The Revelation at the Rampart
Part three of six.
By Nicholas Rombes.
[The story so far, as told in parts I and II. Bronson and Barnes have been given instructions to repair a section of the wall in a remote part of the Empire. Haunted by the memory of his lost sister Evelyn, and unsure of why he has been paired with Barnes for this duty, Bronson begins to piece together the true nature of their mission.]
They came, these days, in the form of something resembling hawks, complete with feathers, soaring high and screechless. Bronson has a memory—as faint as the undercoating of paint—of throwing pebbles at large birds like that. Not quite: him handing Evelyn small stones and she hauling off and whipping them at the sky not to hit them but to make them dive as if at insects. They had gotten the idea from watching bats at dusk above the open field drop and rise in sharp, impossible rhythms. Just trying to pick one out and follow it was enough to set your eyes in a sort of waking REM.
There were two of them, then three, against the grey afternoon sky. Those slow, looping, circles in the air that were so familiar. It was Barnes who noticed them first.
“Are they ours?” he asked, still watching the sky.
Bronson, standing behind him, considered, yet again, the star-shaped symbol scarred onto the back of Barnes’s neck. To their east was an enormous grasslands, stretching to the far horizon. To their west was much the same, with pale mountains rising in the distance. They stood upon something like a farm-to-market road, dipping and rising ahead of them and then curving off into the unseeable distance.
“The one on the left, maybe,” Bronson said. It was meant as a joke; the drones were in motion, continually exchanging places in the sky. It was also a test, of sorts, to see if Barnes would smile.
After two hours of walking at a good clip without stopping, everything looked the same. Which was to say, everything looked just slightly different, somehow. Repetition and difference. Wasn’t that how one of theorists Bronson studied under characterized our present age? Was it repetition with difference. Or and difference? Also: Empty time. In the dry air of that classroom in the cool basement library Bronson had fallen in love with the translated words of philosopher D., even though later that semester, drunk at the Brickhouse on a cold winter night, he would learn from the philosophy students that no one in philosophy considered D. a real philosopher. What is he then? Bronson asked. An aphorist, they said, made into a philosopher by English departments.
That night, as Barnes and Bronson slept near the side of the road beneath one of the shapeless thornapple trees that had begun to appear, Bronson listened as Barnes talked in his sleep. Some of the words were familiar:
Empire . . .
Instructions . . .
Firestorm . . .
Jinxed . . .
While others seemed to be two words put together into something familiar:
Out-push . . .
Day-gold-by . . .
Open-waste . . .
And yet others were alien to Bronson:
Cuitlaxcolli . . .
Bronson had been wondering when the blood would flow. He awoke at dawn and immediately sensed something nearby. Barnes was still sleeping. Bronson walked to the road and there it was: one of the animals they had seen a few days earlier, dead in its own puddle blood, its spiky, wire-like black hair longer than he had imagined. He nudged the creature with the toe of his boot. He circled it. Looked over to see if Barnes was stirring. The sky was bright and clear, and the low mountain range to the east looked like something cut out from thin, blue paper. The blood had come from the animal’s throat, slit so deeply that Bronson could see the whiteness of bone. He circled it again. Its bloating belly. He avoided the blood.
“Barnes,” he said, his eyes still fixed on the animal, “have a look at this.”
The sun had risen quickly, and a thick fly, like a blueberry, followed by others, landed and then held still around the rim of the eye.
Then Barnes was there beside him. The death of the black animal seemed more pronounced now that Barnes was there. A confirmed fact. He hunched down and peered at the cut throat still leaking blood and then stood back up.
“Huh,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
Bronson, standing behind him, noticed the blood beneath his fingernails.
Fucker, Bronson thought, didn’t even bother to scrub his hands clean.
After that, things changed, though Barnes didn’t know it.
The Empire stretched on and on encompassing its own useless, undulating fields. Barnes and Bronson, too, walked on and on, day after day, towards the chaos and catastrophe of the wall. Bronson’s repair kit with its small metal objects wrapped individually in oiled cloths weighed heavily in on his back in a small leather knapsack. On the third day the grass fields changed to barren, dustless land, and then back to grass.
The lack of objects on the horizon intrigued and then spooked Bronson, who recalled the plane of immanence from his useless theory-training, the horizontal moment of thought and all that. He understood that in order to repair the wall he would have to destroy it, tear it down to the foundation. That was prerequisite for the emergence of any new System. He would need to get to the root of the infection. In this phase of the Empire’s long collapse, to be an engineer, as he was, meant to be a destroyer, not a designer, of objects. But in order to destroy them properly one had to know how they were built in the first place.
On the fifth day, they came to a quarry, the first sign that they were nearing the wall. Bronson knew that some sections had been quarried hundreds of kilometers from where it was built, so the wall might still be days ahead. The bitter smell of limestone filled the air and Bronson couldn’t help thinking of the smell of blood from the cut-throated animal. Large ruts in the earth indicating the direction the limestone had been transported ran due north, towards the wall. At the bottom of the quarry, perched on a large rock in the middle of a pool of turquoise water, were several of the drone-birds they had seen in the sky earlier. Again, Bronson thought of Evelyn and her pebble throwing, and of how, on the night before she disappeared, home from university for the summer, her hair shorter than he had ever seen it before, they had gone to the zoo, where she called him little brother for the first time in a long time, and how in the enormous walk-in aviary, so full of sound, she first suggested that some of the birds weren’t real at all.
The quarry a few hours behind them, Bronson and Barnes rested at the side of the road.
“We should have taken a trophy,” said Barnes, “from the animal.”
“Why?” Bronson asked.
“As a reminder. Maybe a tusk.”
“There were no tusks.”
“I should have said ‘the.’ There was only one tusk. Someone or something else must have taken the other.”
This was the most Barnes had said since the beginning of the journey, and Bronson was inclined to keep him talking.
“Or the tail,” Barnes continued. “Tusk or tail.”
“What tail? There wasn’t any tail.”
Barnes gave Bronson a look that told him to stop but Bronson, being Bronson, kept going.
“We looked at the same animal, Barnes, dead on the road. There were no tusks. There was no tail.”
“Perhaps you failed to see them because of the blood.”
“I saw what you saw. The same thing.”
“Well. We should have taken a trophy,” said Barnes, and they were back where they began.
Before nightfall they passed another, larger quarry. The landscape was more rugged now, with outcroppings of mossy rocks and scattered pine trees. By the light of the campfire, Bronson studied the back of his left hand, looking for movement in the design. His thoughts drifted ahead to the wall, not as a structure but as an event, an event that the Empire wanted him to contain, as if meaning could ever be anything other than deferred, and in this deferral not nothingness but the revelation of absolute absence. A structurally unreadable sign, that’s what the wall had become, and yet he was to engineer its repair, as if a breach that great could be repaired.
The question was: why had the Empire send him on a mission to repair a wall that, they must have known, was beyond repair?
During the night Bronson sensed the presence nearby of more animals like the one Barnes had slaughtered. He was thankful they hadn’t taken parts of it as a trophy. The wall was only few days further, and Bronson began to wonder if Barnes would do to him what he had done to the animal, cutting his throat so deeply that the knife actually wiped itself clean against his vertebrae. And yet the fact that Barnes hadn’t been careful to hide the fact that he had killed the animal was oddly comforting to Bronson. It meant that he was either careless or was telegraphing his intentions on purpose.
Either way Bronson slept well that night, beneath the stars, the sky full of silent drones, more than he could possibly imagine. He dreamt of letters, and then those letters in the shape of a word: Cuitlaxcolli.
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: Saturday, August 25th, 2012.