By Adam Biles.
“…ou …dy …se …ot.”
“Are …ou …dy …ceive …ot?”
“What?” The clangorous reports of both rounds already fired still roll about the cellar, ricocheting off of the walls and each other, resounding like two bowling balls in an oil drum… Rolling about the cellar or just rolling about the Bard’s head — impossible to know.
“He’s asking if you’re ready to receive the next shot, sir,” Fettle his second half-whispers, half-barks in his ear.
“What? Yes!” And the wall yards behind their heads bursts with two new white holes showering Fettle and the Bard in plaster dust. The Bard registers the marking of the wall before the two thunderous clacks. Nothing is how it should be. Everything is déréglé. Fettle, lifting himself trembling out of the heap he made, is yelling:
“Twice! He fired two shots!”
“Two shots, two misses. What of it?” comes the other’s gruesome little second, slighting both his master and the Bard.
“It’s against the rules, that’s what.” Fettle’s voice cracks a hair during rules. He is afraid, unembarrassedly so. Fear is infectious — Fettle’s sets things moving inside the Bard. Neither of them know if the rules count for anything down here.
“Rules, you say?” leers the second, suggesting not.
“Rules, yes! You haven’t heard of the Code Duello? Did you dogs come here for a duel or a gunfight?” Fettle sounds as if he has done his reading, but the Bard knows he hasn’t — not much. If he had he would have known that it was he, the challenged, who should have fired first and he, the challenged, who had the right to pick the weapon. They had both bungled and it was the Bard’s opponent who had called the shots, and he who had chosen the “field of honour”. They wouldn’t be duelling with Glock 18s if the Bard had had his say. A sausage laced with cholera as Virchow proposed to Bismark — much more his way of doing things.
Fettle’s words, which glanced off the second, seem on the contrary to have embedded in his master who announces through two ranks of gold nippers that the Bard too can fire twice. Death wins over dishonour, chugs the Bard’s train of thought catching him off guard, the infinite folly of it all!
“Or we can call satisfaction?” Fettle cries back, knowing he need not wait for his master’s consent. The gilt mouth twists into a malevolent smirk and the miscreant slowly shakes his head. The Bard’s vitals shift and shudder again. His rectum now sits pendulously full in his woollen slacks. Even first blood won’t satisfy this villain who, by way of his sister’s labial charms, the Bard offended one week earlier. The demand for satisfaction came within hours. Two toughs pinned him to the wall and a third punched his face, dislodging two of his teeth. The Bard, still drunk on the thrill of the offence, accepted the challenge immediately.
He lifts the arm that carries the gun and points the barrel at his fellow duellist’s head. The startling weight of a loaded firearm in the grip of a débutant testifies eloquently to him the grimness of the predicament. This shall be my only duel, the Bard solemnly avows, only to recoil in front of the morbid irony of the thought. Still, he tries to smile through it. He cannot look at his target at first and lets his gaze flit about the cellar like an anxious butterfly in search of something to alight upon. There is not much to see here. The long narrow room, black-painted walls marked by the four white pocks of their bullets: three of his opponent’s, tightly grouped, and one of the Bard’s close to the ceiling, shining like Mercury, the messenger, and the trickster too, in an otherwise empty sky. The message came too late, the Bard’s confused mind asserts, we’ve only the trick to save us now. In the centre of the ceiling an unshaded bulb hangs on a cable, shrieking light. The only door, heavily bolted and padlocked after they entered, is behind the Bard’s target. To his right, a good ten feet up the wall, is a thin glassless window, no more than six inches high. Through the window the Bard can make out blades of savage grass, backlit by the first suggestion of Dawn…
Dawn. He chose dawn for this. Inadvertent poetry can rise up out of even the basest creatures…
The sight of his Glock cups his challenger’s head like an egg. Will he crack it this time? It’s his last chance. His opponent won’t miss again. A suppliant squelch from the Bard’s gut is the only sound in the room. No one breathes. The Bard sees fear in the other’s eyes for the first time as his finger toys with the tension of the trigger.
He loses his shoe to a pair of groping hands as a tide of foul dejecta pipes down his trouser leg and erupts like a geyser in the face of his pursuer: the spurned duellist or his loyal second — the Bard can’t make out and couldn’t care less. He kicks off his other shoe and now he’s away, free, running — untouched! At his side, miraculously, runs Fettle, untouched too except for his bladder of wine which took a shot aimed hastily at the Bard and which continues to piss in a triumphant bloody arc as they run.
“Oh! Thank heavens! Thank heavens you deloped!” Fettle rasps asthmatically, enjoying his vocabulary.
“Of course I deloped. What did you expect. That I would kill him?”
“Or that he would kill you.” The Bard laughs to assure his friend that this could never have happened, to make everything seem laid out in advance. Had it been, the plan would have been insane, the machinations of a lunatic. In truth, even now that it’s a fait accompli the Bard can’t see how it was pulled off. Not least how he managed to scramble ten feet up a flat wall and pull himself to safety through a window barely half a foot square, but Fettle too — four foot eight and with a rump of horsey measure… He too had made it out, before the shot’s echo died away, before the Bard even…
A quick look back shows there is not yet anyone in pursuit. The Bard pictures them, frantic in that dungeon, angry and humiliated scrabbling to unlock the door whose security has turned so lyrically against them — and for a moment he actually pities the poor buggers. How will they explain this at home? How, with everything stacked in their favour, could their captives have fled? The Bard howls with laughter and his sphincter distends, exploding with a second rush of filth.
Half an hour later they are still running, mad high confident strides. The sun is up now and glorious and the Bard feels as if he could go on all day. But Fettle — bless the monster! — is tiring. They come to a stop by a shallow pond set in a small glade and for several minutes stand facing each other, panting deeply.
“We shall never be able to return home,” Fettle whines once he is master of his breath again.
“You’re right of course. They’ll kill us on sight.”
“Not only that but… Oh sir! The dishonour! The disgrace! Running like turkeys from a duel!” The Bard struggles to control his mirth but it is too strong and forces him to his knees. Oh poor Fettle! What was this dishonour, this disgrace? What did these mean to a man who was living? What did it matter one grain that he had shit himself and fled from a duel, or that he could never return home… What did those matter when they were free again, freer than ever, to run barefoot through savage grass at dawn? And not only them but he, his opponent, too…
That same evening they dine on roasted squirrels procured by the Bard with astonishing ease from a hole in a nearby tree. Fettle, who has been sulking for some hours, dares a question:
“Sir? Permit me… But how did you know I would choose to follow you, that I would be agile enough to make it through that window, without asking me, I mean. Even I myself couldn’t have said…” and here his enquiry, bogged down in a contradiction of emotions, guilty and castigating, peters out. The Bard, lying on his back looking up at the night sky, considers Fettle’s question. Such thoughts had passed through his mind that afternoon too. It was possible, he had reflected, very possible indeed, deep in his mind’s bureaucracy where such decisions are taken without any consultation with the surface, that he had planned only his escape and had trusted Fortune herself to deal with Fettle. It was equally possible too, he knew, that Fettle, without perhaps knowing it, had done likewise — his response to events not having been those of someone truly caught on the hop. No doubt these questions would come back, thought the Bard, such questions always tend to. This evening, however, he knows it doesn’t matter. At least for this evening it doesn’t matter. The Bard doesn’t know if Fettle expects an answer but he decides he will give one. Not fully understanding what it means, he says the first thing that comes to mind:
“Fettle, old man. Don’t we seem awfully close to the stars tonight?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Biles is a writer, translator and intermittent journalist based in Paris. His short stories and poetry have been published in many journals, including Vestoj and Chimera. His novella Grey Cats was chosen as a runner-up in the inaugural Paris Literary Prize. He hopes to have his first full length novel (working title: ‘Feeding Time’) completed by the summer.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 18th, 2012.