The Revelation at the Rampart
Part five of six.
By Nicholas Rombes
In the pale morning light, Bronson had a beautiful thought, not a memory exactly, but a thought built on a memory, of his sister Evelyn, showing him the chipped and scarred teak box where she kept her cigarettes lined up neatly like the dead wrapped tightly in white muslin, her fingertips nicotine stained or else just faintly yellow in the sunlight, the thought beautiful not because it was beautiful but simply because it refused to turn itself into a narrative as so many of his thoughts did, and that was the power of Evelyn before she disappeared and, to his great surprise and happiness, even now after she was gone: her absolute refusal to become a part of anyone’s story. She managed to detour almost any conversation into what Bronson, in the months before she disappeared, would think of as a sort of metaphysical swampland, where first you agreed to this, and then to that, and then also conceded x, y, and z, and before you knew it you were laughing with her about the absurdity of, say, believing that the sun exists.
If this were one of those horror movies where the demon or spirit was always-already off screen then Evelyn would remain—as she is now—out of sight and off the page. Not that she’s demonic and not that Bronson’s thoughts tend, of late, to be spectral, or that gathering himself to sleep less than one statute mile away from the wall doesn’t make him miss her even more, because what would she say about this whole mess he was in other than to divert it to some other level, deeper or higher what did it matter as long as it was diverted in the endless way that flocks of tree swallows move in assembling and disassembling pixels across the sky. Evelyn’s cigarettes, the closest she ever came to real rebellion, the way she shut her eyes when he lit one for her, leaning in close to him, some secret information shared between them of the sort that would take years to decode. The way he lit his cigarette off hers, Bronson before he became Bronson, and before the missed call that would result in Evelyn’s disappearance from the known places of this world.
A dead world. Of course they had both fantasized about it, though not in a post-apocalyptic way. Their thoughts, when they ran together as in this moment with the shared cigarettes on the roof of Evelyn’s flat, conjured a world devoid of the objects that gave rise to artifacts and then to meaning. How to think without thinking, and would a dead planet make such a thing possible? Back then the Empire had just deployed the first generation of drones-as-birds, and they hadn’t figured out how to land them in trees yet, and the whole thing was comical, really, to watch them try to perch on a branch only to end up tangled and dying there, depowered, until one of the freelance retrieval units came to bag them and return them at the depot. It was Evelyn who first spoke about how the drones might very well be the first step in the direction of lifelessness. The denaturing of nature, its living creatures replaced one by one by dead things, like Bronson’s crablike ribcage and its preposterous sternum self-coding in symmetrical offshoots.
In the meantime Evelyn flicked her smoked-down cig off the roof and leaned back and sighed and Bronson reached over (and this was years ago and miles of unstrung human thought away from where Bronson was now, near the real wall) and picked up her fallen blue barrette which he held in the palm of his hand for her like a live, trembling cricket, the smallness of its heart beating against his skin until she reached over and took it and snapped it back into her hair fingered back gently behind her left ear. She closed the cigarette box the then opened it again and they commenced with the same cig-lighting ritual and he banished the thought that between the moments of the closing and opening of the box the cigarettes they had just smoked replaced themselves and if Evelyn noticed this too she didn’t let on in the least but simply let Bronson light his off hers precisely as he had minutes earlier and that’s when she asked him again, this time in a way he could understand, about a dead world, something along the lines of are we on a dead world with living things or a living world with dead things? and then laughed as if to withdraw her question before he took it seriously, which was her way, Evelyn’s. In a sense the question answered itself when a lone drone drifted across the sky, apparently having broken away from the flock and she lifted her hand to wave at the bird, which back then they built with enormous twenty metre wing spans that modeled her own wobbling thought and unfastened gravity so as rise and fall on the updrafted heat from the earth. The drone’s slow shadow dragged across the city streets below as real as the shadow of a bird not stuffed with wires, but actual bird-blood and wire-thin bones that, dried out, seem as fragile as straw of the sort that no cigarette box or bone box could preserve any more than anarchist thoughts disguised as blood-red oil-dripped paintings in some Soho art gallery could stay on walls in frames gazed upon by hipster longers lost deep and deeper in their longings and volcanic breaking of tens and twenties as the family that shouldn’t have turned off I-90 but stayed on the interstate built and abandoned and rebuilt by the Empire’s most prolific technicians. Bronson feels the massively parallel signature sequencing that sparks between them, the 10 feet of DNA coiled into a microscopic nucleus, brother and sister not uterine or agnate but full, the ragged sentimentality of nostalgia for the future (because in the future all bonds are severed) tugging at him in an unforgiving, psychopathic way, as if the Empire and its fucking black drones could ever see into Evelyn’s heart or the synapse flashes that inspired her fragile hand to touch her heart or hold a cigarette to her lips or close her eyes to black out the stupid life-affirming symbols of her era that came now faster and faster in clichéd binaries of ones and zeroes strung out like the video-game junkies from her middle-school years, blinking their way awkwardly into the reality of the real world, this world, not some other double-screened once removed from the finger touch of riverbank mud or the suicide splatter of a skyscraper diver, his thoughts splattered across sidewalks and plate glass storefront windows and if Evelyn shuddered to think that Bronson might take this sort of leap first, without her, unable to stop himself from starring in his own home-brained movies, and if the shuddered at the shadows of the drones accumulating into the textures and fabrics of reality, the DNA coils that linked enemy empires so that every war was really brother versus brother and sister versus sister well, then at least her thoughts were directioned in a way that Bronson’s were not, could not be.
And in the pale morning light Bronson, abandoned by Barnes and walled-in by thoughts of walls and the family he would never raise or those gardens out back in the 7 o’clock sun he would never tend guiding his son’s or daughter’s uncalloused hands into the to-be-seeded furrows and yet deeper-walled furrows of the mind to protect them from the soft-thought walkabouts of the Empire itself, schooled now in a sort of Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam self-understanding, Bronson’s thoughts still fleeing back back back to Evelyn on the roof despite his best efforts to press forward, her cigarettes and the way the wooden matches that lit them kept striking and unstriking in his mind, her guillotine eyelids and the minimalist precision of her thoughts like notes or silence, the timed silence of 4’33’’ as if the Commonwealth of Nations number signs could legislate the counting-down-till-death beats of her heart, or how, when the immense drones glided too close overhead you could hear something whirring in them, you wondered they could hear the whirring inside you.
How Bronson’s thoughts tended to collapse in on each other as he neared the wall so that it amounted to an act of violent psychological excavation to bring them to the surface pure and clean and uninfected. And that very same Bronson up on two legs making his way across a grasslands spotted with oak trees the false wall fading behind him and the landscape now dotted with lime quarries large and small and some unfinished as if the levied stone was not pure enough. Shaking out grains of sand from his hair from where he slept and them scattering and the sound of thunder as they fell to the ground. Thought, and the thought of thought pulling itself apart at the seams. And reaching the wall at last in thought before body and then in body, finally. A long line of limestone cubes set one after the other, hardly a wall at all, said cubes about as large as small automobiles. A mockery of a wall, devoid of any sort of clear intention. Long dry grasses growing between and around the stones, the stones themselves demarcating nothing from nothing, the natural world as banal on this side as on that. Hardly worth dividing. Bronson collapsing and then recovering beneath the unevenness of his thoughts splitting into splinters and then rearranging into wholes, swirling into Evelyn, the complete and utter breakdown of object relations, the stones themselves separated and unattached.
Walling in or out a dead world.
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: Monday, September 10th, 2012.