S tubb always said that he wanted to have the life of an adventurer. Nevertheless he was advised by all who knew him that the world was a dangerous place, full of corruption and evil and that he should stay at home. He was a weak - willed man. Staying at home was what he ended up doing.
‘I have spent my time uselessly at home,’ he complained one night to his friends . They looked at him with kindly smiles and shook their heads as if to say, ‘You really don’t know what you’re talking about.’
It was true that there was much danger in the world. The background to everything was simple horror. There was a plague and a military clampdown, both of a very ferocious nature. There were camps, secret and not so secret, where people were taken, whole families, women, men, children, the lot, and these people were never seen again.
‘It is best that you keep your head down for in times like these there is nothing else to do. There is nothing better,’ said his friends wisely.
One day a friend of his disappeared mysteriously during the night. There were frightening rumours spread around of lorries and people in long dark frock-coats. There was talk of asking the local sheriff to investigate but the idea was dropped as being too risky for everyone. Everyone decided it would be best to just let things settle for a day or so and see what came out of the confusion. For the next few days everyone seemed to be in a state of mess and anxiety and although everything seemed normal on the surface there were little signs, clumsy gestures and facial twitches, the odd sigh and gloomy expression, which betrayed the whole situation.
Stubb felt exhausted by the whole things and wanted to sleep more than he had ever wanted to sleep in his whole life. He lived alone and had little to care about. He was able to sleep if he could. But the fact was that each time he lay down intending to do just that he found his mind racing with ugly thoughts. In the end there was nothing left for him to do but join his friends for a drink as usual. However, during this most distressing time, the group of friends hardly spoke to each other and there seemed to be a growing suspicion between them all.
The disappeared friend, a man called Brade, suddenly wrote to them out of the blue. One evening they all sat around a table in the bar whilst Shyster read out the letter he’d received. Brade had eloped with the brothel - keeper in the next block and was now living forty miles away. The mystery was over and they were all able to sigh with relief. They were then able to grow angry at the way their friend had not told them anything about his plan to elope. They felt betrayed and hoodwinked. Nevertheless they were pleased that he hadn’t been taken away in the night by security forces to meet some unspeakable fate elsewhere.
Stubb resumed his placid ways. But he still wished for adventure, still hankered for something out of the ordinary, something special. He was content and felt that it wasn’t enough. Then Brade came back. He was in a terrible state. He had been drinking for months and taking more drugs than Stubb could name. He was unkempt and unwashed and his face was haggard and beaten. He was swollen and bruised. Stubb was astonished at all this when they met in the bar on the night of his reappearance. All the friends gathered round to find out what had happened.
Brade told them how men had come for him in the night and taken him into the desert outside the city where they had beaten him, starved him and then tortured him. He had been left to live on nothing else but whisky and a cocktail of dangerous drugs. He had dragged himself back home through sheer luck. He had expected to be murdered at any time. Even now he felt that his kidneys were shot and that his blood pressure was dangerously high. There were so many things wrong with him he was convinced he would die. Then he broke down and wept. Everyone looked away feeling ashamed that he had wept. Maybe they looked away for other reasons as well.
Brade did not die however. In fact, over the next few weeks and then months he recovered his strength. He shaved and cleaned himself up. He began to look more presentable again. It seemed as if nothing had ever happened. Yet Stubb for one could not put out of his mind the thought of Brade’s adventure. And although it had been a terrible thing, Stubb felt a little envious. If anything, it made him want to leave both his comfortable residence and his friends to strike out for something else. This time, though, he didn’t say anything. He kept his thoughts to himself because he knew that his friends would once again tell him not to be foolish.
In the night he packed a small rucksack and left his place. He walked out of the city. By the time he was on the outskirts it was dawn and he was feeling cold and tired. He almost turned back. But the thought of turning back spurred him on. He didn’t like to think of himself as a coward. By noon he was twenty miles out of the city and feeling exhausted. The road was straight and the landscape flat and grey. The sky was cold. He wished he had brought his winter coat even though it was nowhere near winter. He sat down at the edge of the road and fell into a deep sleep.
It was dark when he awoke and he was stiff and uncomfortable. He felt ill. He shivered and his nose ran. Because he was out on the plain beyond the city there was just the great darkness all around him. The road was not lit up. Only behind him was their light, the light of the blazing city. At first he thought that the lights were just the ordinary lights of the city but then he realised that they were the lights of some huge fire. He stood up and felt his heart racing. The city was ablaze. He began once more to walk, but this time back towards the place he’d just left.
Dropping with fatigue he once more flopped to the ground and wished he had stayed at home. The whole journey seemed to be a futile and ridiculous thing. But upon returning to the city as dawn rose up he saw that his city had been destroyed by a great catastrophe and that nothing was left except ugly black building shells. The whole place looked like a coral landscape or a gigantic prehistoric life form or yet again some dream of volcanic rockscapes dreamed from within the rock’s mind.
He could find no one who had survived the catastrophe. There were soldiers and officials driving around at a safe distance. They seemed to be filing reports. Flying machines flew overhead like meat-flies or vultures. Stubb eagerly ran to a nearby jeep but the two soldiers inside merely frowned and drove away in a cloud of dust. Later in the day he was picked up and driven to a refuge place. He was the only one there. He was then taken to another city and after a year of painful rehabilitation resumed his life.
Ten years after this he was watching tv when he saw Brade up there on screen. This was a great shock. He had assumed that all his friends had died in the disaster. Brade was not dead but was eloquently explaining some new process by which through the introduction of a series of chemical implants the inner life of minerals could be understood. The idea of conscious rocks made Stubb snigger. He thought of the calcified city he had left behind. He thought of the luck which had taken him out of it just before the disaster. He wondered how Brade had escaped.
He made various calls and tried to trace Brade but was told that Brade was too busy and too important to be contacted by a nobody such as Stubb. Stubb tried to explain to the officials he spoke to that he and Brade were old friends and had shared similar fates, having both escaped from a murderous situation. But no one listened. He felt frustrated and weary by the way obstacles held him back. All his life he had experienced such feelings.
The discovery of the consciousness of minerals was exposed as a hoax two days later. Stubb didn’t mind. What mattered to him was Brade and his survival. It seemed all the more mysterious the more he thought about it. He decided to go back out to the site of the destroyed city. He drove some way towards it but at a road check was turned back by shady looking hard men in dark coats and official papers. Under their outer garments there were weapons. Stubb was filled with a growing suspicion and a terrible unease which just wouldn’t go away.
It was soon after this that he began to stare into his mirror where the pigment, charm and ornament of his surface features glinted back and the greasy feel of talc and graphite, the clench and glint of galena and sillicate, copper and apatite, dazzled into his eye and made him stagger. He fell back. The room rushed around him. He seemed sluggish, dismal and heavy. Elements, sulphides, haides, carbonates, tungstates all glistened and glitched. There was something he understood that he couldn’t say.
He lay upon his bed, rooted to its hard mattress and there was a scent he hadn’t smelled before, that of juniper, of the Ise province, Bonsai village type. He dreamed of miniature landscapes, of tiny forests and glades, of islands and seas which might rest in the palm of a hand. There was a tireless sleepiness to these scenes, a Sai-kei ornature from deep inside him, memories that were not his own but were other’s ghosts.
He woke with the sound of burning, and the smell of charred wood and stone. He was filled with disgust and fear. Some manner of dying is like that. He felt he had just been taken through an extraordinary experience. It was a multiple death. He could hardly dare to rest his head afterwards. His face was drawn of its blood and there was a deep anguish in everything he thought. He could hardly speak at all. He could never speak of it. Something was frightening and he felt that he would be frightened for ever afterwards. He left off his nightly game of billiards with mates at a bar. He grew increasingly solitary. He couldn’t help feeling that his lust for adventure was to blame for all his troubles. He even began the absurd thought that his lust for adventure had been responsible for the destruction of his original city.
‘I am clumsy in my thinking. I cannot cut anything with this,’ he said one night, touching his brow, indicating his mind. Liv was a solitary like himself. She often came to sit in the shadows of the hotel bar and drink alone. They sometimes talked, as tonight. Usually they talked lightly. Tonight there was a different tone. She seemed anxious about something.
‘You are mad to say there was a city destroyed and no one talks about it. You are crazy. Do you know how crazy it sounds to say such things. Do you know what it sounds like?’ She sounded genuinely shocked but her voice was calm and soft like Spanish moss.
‘I know all that. You think I don’t know? But what am I supposed to think? Perhaps after all I am insane. You should beware. It is as crazy as you say. The whole thing. No man can be sane.’
‘There’s something in that,’ she said and she smiled. He felt affection for this quiet, reserved woman. He left the bar in the early hours a little drunk but thinking heavily of what she had said and more than that, of the kind look she had given him as she had listened to his ravings. The night was that scar - white, ribbon colour. There was ice over all the rooftops. The moon was full and for a time he slept level headed.
‘I watch southbound trains, a sweet young woman in a black felt hat. I dramatise myself. Do you do that too?’ She smiled winningly and he suddenly wanted to touch her face but he restrained himself, saying, ‘Yes.’
‘Perhaps you should see a doctor. There are people who are trained. Who specialise. You could perhaps get help,’ she said, her tone changing, the whole look more serious though curiously its effect was just the opposite.
‘You still think it’s just in the head? Then perhaps it is. Perhaps there has been some monumental earthquake right here under the bone. ‘
‘Then I should do something about this. I should clear up the mess. There’s nothing but confusion. It’s all so vivid. I can name whole streets. I can name all the people I knew. There’s still one who I see. He’s a hoaxer of some kind.’
‘Will you see someone?’
‘Do you know anyone?’
‘I have a friend who could help maybe.’
‘Then I shall certainly see her.’
‘I shall see him.’
It had been a long time since he had left the destroyed city. There had been many things he had done to find out what had happened. He had contacted many people and many organisations. He had discovered nothing. There was a blanket of secrecy over the whole thing. This was why he found it so easy to be persuaded that he was insane.
But the next day, out in the bright sunlight on the gleaming streets which all looked so new and freshly cleansed, he could not bear the thought. He clenched himself tightly, as if he would squeeze the thought out like a black pip. There was a yellow bus approaching. He stepped out into the road and the bus was forced to shriek to a halt. Boldly he walked onto the bus, swore at the driver and without paying sat on the back seat sullenly, defiantly, staring out. The driver seemed about to lose his temper but then changed his mind, shrugged and drove on without saying another word.
He spent the day turning over what she had said to him and what he had said back. As the day dragged its heals he let his mind run on and he became wildly excited by the assumption that he was in some way deranged. He tried to accommodate the denial of the horrible past with his belief that it was always possible to have conversations. But there was a screaming nonsense in him which he couldn’t shake.
Liv trawled information circuits and opened her channels to overload. As the information flowed back she sifted it using first broad then narrower nets. She filed and twisted, culled and chopped. She let some things hang. She drilled into the seeds of others. There was rigour and slap-dash, there was ice boredom and a whip-up heat when the strangers arrived. She ended with a room full of peopled landscapes which infected her like virus baccili. Everything turned from electricity to souped-up name strands, chains of reactors which morphed from the first beached second and onwards. Fusions happened in and around circuit breaks & synapse links. She hazed in and out of strangely familiar information runs. Under her skin there was a hot sweaty toad life spawning itself, like a viscous coating of slime reeling off hundreds of pop eyes. She was looking out every which way, she was unable to sleep. She was terrified.
She had waited for Stubb at the doctor’s gate but Stubb hadn’t turned up. Relieved, she had kicked her heels and wondered - what now? Stubb himself had watched the careful sky tucking itself into a red and orange sunset and resolved to see the doctor the very next day. In the meantime he’d resolved to stay out on the streets, away from other influences which might try and push him in another direction. And he had been half smiling at this because this was almost an adventure. It felt as he always thought it would.
The scratching started that night. All along the forearm and the inside of his legs he was troubled by an itching sensation as if some bug was feeding on the other side of his skin. He took to scratching and became so ferocious as the hours lounged forward that he drew blood and removed skin. Despite all his attentions, the itching not only continued but seemed to be spreading. He stood in the light pool of a swan-necked street lamp and tried to see if there were visible signs of the trouble. He could see nothing but the deepest of shadows. Yet there was a disturbing sensation, in amidst this gloom, of a swarming movement taking place on the surface or maybe under the surface of his limbs. In a panic he walked off, enjoying briefly the touchy cold like a hard to get come-on from the airborn frost.
Liv was out, searching for his dismal shape in the collapsing night. She too was feverish and antic. The brain centres were tranced with the screaming information flow into which she was directly plugged. From everywhere, source material reorganised along her neuron field centres. She was her own living computer. Her nerves licked the bolt - like strands of licorice then chewed them towards the digestion acids. Numbers glowed in the eyes, gleaming soldier -abrupt numerals and digits, names came with them, and dimensions and geography and natural constructions, gene based cookery codes stood prim to attention.
Stubb fled into a flop land red house where he rented out a rest room and lay on the shabby bed giving close routed instructions that no one should disturb him. The click sure look he gave the man on the counter was enough rest assured. Nothing, hell itself, wouldn't be an intrusion.
‘Neuengamme, Hamburg, there’s an old uncle of some Grosse-Rosen, spits into his colonial tea, Ravensbruck, sachsenhausen in the flurry of the snow, black and white snap-shots sent curtesy of some old bitch, some horny old git... Poznau, Gross Rosen, Wroclaw, a crow snaffling fresh carrion, crashed out heads and their bones and brains on the Buchenwald, Ohrdruf autobahn, Fulda, roses covered in a freak heap of snow, Gusen, Nurnburg, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau, Schlier, 90,000, 81,000, 22,000, 300, 200, 60000, ......’
Liv sat and held her head in her hands and wished she had the courage to switch it all off. She took another of her aniseed cocktails. She pepped and the rush calmed her down for a moment. Nonetheless, she told herself that though the world was a terrible place, so too was the stillness of the inner room. Whilst out on the streets she had felt firm and safe. She had been able to feel a different contact than that of information. The smells of the rain on the cobalt, the stone palaver, the wine washed hardness of one step following the next, the lazy eyed moon, the scuttling clouds, the scent of rosemary and other veronicas, these worked as a kind of life assurance. Sometimes she even glimpsed other people out in the drenched air. But indoors there was just the hushed, clean and scentless expansion of crushed space, a trap of her own making.
Throughout the time she was brooding, the information had relentlessly, remorselessly, kept piling into her. In the dark, crimson and white electricity sparked off her skin. She glowed and there were moments when x-rays flared. At other times, when the light shimmied and sluiced like sun spots and flares, the whole room was a fierce shine. At other times the bolts gleamed out of the room, through its walls. It was as if she was the howling burn, the hard core heat - fist of a planet. It was a dream.
Stubb followed the development of his disease with unease and fascination. He had stopped sleeping. Contours appeared along his belly and his arms. He could feel his bone structures altering. His heart no longer seemed to beat from his chest cavity but rather seemed to have relocated closer to his right shoulder. There were major reroutings and rewirings. His body was reorganising itself, redistributing its elements so that something very different would finally emerge at the end of the process. It was as if he had lived so far as a caterpillar and would soon be reemerging as an extraordinary butterfly.
He went though periods of extreme depression . These tended to be followed by anxiety attacks and elation. In the mirror he gazed at himself for hours. He hardly recognised himself. He suffered periodic hot sweats where his whole body boiled and he dragged himself around dripping sweat and smelling of foul odours. He noted a thick white discharge whenever he pissed and his stools were green pellets, like those of sheep or goat. His skin became tougher and scaled like Norman armour. The hair on his scalp fell out in great clusters but there remained the odd tuft here and there. His eyebrows too.
Liv made what she could out of the information she had soaked. She considered all the cases of huge evil which had been ignored, denied and cancelled in the past. She understood that people cover up shameful acts for many different reasons. She wanted to tell Stubb that she did not think he was mad. She wanted to tell him that she understood how it was that in the past many such atrocities had been turned into forbidden territory, zones that were never to be revisited. It sometimes seemed as if everyone connected with any such event wanted the whole thing to be forgotten as soon as possible. As if the forgetting would mean that the event never happened. She wanted to tell him that she believed his story. She wanted to tell him not for his sake but for her own sake.
What she did not understand was the exact nature of the disaster. She did not know the exact place, nor its exact cause. Stubb himself had not yet understood that either. Solitary and physically altered to such an extent that he could no longer leave his grubby little room, he would lie on his bed and watch the walls. He noticed, for instance, that the wallpaper peeled at certain intervals and that the damp looked like footprints. It gave the impression that someone had been walking the walls.
But as the days became weeks and the weeks months he became aware at last of what had happened. The bizarre nature of everything finally broke its waters and a rapturous smile crossed his face on the day it breached.
Bon-kei is a type of Japanese tray landscape, a miniature garden using coloured earths, sand (representing water), soaked newspaper and keto-tsuchi, a kind of peat. Dwarf trees, living roots, moss, verdure, and the mysterious elements of the Hosokawa-ryu school were suddenly breaking through the now dry and dead skin covering Stubb’s newly twisted, corrugated body sack. As he lay upon his soiled sheets he saw the city square where for years he had thought he had lived. He saw the trees which had lined the streets. He saw the cafe where he had imagined he had drunk and talked with his lost friends. He saw the sky and the building lots, heard the rush of traffic and water and bird song. There was a terrible nostalgia to it all, a familiarity which told him what he needed to know. He had become a miniature version of the city of his childhood. Here was every landscape he had recalled. Here was the very place in which he had lived until the terrible days had come. He found that he cried as he looked at his transformed body. He was his own miniature past. He had brought the city back.
Liv took three years but did eventually find him. He was still lying in the room, abandoned to his fate. The owner of the room had at first become frightened by the human miniature city sprawled over his bed. He had then turned Stubb into a freak show exhibit and charged an entry fee. In this seedy area Stubb became a notorious landmark. Drunkards, cowards and tourists were ushered in to the shabby place to gawp and prod. It was a business.
‘You can speak to him if you like, but it’ll cost you extra,’ leered the man on the door. Liv paid the extra for the private audience. Stubb recognised her immediately and tried to apologise. She waved it away as if brushing aside a fly.
‘So this is your city,’ she said.
‘It’s as I remembered it. It was just as beautiful,’ he said.
‘You sound far away. Are you healthy?’ she said.
‘I feel weak. I cannot move. I think I’m somehow growing smaller each day. That’s why the voice sounds so small. I think one day I’ll be living down there, in the buildings.’ Liv looked at the coral green landscape and nodded.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ she said.
‘Did you ever find anything?’
‘Nothing. There’s nothing.’
Afterwards Liv walked through the streets with a dismal feeling that in certain circumstances people might do all kinds of evil. Stubb died some days later. The body was lost. Perhaps it burned up. Meanwhile Liv spent the next three years trying to get people interested in Stubb’s city. There was no one who took any interest in her. When she went back to look for Stubb and found out that he’d died and his body had gone missing she spent more time trying to find it. But all that ended in failure. Finally, she left all her places of origin and lived alone, worn out and unhappy. Death made no difference to her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Selima Kyle wears leather and enjoys weird pleasures but she also writes throughout the night. She works at a well-known University library in the USA which shall rmain nameless. At twenty three, she feels she’s got a little time left.