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THE ENIGMA OF RUNNERS. THE STRANGENESS OF DAMS

by

Carter Boyle




S t Jorges, so near dawn. Something slips out of the channels across the lake's ice flat surface. There's a shape trying to be born. From Falled Parken to Amager, the rain's washed away most of the traces. At Thotts Palace, some French drunkard stands half erect against the fierce glow of the coming day. Everything's copper. Something shivers - Nyhavn and later, Charlotenborg Palace - and the prints stay fresh.

The atmosphere lightens, quickens, there's the sense of an artist putting out marks like sceptres. From the sea a dream stacks up a great mythic vision. The Pequod lies on the old waters shadowing Kong's Nytorv to the sea. An old madman lets his white scar dazzle into the sky. A running figure slips into full view. There's no face at this distance. In the botanical gardens at five thirty am the shadow of the statue of Tycho Brahe is cut in two by the Mysterious Runner. This figure joins with the mystery of swans and walls. Everything consecrates the blistering metal of this mercurial figure.

There's a feeling as the days lengthen, a craving. Something has to be cleansed, allayed, covered up, beautified. The Mysterious Runner has bathed and afterwards used perfumed oils and unguents to give the skin more elasticity, balm and preservation. The speed of the Mysterious Runner has never been calculated but there's a constancy about it. Myrrh, frankincense and spikehead stink out the hold of some boat or other. It drifts on the harbour tide. There's a waft of seaweed. The sun bleaches dour colours. A tired head looks out the window. A sparrow alights on the pavement where a blustery shower makes living seem hard.

Details are complicated. The sound of feet is detectable. Abrupt fadeouts are common. There are rumours of Sebek and crocodile god costumes, rumours of the demon Tuculcha on the Tombe Dell Orca at Corneto, rumours of these and others all over the west connecting with the Mysterious Runner. In the east there's nothing of the sort. Recent sightings of the figure in exotic garb have been rumoured in Australia, French West Africa, Peru, Siam, Syria, Colombia and Angola.

A detail clarifies. A circular steel curb ring fitted with teeth, with vertical pinion and superstructure additions gleams into the clean space which imagines this creature. The movement of the mouth resembles spur gearing and friction cones keyed to engine shafts. A passable figure done to bad by some Pilate substitute. That's the full creed. Well-born once, way back, before this running started. The mystery of the Runner has a deep hole.

Cremera streams through Etruria. Vile Roman echoes boom in amongst the clouds, boom a crazy kind of poetry as they slowly unfurl above the speeding figure. This is a heated place. The Runner in the sun seems for the exposed seconds to be on fire . Everything's a crucible.

But the place Karlson saw the Runner most often was at the dam sites. Throughout his lifetime he saw the Runner twenty six times. Eighteen of these occasions involved the gigantic collision of human engineering and nature which is a dam. Since a small boy Karlson had dreamed of being an engineer of these beautiful and colossal projects.

Now, in his early fifties, he remained as hypnotised by their weird and complicated aesthetic as he had been as that small boy. The gleaming modernity of them, white diamonds of future, like fame, death's light, he returned to them in every spare moment he had. And his dream of falling from such a white monolithic building , to fly through the air beneath the level of the water on the other side of the stone, that he almost hated to think about. A safety engineer's fatal vision is best kept under wraps.

Karlson's team wondered about his strange obsession with dams. They knew that he was crazy about them. His job was a vocation. He was a priest of the dams. And the strange enigma of the Runner seemed part of this. The Runner wore scarlet like colours nailed to a mast, a desperate sign. Blue flames played upon the face which seemed erased, like that of a mannequin. Although the running suit was tightly wrapped to the body there was no one who could have sworn as to it being the figure of a man or a woman. The Runner was an immediate illusion. And there was always a great distance between the Runner and those who glimpsed it. Everything shone, even in the greyest and murkiest light, everything glowed around the creature as if the source of light came from within rather than elsewhere.

The last time Karlson saw the Runner was as he stood facing the spillway of the Howden Dam . Georgeston was standing with him, her face tanned and serene as she gazed out into the blue of the day through her shades. Karlson knew that she too had a strange relationship with the dams and in his heart felt that she would continue his work. In this he was wrong.

Together these two had visited all the world's greatest dam sites. She had arrived on the team a year ago and had straight away set herself apart from the other engineers. She remained silent for great lengths of time when confronted by each architectural giant. No matter the project, no matter the reason for them flying out, she remained constant in this. Her silence was a deep thing, a great silvery command, like a crown.

Karlson would likewise hold himself aloof from the rest of them. This was not just because as the team leader he had to function differently from the others. As the mystical shaman of these places, each project was to him a moment of spirituality, of supernatural installation. To Karlson these buildings were the new churches of the age of mankind, their beauty and size emblems of what the world would one day become. They were the greatest engineering projects in the world, covering millions of acres of land, towering in the hidden consciousness of everyone. Givers of life, of water, of power, dams were the very highest achievement in the history of the planet.

'The running figure is the god of these places, a mindless exuberance, a speedster meshing perfectly with that vision of modernity the dams both celebrated and instantiated. Karlson had seen how jogging had fast become the secret prayer moment, the invisible trace shoots of a million modernists who ran for strange and mysterious reasons only the dams knew completely. The running water, millions of gallons shooting down the huge spillways, backing onto the smooth, hard plates of lake on the other side of the dam wall, these were part of these jogging hoards.

As he sat in an outside cafe and sipped his iced tea he meditated upon the passing jogging woman in her sports gear and dark glasses. Her music system plugging her into a world of electricity and rhythm, cut her off from the sounds beyond. She had entered a beautiful autistic world in which the body is strong and fragile simultaneously and the sweat, hidden except on the torched brow, is a kind of nectar. He considered the strange trajectories and routes which she and those like her were tracing out. These were the new lay lines which were more powerful, more wonderful, than any of the old stuff. The black tar roads were wiping clean memories of pre dam worlds. The dam was the source of all this movement, this wild, sexual and hungry movement. He knew this.

Wherever he was, in whatever city, he noticed that the joggers were becoming more and more common. Their numbers were growing, an appetite born from the massive structures he tended like a gardener his plants. So long as his dams remained, so long as new dams were constructed, bigger and better each time, then the new world of the running figures would continue to multiply. This was the future as dreamed by Karlson, a future of vast reservoirs and billions of running figures, a world where there would no longer be the need for speech, where music and colour and the movement of the body would be everything and age as such would be irrelevant. He delighted in the old runners he saw, the eighty year olds dressed in exactly the same stuff as their young counterparts. Electronic music too no doubt pressed to their octogenarian ears a drip feed from the future. The entire activity of jogging worked as a time machine.

Sex between Karlson and Georgeston had occurred only at the dam sites. It was the sex act of all dams for all time. Karlson could have sex with nothing but dams. Georgeston was part of all dams. This they both understood. Just as Karlson was also part of all dams. Dams needed to be conscious. And they were the conscious part of dams. Sex brought them close to the condition of float chamber and drum gate, sluice , spillway crest, radial gate, hoist deck, discharge jet, fishwater pipe, canyon, hinge, gate groove, buttress and powerhouse.

They sexed like eels, wrapped sometimes in the design sheets charting various sections of each particular dam. They wriggled and beat and fucked and licked until the thrashing ceased and like horses out of harness they rolled away from each other's bodies, flanks forming hostile currents, breaks, shreds, a choking gush of space and body and nothing. Nothing but the delicate monument in which they sexed, nothing but the gigantic block of water, nothing but its raging oversupply, nothing but the light over it all and the darkness underneath, its gigantic, luminous and modern absurdity.

Corot's Ville d'Avray, leaves gushing down upon Georgeston's head, everything turning dark grey, green in the white storm. He pulls down her underwear and roughly inserts three fingers into her vagina. She likewise leans over him, pushes him down so she can unzip his trousers and rub his penis. They cry out. Their cries are drowned in the water. Edward Hopper's Satillo Mansion , Albert Bierstadt's Matterhorn, Bruce Crane's 'Snow scene' - the season changes and Georgeston says to Maidston, the youngest team member, 'What are they saying? Do they think its him?' and she knows they do and only asks because she can't stand all the secrecy. Maidston has to say something too.

'No one says anything like that. But there's always thinking. You can't stop them thinking.' Then they both pause and wish they had something to fill in the gap. 'All those police guys. They were really not having fun. No one was having fun. You could see it in their faces. They just didn't want to be here.' 'I didn't look at their faces,' said Georgeston simply. She bit her lip as if nervous. There was a terrible anxiety which seemed to wise up everything.

The small control - room cockpit which looked out over the dam suddenly seemed cramped and full to bursting. She looked at Maidstone and then said, ' You ever see it?'

'They say its not human after all. Some kind of machine. That's what they say.'

'Machine? Naw, I don't reckon that. Why do they say that? I never heard anyone say that.'

'They say it. I heard them. It's a common enough thing. If you think about it it all holds sense.'

'So did you?'

'Maybe some kind of automated doll. Like in the story?'

'What story's that?'

'I never saw it. I never saw anything come near to resemble it. The whole thing's a catastrophe. I can't imagine anything like it.'

There had been discussion and rumour for days. No one knew who the dead man was. He had turned up in one of the trash racks near the top of the dam. His suit had gleamed in the sun like a black leather pelt and at first the overseer, a small hunched figure called Monticello, he'd thought of it as some kind of big fish. But having cleared it from the trash rack the truth of the matter had become clear. Medics confirmed drowning. But the identity had remained a mystery. The face in particular, the smoothness of the skin, the vagueness of class and race and gender would only be remarked upon eleven years later, when the records were accidentally viewed and the strangeness fully revealed.

Georgeston was quiet throughout the whole time of the investigation. After a month the investigations petered out and no lines of enquiry had been unearthed. But everything had been changed. The death brought a wired intensity to the once placid locations. No one seemed to like anyone anymore. There were glances left and right, cut-eyes and small petty squabbles which never burst out into anything bigger but served as markers of lurking animosities.

There was a sense of people being afraid and of being tired. Georgeston spent more time than before washing and bathing. She spent increasing hours painting on her face, filing her nails, adjusting her surface. There was a desperate feeling that inside something was rotting away. The perfume and the sprays and the cleanliness were all attempts to hide the stink. Bad. Something rotten.

And Karlson became more preoccupied than ever with the engineering projects. He'd spend eighteen, nineteen hour days examining, measuring, photographing the structures. He'd drive along the reservoir banks for miles at a time, his eyes flickering insanely from the road to the flat water and back. At calculated intervals he'd stop and gaze back at the dam.

He sees them as desert cemeteries, like at Thebes or the great White Palace in the Valley of the Kings cut into the foot of cliffs, the water the Nile. He is burning up in his head, incinerating idea after idea. It's a deliberate policy, an act of will. He's trying to destroy the terrible intruding memories, the cumbersome intrusion of time into his perfect world that had appeared in the shape of the dead man. The past is gathering everything up too quickly though. He can feel his pulse rate increasing by the day. He has strange swooping noises in his head and then others just beyond him . A wood - island moonlight crosses the still water of the reservoir one evening and he is green skinned and laughs like a madman, a kind of death, a kind of Osiris.

Karlson sits with Georgeston . It's early morning. Both have walked across the freeboard and now sit looking back across. There's a chill in the air and the sky is still red dark. They no longer sexed. Not since the dead man. They have an ending conversation.

Karlson says, 'I'm going to have to forget all this. I can't stand the idea of memory. I must forget it. I can't see any of it anymore.'

'I know,' says Georgeston. Then she adds, ' You saw the Runner again?' Karlson looks at her and then looks away. ' One bloody thing after the next. All my calculations, every detail, nailed and shot through. It was close to perfect. We were leaving the bloody planet, that's what we were doing. We were so bloody close.'

His lip trembles and Georgeston thinks 'What if he blubs?' She stands and pulls her shades down , blanks her eyes.

'I'm jogging back. Keeps me in trim.' She pauses before she sets off. She ends it with, ' Maybe the dead man'll be forgotten. Maybe then everything'll be as before. Maybe the runner'll come back.'

Solid masonry dams resist the forces coming against them primarily by their weight. Swimming down through the red water, he fills his lungs and 550 feet below the surface begins to run.

Out of every dam, like a Flying Dutchman, he'll run. He'll be the mythic Runner of St Jorges, so near dawn...Falled Parken to Amager...Kong's Nytorv to the sea and onwards, finishing after a set number of years and twenty six sightings as a dead man being fished out of the trash rack of some dam spillway or other.

There's no one else. Georgeston's at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range with intense heat, no water and circling vultures. She's panting. There are dry boned cactus plants.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carter Boyle is twenty seven and lives in New York. He writes short stories and does computer art. He has a sexy grrl who thinks hes adorable. This keeps him going through the bad times. This is his second story for 3am.


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