The Revelation at the Rampart
Part two of six.
By Nicholas Rombes.
This is not a post-apocalyptic tale, a tale of what happens after the end of the world. The theorist in Bronson understood this, about the story he was in, understood that the end of the world was really a reactionary fantasy, the dream of thin-blooded tyrants, spun into popular narrative by writers and artists and movie makers. The landscape around him—the broken roads and disfigured buildings and polluted rivers—was not some dystopian fantasy of the slate-wiped-clean, but something far more dangerous: things as they are. The present is always the present, even when it seems like the future. There was no “post-“ to what was happening to Bronson.
As he laid there beside the canal, the light just beginning to come up on the horizon, he tried to work through yet again just why they had paired him up with Barnes. And why, of all things, send them on a voyage to the outer remnants of the Empire to repair a wall that was unnecessary, and had been for as long as anyone could remember? In school Barnes had been taught by radical theorists that the wall was, in the words of the philosopher D., an event, not a structure, an event that took the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling. But Barnes understood that the meaning of the wall from a theorist’s point of view was just that: theory. He was a practical man, and during those years of reading and puzzling over the most obscure, esoteric of texts, he made sure to keep grounded in the reality of this world—even as he read books and essays that dismantled that very reality—by chopping wood. He had lived for a time in a small rented house at the edge of a forest that bounded a field, and had taken to dragging fallen limbs out of the forest and hand-cutting and chopping them until his body trembled from exhaustion. As a way, he supposed, of connecting him back to the things his readings in theory were destroying.
But the wall. No matter how it was theorized, it remained. And now he had been summoned to repair it, the very structure identified by his teachers as the most visible outcropping of the ideological state apparatus. An event, not a structure. Something to be destroyed. And here he was on his way to make it even stronger.
“This way, or that?” asked Barnes.
They had reached yet another rusted, burnt-out patch of flattened meadow where the foot-path forked in two directions, one easterly, one west.
“You pick,” answered Bronson, tired of being the one to decide. In truth, he didn’t think it mattered much which path they took.
“This way, then,” said Barnes, and they headed east, Bronson walking behind, observing Barnes’s slight limp. He also noticed the scar on the back of Barnes’s neck, a patch of almost shiny skin in the shape, as far as Bronson could tell, of a five-pointed star.
An hour later, they were back at the same spot.
“Well, now what?” asked Barnes, taking a swig from his canteen and passing it over to Bronson. Something like a grasshopper but larger jumped across the space between them. For a moment Bronson thought it was a bird but then just as quickly dismissed the thought. Birds don’t jump like that.
“West, then,” Barnes said, wiping his mouth.
But west was no better. They passed several, then more, then more, people on the path, headed in the opposite direction, sacks of grain or something on their backs, babies strapped to their fronts like shrunken prisoners of war.
That night, lying in the dark, Bronson cradled the small transistor radio to his ear, slowly rotating the tiny plastic dial through the Gaussian noise. The entire spectrum of the dial: nothing. Until at last, this, as if some terrible new philosophy was being communicated in a secret broadcast that Bronson was not meant to hear.
Then, as if in response to the noise, he felt something on the back of his left hand, like the gentle movement of a moth turning in circles. When he was sure Barnes was asleep he held the back of his hand up to the firelight and saw it there, the oil painting from his dream, in miniature, his sister Evelyn lost now lost now lost but coming up for air in this painting, alive in oranges and reds on the back of his hand, tingling, and tilted just the right way against the jumping, shadowed light from the flames he could spot her, linseeded and moving in the painting and if he dared (which he did) to put the back of his hand to his ear he could hear her, the small, bee-like voice, and in that moment Bronson felt that he was in a loop, and that he had returned again not to a place but to a memory, the same memory, of his sister the night before she disappeared, purple barrettes in place, secret eye shadow, shorter-haired than before, focused, I mean intensely focused, the car pulled over, the promise she made him make about keeping that drawer in her dresser locked, and the way he could tell in the car dome-light that something was wrong, and how it all changed with the sudden rain that forced them to roll up the car windows fast, the old hand-crank kind, and the pelting of the rain on the roof, and the steam rising off the hood, and then how it stopped suddenly and Bronson had to kick-open the door (she laughed) because the moisture made it stick, them coming around to the trunk area of the car, in the night, Evelyn calling him “brother” and Bronson calling her “sister” as if they were the first to decipher the stupid codes of their time, the trunks of trees in the headlights of the car coming up and coming up from the earth, no record of them except in tree rings fossilized in museums or textbooks.
And no record of Evelyn after that night.
The wall. What about the wall? It was a question posed by Bronson to Barnes, as a sort of test.
“Barnes,” he said, a they made their way the next day across a plain, “what’s your plan concerning the wall?”
“To help you repair it,” he answered. He was walking in front of Bronson, leading the way. The sky had brightened, and the sun was out making the earth beneath their feet, it seemed to Barnes, somehow softer.
“What makes you think I’m going to repair it?” Bronson asked.
With this, Barnes stopped and turned to face him. A look—an almost threatening look—crossed Barnes’s face and then just as quickly vanished. He smiled, fingered a cigarette from his pocket, lit it, took a drag, and offered it to Bronson. To be friendly Bronson obliged and passed it back.
“You know,” said Barnes, “they warned me you might say that.”
In the near distance, an animal of some sort, black and low, crossed the plain. It made a noise, a muted howl. Barnes noticed it too. It stopped, and then moved again, and then stopped. Bronson felt the paint moving again on the back of his left hand, and he glanced down to see it swirling slowly, counterclockwise, in purples and browns, like a bruise. The animal was closer now and they could see the black, shiny hair standing up on its back, thick like wire. It made another sound, and Bronson pictured the noise as horizontal sound bars reaching low across the ground towards him and he understood that if he could get close enough to the beast to hear the sound up close it would be significant and have meaning.
They pushed, step by step, deeper into the Empire and the animal shadowed them for a while and then disappeared. The plain gave way to patchy, untended fields that sloped gently down into a valley. They passed people dressed in yellow tending an apple orchard and a building with a spire looming behind them topped off with something carved out of metal, a slashing symbol unknown to either Bronson or Barnes. They continued on, warming in the afternoon sun, sometimes Bronson leading sometimes Barnes. They walked in silence mostly, their strides in synch for minutes at a time.
Until the drones came.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Rombes writes for The Rumpus, The Oxford American, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor and writes the Blue Velvet Project. His work has appeared in The Believer, Wigleaf, Exquisite Corpse, and other places. He teaches in Detroit, Michigan, and can be found here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 17th, 2012.