there killing for America.”
“A dog, anyway,” Libassi said.
“I’ll bring change.” She waved the single as she walked. She walked nice.
“Fuck,” Arinello said to her back. “Keep it,” he called.
Libassi thoughts ran: Army, trade, eighteen months. Happy to separate out?
Good to be back in the world?
Fuck yeah!
You still you?
He thought so.
“So you got it, Malaria?”
“Yeah. And I burn shit, a valued trade. You and your buddy, both fuckups, are assigned to latrine police; you pull out the honey drums, pour in the magic, light it up, poof. Long burn.” His next breath caught a whiff from memory, the sense, separated but still in Nam: burning shit that he and…
Fuck. What’s-his-name? Colored guy? He knew it but the name was locked in the memory still in-country.
…they breathed, a stink like no thing in the world but itself—solid black that unspooled from the drums of burning…
…shit. Yeah, but in the field what was shit? C-rats, pressed-meats, eggs-n-ham Spam-I-Am, stuff called spaghetti heated with C-4, instant coffee, mouth-mixed and swallowed with spit, tinned pound cake, beans, crackers, Vienna wieners, peanut butter, salt tabs, malaria pills—keep the shakes down—pizza, choppered in with beer and Beam and the rest. That was shit. And shit was the stuff they squeezed from the world, things swallowed, shot, smoked, chewed or shoved to keep hopping. They burned all that.
“Slopes loved our shit, Bob. American shit is fertilizer supreme, worth a fortune, ‘Numbah-one.’ ‘Eat so good, America, you shit numbah-one. You give, yes?’ ‘Give, Charlie? Fuck no, I sell!’”
“G.I. shit brings Bookoo bucks. But no, we stir in some diesel, light a TP-Stick and up it goes. Whoof. ‘Deny the enemy that vital resource, son,’ commander says. ‘No fortune for you, G.I.,  the end.  Amen.’”
Libassi snorted, sucked a breath and he was back in O’Dwyer’s.
“State fucking lottery,” Arinello said. “You believe that shit? Somefuckinbody’s getting rich. You know someone’s getting rich.”
“Always somebody getting rich that ain’t you.”
“Fucking lottery,” Arinello said.
Ding. Dong. Donk, the shuffleboard said.
“Elephant grass,” came into Libassi’s head.
“’Grass, sharp like a sweet soft razor, two-mans high!’” The colored guy called it, ‘Grass two-mans high cuts like a Satiday-night nigger.’
The picture sharpened: the Huey’s downwash, grass waves rolling out from their center. Libassi leaned to Arinello, “Elephant grass makes pretty waves.”
“Down the shore. Now you’re talking,” Arinello said.
“No. Grass waves. Looking down, from the chopper when you’re dead. Elephant grass rolls away forever.”
“Dead?” Arinello said.
“Swirls, like that ‘Starry Night’ the painter made, one with the ear.” He leaned closer. “But what’s in that grass? Oh, Arinello, Bob, you do not want to know what’s in that grass.”
“When you’re dead?”
“Everybody dies, least once. Bullet, malaria, grenade.”
“You gonna say?”
“Yeah. I died.” Even the t.v. shut up. “You want to know?
“War stories? I’m hanging with my old man now.”
Libassi locked an eye on Arinello. “Lemme show you.” Libassi opened both eyes. Arinello fell into them. The story was this, and it was true, a war story.
Base Camp was a jerky square a couple hundred meters on a side. Someone shaved the top off a mountain, people who’d been before and now were gone. They’d made a place. The place was Fire Support Base Jenny. Who was Jenny? Who cared? Jenny was permanent, as permanent gets in a war, a mountaintop with men, tents, latrines, dugouts and four howitzers. Looking out from Jenny, Libassi saw a line of jungle-clad peaks and valleys. On the field map, neat north-south contours, but from the bagged perimeter above the forest, the lines of hills folded, merged, separated and faded into the mist. Air was mostly water so there was always mist. Daytime.
Nights? Nothing. Overhead was sharp, hard. A black that rose from the forest and went everywhere Jenny wasn’t. Up in Jenny you were safe, more or less. Go down to the forest, though, you were in the House of Charles.
And they would keep ordering you down, captain to the LT, LT to the sarge, then sarge says to you and the map, ‘Patrol that there river trail, Fox one-niner to Lima eight.’ And down you went, got a little bok-bok with Charlie. Kill-and-count. That simple. Really. Stay on Jenny and all was fine. Burn shit when it was your turn (or because you’d fucked up again). Not bad duty considering. “Burn time, get short. Now and occasionally the Shithook comes…”
“Chinook. Big chopper, okay? Shithook comes out of heaven with pizza, beer, porn, smokes, mail, rations, ammo, new guys. Weed too, I figure.”
“Army sent weed?”
“Who else? So. Stay on your mountain, smoke, drink, jerk off, burn shit, turn on, get short, go home. But no, they keep sending you down to the dark.” He smacked the empty Pilsner on the bar.
“Well, you made it.”
“Yeah. Now and occasionally you pull guard duty. You get your chicken plate on, climb your tower—there are four—you watch, listen, sniff the air for Charles because Charles is a stealthy little fuck.”
“Charles’s the Viet Cong.” Arinello spoke for the bar to hear.
“Yeah. Viet Cong. V.C. Victor Charlie. Charles owned the forest below. Trouble is, on a mountaintop you’re surrounded by ‘below.’”
“You said.” Arinello called to the bar. The bar delivered. “Go on.”
“So now and then Charles gets his hands on heavier stuff than AKs. RPGs, mortars, little field howitzers they drag around on bike wheels, you know?”
“So, my turn in the tower. Nightwatch. I climb. Not alone. This other guy has some bodacious weed he wants to blow with someone who ain’t letting everyone in on he’s got it, and that’s me. He brings his shotgun and we are up there bonging with the 12-gauge and it is quiet. Dark.
“Dark’s regular. And quiet?” Libassi listened in his head. “You don’t know how many kinds of quiet there are in the boonies.” Libassi knew a thousand shades of silence, the kinds of nothing the war had to offer.  What he knew, he couldn’t tell. “Anyway, we’re fucked up. Somewhat. Don’t get the idea that what’s coming is because of fuckedupness, no-no. Fucked up’s regular too. Anyway. Night’s everywhere, then my buddy, can’t fucking remember his name, colored guy from I don’t remember…”
“Buddy’s a nigger?”
“Buddy’s a nigger. From Boston someplace. He smiles. Why? I don’t know because next thing, he points to the black below our position. I look and down there?” Libassi looked in his head. “There is something. First I think the malaria’s coming out again. Like it does, dreams…
“What is it?”
“Arinello, Bob, my buddy and me, we are both of us fuckups, two guys who should never be in a tower together, people sleeping under our care. We look and I don’t know, there’s something not night, not animals, it’s not Charlie creeping, it ain’t my malaria. I am with my mouth hanging open. The nameless nigger’s still smiling. We’re like boy and girl, heads together, looking.
“The silence—this silence—is the kind that every bug, breeze, everything down there humping, hunting, being killed, suddenly shuts the fuck up over. Freezes. Scared. Tigers, snakes, roaches big as that go numb. Numb because something is among them. Something the fecund forest don’t know, don’t want to know. And the something’s moving. Got a purpose and nothing knows what is that purpose.”
Arinello blinked.
“Anyway, it moves. Bottom of our mountain, across the stream we can’t see except now and then starlight winks on water, it’s down there, okay? Rolling.
Libassi had never spoken it. There was no Army word, no Soc word. “It’s a blackness with arms, or like arms, fingers. Fingers like smoke but not. They reach, touch. Like bug feelers. The trees wrinkle, move aside, no noise, nothing, they just part, like they want nothing to do with this whatever.
“My buddy’s still smiling. ‘We got LURPS out?’ he says. Teeth leave white trails.”
“Long-range patrol. ‘No, we’re buttoned up,’ I tell him. Then, he wants a closer look I guess. He leans over the rail. I do too ‘cause were sort of connected. So. The thing below. Maybe it sees us then, ‘cause, right then, it stops.
“I feel it stop, feel it look. Looks up at us. Looks up at me. And it knows about me. Everything down inside. Anyway, it’s fixed. It’s now ours, or I am its. But it is the thing was in that ville when LT got pinned. The dark.
“‘For me?’ colored guy whispers, ‘Is it? Is it for me?’ Still grinning.
“’Ain’t me,’ I say. Now fucked if I know how, but I know it is for me.
“Weed’s forgotten. We’re looking. Can’t see, looking at. Corner of the eye is how. Thing crosses the stream. No splash. Water flows around. hssshhh… Trees, this side of the river?” How to say this?” They step aside, quiet, polite. Let whatever pass. At the bottom, bottom of the hill below our position, we can’t see for the trees, but the trees wrinkle; they move so easy.
“’We sound alert?’ my buddy asks.
“Now, I want to, I want sirens, lights, want to burn the forest, Mad-Minute the fucker. But, this is not Charlie and the first shirt gets a flaming asshole, his sleep is disrupted. That gets you volunteered. So, I shake my head and watch the dark come up our mountain.
“Buddy’s not smiling now. And, now it’s closing, I smell... I don’t know. Well, I do know.” Libassi blinked Arinello out of his eyes. “You don’t know how death smells. You had a different knee, you’d know. Bodies out there’re mostly Charlies, but sometimes there’s a G.I., and we bring back our own. Try to. And a body in the jungle…” Libassi had to think. “After a couple days, skin slips off the bone, the thing rolls out of your hands and you’re holding slabs of black fat. There’s that. And shit. You shit when you die, so there’s days-old whatever the forest didn’t eat. Anyway, a body, dead, is rotted meat, shit, piss and more. Okay?”
Arinello starred.
“I smell that and the air. The air carries wet stink from a hundred miles of jungle. And sweat—panic sweat—I taste it. Stink and the taste of stink, it’s in the air.”  He thought about that. “No. It’s in me. Okay? It’s me.”
Ding. Dock. Clack. The shuffleboard clacked in the dark by the Ladies’ room.
Libassi shut up. This is Philly, O’Dwyer’s same-old. There’s tin above, a good-looking woman ignoring him, as she should, end of the bar. Still. The silence—the silence of that night in the tower—that silence, that smell and the dark were in him now. Memory? No-no.
Arinello raised his arm for another round. Libassi dragged it down like there were tracers in the air. “No. See, the dark was everything; fed us sight, hearing, taste, smell, all of it. It’s just that what it gave was nothing. Zero. Get it?  There was jungle, there was movement and stink but the dark at the center was nothing. And it fed us the nothing.”
“Touch?” Arinello whispered.
“Huh?” Libassi said, then, “No! Not touch, not yet. So, long story short, we watch. Two dumbfucks, ripped to the tits, watch this thing flow, roll, finger its way up the mountain. Takes, I don’t know, ten minutes. Took us longer going down, but call it ten. Thing’s below our twelve o’clock now, and now I hear. A little something, but something touches.” Libassi’s fingernails scraped the bar. “Touches our tower. Tower will not step aside; tower’s not trees, animals. It’s a fucking dead tower someone built and it won’t let the dark go by. Anyway, I’m there. Tower vibrates. Gentle, creak, crackle, crack. Tower rattles, we shake, the stink is heavy.”
Libassi took a breath. “And we fucked up. I know because I suddenly remember we’re soldiers. And that thing is coming. We should shoot, hit sirens, lights. We don’t. Whatever the dark is, we fucked up and people are going to be dead because. Us, too.”
Libassi closed his eyes. The stink came full-bore, filled his nose. With the smell came the heat, the wet, the sound of that long silence, that once and once-only silence that comes just before you’re dead, and you see it and taste your fear of it; that something he knew he’d taste only once again, and after that he’d never taste anything ever.
The Shuffleboard clacked. Three times. Hard. Sharp. Then a fuck-empty silence. He didn’t look. “Not me,” he said to the dark.
Arinello looked like every cherry new in-country. He stared at the old guy, nine months and a thousand years older than he’d ever be. He looked and waited for the word, word of the way, word of the worst and word about the easy way.
Libassi wouldn’t give it. Fucked if he knew himself.
“What happened?”
Memory of night, heat, the silence that was the dark’s, the complete fucking nothing that slithered up their mountain and the war-stink it shoved into him, the safe reek of Jenny, which was cosmoline and diesel, armpit and after-shave, mud and SOS bubbling on the stove—and the far end of SOS, the meat-eater shit that uncoiled to heaven on solid rolls of black smoke, those and the other friendly stenches put out by the Army and its men, that and the death-reek of the forest. Then memory of a flicker that lit the air a million miles away; brief lightning in a cloud full of shadow and rain, a misty ripple on the edge of the world. Libassi had wanted rain. He knew when it came the rain would be only a little wetter than the air, but he wanted it, and yes, he knew something bad had advanced on his position and was about to over…
Then memory of the yellow light that killed him.
Then space. No memory.
“What happened?”
Like/that Libassi was back in O’Dwyer’s. Arinello was just Arinello and Libassi finished the story he should not have started.
  “A mortar. Chinese shit. This’n worked. There’s yellow light. I guess there was noise; I’m squeezed by a bear, gorilla, some fucking thing, and that was that. My post abandoned me. Ha.”
A war story. A quick easy lie.
Arinello laughed.
“Then I wake. Only not like coming up from a dream. It’s like/that.”
“Like what?”
“It’s later. Someone kicks me. My chin. I’m bagged, being processed with other dumbshit dead guys. I’m lying next to other bundles of meat. I’m screaming. My mouth is blood and teeth. Rain’s filling my mouth. Thunder, lightning and something’s jammed up my gums. The son-of-a-bitch who kicked me’s on his ass, screaming into the sky too. I’m sitting up, trying to, and I’m trying to pull out…”
Libassi dropped his top plate, pulled out the bottom one to show Arinello the fucked-upness of his mouth.
“I pull my tags out of my fucking fucked-up gums. Fucking guy believed that shit.” Air lisped through the gaps where his teeth weren’t.
Arinello squinted at Libassi’s mouth. “Fuck. Like somebody curbed you, man.” Libassi remembered he and Arinello curbing that Irish what’s-his-name, the prick Stinson and his brother, back when, before.
The shuffleboard clack, clack, clacked.
“I said fucking guy believed that shit about the notch on the dog tags. Fucking new guy just out of charm school. Ought to be field-stripping butts and burning shit, but he’s in a firefight with nobody to kill except each other, and now he’s detailed securing bodies, mine, because I’m dead and my buddy, who I can’t remember his name, and three or four other guys who are well and truly dead, dead because, well, they are, call it enemy action, friendly-fire or what the fuck, they’re dead. I’m one of them.
“Tower’s through the grinder. Seen it next day. Me and the colored guy were in the wreckage. Both dead. Should have been, anyway. The nigger, my buddy, he’s all…” Libassi didn’t want to say, “…splinters and meat,” he said, “you know?”
“Spiedini!” Arinello laughed through his nose. “Eggplant kabob!”
“Yeah. I’m one of them kabobs.” Libassi rubbed his arm. Pieces were still working their way out from down deep. “So, spiedini. So this fucking doofus does my buddy then same to me, yanks my tags, sticks the notch between my front teeth and kicks a field goal on my chin. Wham. Minnesota farm fuck, Stateside fat still on him. Someone told him that’s what to do, said, ‘jam the dead guy’s tags up the gums, then kick it home. You will keep them tags and dead guys together till they get to Graves Registration, stateside, young trooper!’ He believed that shit.
“So, I’m dead, bagged, and this mother jerks me from Jesus, ha!” He smiled wide at Arinello.
The shuffleboard’s Clack Clack Clack shot up Arinello’s backbone. “Hey, that? What’s that?”
“Playing with itself?” Arinello hooked a thumb at the shuffleboard and did not look into Libassi’s holey mouth.
The look on O’Dwyer’s daughter reminded Libassi his plates were still out.
Click, clack. The partials went back. Libassi, as he ever was.
He had to say something else, something to finish that night. “Yeah. Chinese mortar shell that worked.” Libassi finished the warm beer. Miss O’Dwyer brought a cold one and a whisky, Irish. She was all tits and sweat, fucking gorgeous. Buttons holding where cloth parted. How long was it? Got him some boom-boom back there, sure-sure but the women? Little-girl womens, womens like little boys.
“On the house,” she said.
“C’mon, down that,” Arinello said, “place’s dead.”
While Libassi thought of other things, Arinello drank the Irish.
Libassi leaned toward Arinello’s ear. “Buddy, there’s a shitload more.”
“What?” Arinello said.
“Never stand in front of your own Claymore, for instance.” Libassi downed the beer, picked up his empty Irish, shook his head at Arinello and smiled at Miss O’Dwyer. She brought another.
The year faded in, shadow and noise: his buddy’s name, the empty place in that night, more, all on the tip, almost there. What had come out of the forest and up the mountain, what had dropped their tower, what had been alive in the bright yellow burst in his head, what was the dark, what stank inside him. What had made that other guy, another blank where a name should be, what had made him do that? “Clack, clack, clack.” Libassi said. Memory.
He tells this one: “We’re both cherries, same arrival, same DEROS. Both Zippoed the ville that day. But that guy. Stands in front of his own claymore and clack-clack-clack.”
No face, no name yet, just the pink ooze of brain froth.
“Talk,” Arinello said.
“Some guys want it,” Libassi said.
“Shit, I want it,” Arinello, looking at O’Dwyer’s ass.
“Nah,” Libassi said. Should he say? Death wasn’t just out there. It’s in you, death is. He’d learned. Soon after being dropped into Jenny, that fact came around and introduced itself. That day at the ville, they both saw the dark, both looked in its face. Maybe it had been just for the other cherry, what’s-his-name, brain oozing? They choppered in together, both clean and scared.
“Trembly.” Libassi said, a load off.
“Huh?” Arinello said.
“Guy fragged himself, his own Claymore. Trembly.”
“We cocked an ambush. Platoon makes a tactical adjustment left, defilade from cover. But Trembly, he stands, walks forward, and right. Looks at me, ‘See the light, see the light, see the light,’ hits the clacker. Clack, clack, clack. Boom.
“‘New guy panicked,’ Sarge says. Fucking lifer never even knew Trembly’s name. ‘Panic’ll get you dead,’ Sarge says. He’s sure.  He’s got Trembly for audio-visual whatchcallit.
Arinello’s face says, ‘what the fuck?’
“To blow a Claymore you got a clacker. Detonator. Generates a current. You hit the clacker switch. Hard. Three, four hits. You’re trained; see a little flash in the tester.  ‘I see the light, see the light,’ you say. Wait. The enemy crosses the zone, you do it fast, hard.” He demonstrated on the bar. WHAM. WHAM. WHAM. “Then boom; supersonic pinballs.
“Trembly didn’t panic. He stood, walked. Looked. Clack, clack, saw the light like he was taught. Pinball riot. He let the dark out of him. Holes everywhere and out Trembly oozed, guts, brains—what brains there was; dumb as scum, Trembly. A cherry who couldn’t hack it. I was cherry then, too. Not after that.
“So the year goes. Other guys buy it. Hard, sharp guys. I’m a fuckup but alive. I’m in the tower with that colored guy. Something blew us up. A mortar, sure-sure. There was a firefight over our dead bodies. Then the FNG kicks me in the face and I’m alive again. The end. Amen.”
Alive. No front teeth. The Army fixed that, Choppered Libassi out of the highlands and over the grasslands. Looking down, while dead, he saw what was in the elephant as the waves rolled and the grass flattened then rebounded. Then he was fixed.  Wasn’t like playing war down the alley…Patch-patch... Not that easy but…
And the Army’s teeth slipped around his mouth—Click, clack—rattled against his for-real bone-teeth. They got most of the tower out of him. Some was still working its way.
“You get disability? I would. Stick it to the…”
Arinello sounded like Libassi’s old man; gu’ment took eighteen months of your life. For what? Get your disability, for Chrissake. Like Pop’s, Arinello’s grousing was a kind of silence. The silence got bigger. It filled Libassi. Then it filled the bar.
Behind him, the dark moved, a shuffle, a ripple.
Libassi kicked the stool jumping to his feet. The dark flowed, reached for the light in him. Libassi grabbed the bar, held on, did not turn, would not turn. In back, tables, chairs parted quietly, the shuffleboard held fast. He would not look. Not now, not ever. “Never fucking look. See?”
“Huh?” Arinello leaned aside.
“Got a leg cramp,” Libassi said. “Ain’t going to look, though.”
“Huh?” Arinello said.
“Colored guy looked. ‘For me?’ he says. ‘Fuck’d if I know,’ I said. ‘It ain’t me.’ You gotta know that much. Guess Trembly learned that. Back at the ville. Too late.”
Libassi stretched his leg like he believed in the cramp.
The bar darkened. The American Shuffleboard whimpered in clacks, the dark advanced. Overhead, the tin ceiling traced a route: grid reference A to grid reference B. From somewhere to them.
Was it him?
“Gotta pee,” Libassi said, more plea than statement.
Arinello was still talking. The crapper was to the rear, past the Shuffleboard. A minute ago pissing was a suggestion, now it was an order. His bladder climbed his spine and throttled his brain.
“Gotta see a man.”
“Want me to hold it?”
Libassi backed two steps. Wrong. All wrong. Beer cases were stacked like sandbags along the wall. The ceiling fans trailed ropes of greasy dust and liana shadow. The piss-shivers hit hard.
Another backward step and he was in the line of march. Behind him was the forest. No looking but it was there, old, familiar, and fecund. Arinello and O’Dwyer were on slack. The shuffleboard whispered in the moving dark: Clack. Clack… Hit the dirt? Nah. Trembly was long ago, far away. Libassi was in the world, Philly, in O’Dwyer’s Fishtown with his buddy, what’s-his-name?
“Washington,” he said. My shit-burning bud. Forget Washington? Fuck me!
With the dead named, the shadows advanced in strength. They rolled over the redoubts. Ropy black fingers curled over edges, pulling smoke-black bodies along. In mass they darkened the space.  From the front, from behind, from the T.V, through the windows and over the beer cases, they advanced across the walls, floor, they drew across the tin map of the ceiling. The shadows moved fast: fans, chairs, tables, shuffleboard, Libassi’s shadow—for Holy fuck, his own shadow—separated, flowed, merged with the others. Stealthy, like Charles. Where there’d been light was now nothing. The nothing gathered substance. Coiled smoke writhing. It wanted. Not him. It was not for him but it wanted something living.
“Ain’t for me,” He stood alone. “You can’t see it, it can’t get you.”
“Huh?” Arinello said.
“What?” Gorgeous looked down from the news.
He was out of the bar running. The street washed him, he drew its light. At the corner where a dead three-flat sagged into shadows, he hung hog. Finally. Shivers poured out.
Night was hazy, hot and humid. Philly normal. Center City was a wet glow above the low buildings of Fishtown. When he was a kid he thought the city was on fire. Every night. Libassi sucked air. O’Dwyer’s stood alone on its block, the last tooth in a wino’s mouth. The ground was wet. Busted glass kicked back sparks. No cars, no people, distant sirens. In the far distance: shots, running shots and shot echoes. Philly night.
Libassi tucked and zipped, set a pace. “Where’s everybody? ‘Where all the mens?’”
…mens?’ Echo.
“…the hell, Libassi?” Arinello. Another echo.
“Don’t follow, Arinello. It ain’t for me.”
Arinello barely kept pace. Not the running back he’d been two years ago.  When the two of them and DiNardo and Chiarelli, those guys, the four of them, back when they made the Fishtown Irish pay for it, wasn’t that something? Fucking Stinson! Mouth on the curb, heel to the back of the head and boom. Right here. This street. Over there… The cement could still have teeth in it.
Now he was a long way from Ninth and Passyunk, the two of them alone in Fishtown. Libassi kept pace. O’Dwyer’s merged with all the bricks of Philly. Fuck O’Dwyer. Fuck O’Dwyer’s girl, Jenny’s her name? Back there was the stink, the shadows. Not for him. He was not going into it, the dark.
Libassi sucked air. He was what? Two weeks back in the World? Already dragging home-pounds, his legs ached, he had to breathe too much, but he was still going. Arinello? Forget it.
Maybe the Army done my ass some good. “Ha.”
His laugh cracked back from brick and concrete.
Double-time now. The street grew darker, narrower. Silence oozed around him.
Arinello stopped.
Libassi broke pace. Let your buddy catch up, something said. We been here a thousand times, him and me. Libassi knew the pavement cracks, the broken curbs, boarded storefronts, busted stoops. He and the others lived and fought here. Kicked the shit out of the Irish, had the shit pounded out of their Dago asses. A thousand times but different, now. The corner of the eye: the shadows from O’Dwyer’s paced them. Silent, wriggling fuckers, they raced along the pavement, walls. Alive, they flanked him, hissed like the ocean that licked the sand down the shore. Larger shadows peeled off the buildings. Brick shadows, stucco and tin shadows from cornices, rusted, dripping darkness eased off whatever bits of the world he passed. They rendezvoused as they advanced. Behind, they surrounded Arinello. Arinello was the scream back there.
This was the memory: Libassi and Washington in the tower. Below, from a billion smelly births and deaths came the dark whose silence was more complete than Charles ever was. The dark looked up. The eyes at the top of the tower, his eyes, drew the dark. Not for him, no, no. He was only the light. The dark flowed upward, the trees below the perimeter leaned aside.  The dark topped the rise.
Washington pressed against him. Washington didn’t know what the fuck. It did not matter.
Libassi shut his eyes. He knew not to look. How? Who the fuck knew? He saw with Washington’s eyes, felt the scream in Washington’s throat. The dark rippled faster than he could imagine. With it came the fecund jungle, the being and death of a billion lives filled his head. Trembly, a time ago, saw the dark, his own dark. Instructed on the use of the M-57, Trembly did his job. ‘I see the light, see the light. clack, clack, clack. And the dark oozed from him like malarial sweat.
Libassi filled sucked light but could not, would not give himself to death. Afraid? Fuck yeah. Scared shitless. Then the world and Washington shredded, filled with splinters, fell. He was alive. Washington wasn’t.
Soft yellow from the street’s one working streetlamp washed Libassi. He drew it in. Felt the world darken. Fucked if he wasn’t the bringer of the dark, the caster of shadows.
Imagination? A way of seeing, sure-sure. He wouldn’t remember. Who can go through life knowing the dark is in you like shakes and sweats? Not him. Not till the next time.
“Arinello, this is your day.”
The forest, he was the forest.  The fecund smell of life and the fruitfulness of death were his. Libassi knows that, of that time and place, the dark is the one love he will ever know in his whole fucking life.
Arinello’s scream flailed, brick wall to brick wall, down the Fishtown street. Then silence—that silence—the one he believed was the death he heard just once before, before all things ended. The silence crawled back in him and settled to wait with the dark.
As he forgot it all, Libassi wondered what it was his buddy’d heard, what he’d seen that came for him. There was a word. Damn if he remembered.
The end. Amen.