Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Mr. Vonnegut, With Alligator

The soft hair was white and tattered, cropped close to the fragile skull. He was unshaven. His eyes were closed, or twitching with memory. He was mostly memories, now, at the end of what had been a life: floating in distilled phrases and fragmentary recollections, half of them dreams and remembering of dreams. When he began to relate them in his desperate way the nurse would always say, "Yes, dear," (for the nurse always humoured her patients) and would tell Zenobia in the kitchen that the old man was wandering again. "Remember," she would say, "ease off on the medication when the nephew visits next week." And the old man would recover his mind for a couple of days and let go of the terrible things he had seen. But Zenobia always renewed the medicines after the kind nephew left and restored the old man's reveries to him.

On a pale afternoon, muttering restlessly in his bed, he remembered again the day he fled from the town of Chofas Griffon and stumbled across Kurt Vonnegut's mansion on a soft hill in the Florida marshlands. Not Kurt Vonnegut the famous up-and-coming author, but an unknown man of the same name who spent his days writing the history of his people since they rested on the banks of the Nile. For a while he had not even been sure Vonnegut would let him onto those enormous verandahs, much less offer him a cold beer. The old man (he was a very young man then, tall and thin and dark-skinned) actually thought Vonnegut might turn him away. The historian had not been pleased to see him come stumbling up from the stagnant riverside, the thick red mud coating the legs of his heavy twills, the dark hair streaked thickly backwards. The would-be author had rushed down the white steps toward him with a furious face and barked something he couldn't make out, waving his arms angrily. A dark hawk had stooped at the young man as he blearily watched Vonnegut come rushing towards him, swooped and fell from a height with violence. The compact triangular head angled forward, the broad-based beak with the wicked curve straightened, and the bird gashed him savagely, speeding like something out of hell past his head. He had caught the fast flash falling toward him from the corners of his eyes and had ducked reflexively. This probably saved his life. The little hawk pulled out of the dive four feet from the mud and streaked away, blurring out of sight. It had all happened in about five seconds, maximum, and he stood there, swaying, the blood swimming over his face like a live creature and soaking into his shirt-collar and down over his chest. Dazed, he felt his chest for a wound, a cut, whatever had let so much blood out, or sent so much blood into his beautiful white shirt. He could remember the exact price he had paid for it, fourteen dollars off the shelf, a beautiful shirt, and felt regret that it would never be beautiful again. His right knee, the one that felt as light as a feather, suddenly gave way, and he sloped awkwardly to soft earth, burying his face in the stiff grass and mud. As the sky had spun past him he had seen Vonnegut's face suddenly concerned at him, but it was silly, because Vonnegut's face had been upside down. Don't worry, Vonnegut, he said to himself as he lay in the mud, there is no need to be concerned for me. I am okay but you are upside down. And then he saw a beautiful lady bending over him, concern in her dark eyes. And, then, black heat.

There was a coolness, and ferns, and transparent green light beyond the white things, and a someone who hummed inaudibly, just the lowest murmur deep in the throat, who smoothed the heat off his forehead with a red and white chequered cloth. The young man saw wide swaths of mosquito netting looped high above him, twined over delicate dark slats, and he followed the slats down past the far bright window to his body lying on top of a narrow, sheet-covered mattress, and then the beautiful woman who sat on the edge of the cot. She was very beautiful. She was the first beautiful lady he had ever seen. When he was an old man, and had seen many wonderful women, beautiful and bewitching, he still remembered waking up to seeing her, and he thought her the most gorgeous woman he had ever known. Beautiful was just a word when he applied it to other women: for him, the definition of beautiful would always be her. She was dark, but not so dark that she was not light skinned. Like the skin of an apple can be dark and light, like the leaves of a plant can be shadowy and bright, that was her skin. And soft, he remembered that well. Her skin looked soft. She had brown eyes, bright, that burned when she was angry, and reminded a man of everything he could be. And she was slender. Like birds and cats are slender, because that shape best becomes them, like trees are slender, that they bend in storms, slender like the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians in the glossy yellow-bordered magazines at the barber. Of course he fell in love with her on the spot. He tried to kiss her, or just reach out to those touchable lips, but his body would not move, and he laid there, looking at her and the way her hair shimmered until she turned to him again, the cloth cool in a small hand, and she noticed his eyes were open.

"Good afternoon, sir," she said and smiled lightly. He watched her put the cloth down and leave the room, deliberate, not unaware that he was watching her.

Vonnegut entered a few minutes later and came over to the bed.

"As soon as you get well—" he had paused.

The young man gazed up at him, immobile and impassive.

"Soon as you're well, I want you out of here. You understand? Comprende?"

The young man looked up at the author, expressionless.

"Meanwhile," the man scowled, "you're my guest. Supper we never have, and breakfast is around eight. Lunch is two o'clockish, maybe three at the latest. There's always a bottle of bourbon hanging around, and I send Lembett into town once a month for beer. You touch the rye, you pack your bags. So to speak. There's not much to do around here, and if you don't find us much to your taste, nobody's pressuring you to lay up in this house till you get healed or whatever. Lembett will get the flatbottom fired up for you anytime you want. Are you going to rest up here or is there somewhere in town you would rather be?"

The young man closed his eyes. "What town?" he croaked.

"I don't know. It's the town. Probably doesn't have a name. If it's any help, you're about forty miles north of Chofas Griffon. Around a day's travel by flatbottom through the blackswamps and marsh."

"Chofas Griffon." The young man opened his eyes. "I don't know a soul in Chofas Griffon."

The man drooped a little. "Then you'll have to stay here." He stood up. "I can't promise to be a good host, but we'll get you back to full strength pretty quick." He turned and walked out the door. A minute later he was back. "By the way, my name's Vonnegut."

The next morning Lembett killed the gator.

Sometime during the night, the low-slung lizard had crawled up the soft hill, laboured up the white stone steps and entered the house. Dragging ten feet of weighty, swinging tail behind, it eased through the wide halls on its cushioned flat feet, scraping its heavy belly across the tile. Where the hallway split into a T, it chose the left branch. When the hallway ended in two doors, one on the right and the young man's on the left, it chose left again. The young man awoke early that morning and turned his head, looking straight into the glimmering yellow eyes of the monster, lamps in the dark grey skin. The thing gaped at him, great splayed teeth nesting in its mouth, the colourless tongue that lined the bottom of that cavernous hold rippling and twitching.

A great shocking roar filled his mind, and he thought his last day was come. The alligator twisted its giant head and collapsed, writhing fitfully on the floor. Boom! And it lay still. He looked up to see a man standing in his doorway, body holding back the torn screen door. A stubby rifle was held casually in his left hand. A big man with a fine head and somber brown eyes.

"My name's Lembett," said the negro. "I'll get this door fixed."

The young man collapsed back onto the bed. He had lost a lot of blood, and the grueling trek of the last two weeks had been hard on him. Much too hard. When he held his hand to the sun he could see the larger veins picked out in the light, curling around transparent muscles. It had been two weeks of steady advancement, of never letting his fear get the better of him, never letting panic set in. There had been the hounds at the beginning, big red dogs with lanky muscles and crystal noses, baying for hours until his ears were ringing; but he had shaken them by nightfall. In a way it been easier to travel by night, as the bright moon outlined every twig, every blade of grass, every bubble in the mud. Only the water was black in that silver light, smooth and impenetrable, and flowing freely between the larger trees. It had been the water that got him in the end. On his third night traveling generally south he had stepped into an outspread pool, supposing it to be as shallow as the others. It took him so much by surprise that the black waters had closed right over his head before he could act. He kicked frantically and dug forward with his arms, cresting the surface with a loud rush, spraying silver wash. Somewhere behind him a gator gave a crumpled grunt and he heard a large body slip into the water. Spurring forward hard, he crossed the pool and tried to get out, but the shore was bit of a ledge and the large tufts of grass simply pulled away from the bank. He raised himself up in the water and flung the upper half of his body onto the sloping bank, bending at the waste and digging into the soft sides where the roots of the trees slid out of the earth into the pool. Pulling his legs up he had twisted his right knee and fallen, gulping air. It had been a bad pull; his knee felt like smudged fire. But he had gotten up, he had limped forward. If it had not been for the lack of food he would have been okay. He was a strong man in his fashion, given to endurance. But three eggs and a snake over a week wasn't enough for any man and had made a weakling out of him. The dreams had begun then, the dreams which took to themselves the strange essences of reality, dreams of the black swamps around him, visions of alligators and ravenous ladies. Seeing that white mansion high across the river, molded into that lush green hill like a crown, that had saved him. He was a dead man else. And nearly then, too.

Watery sunlight filtered through the broadleafed plants. It was morning, early. Vonnegut was in the young man's room again, crying blindly. His short grey hair was rough and uncombed, matted on the left side of his head. The yellow tears filled up his face. His eyes were almost shut and his mouth was twisted and grey. "Not for you," he was choking, "Not for you, not like this. Not for a soft worthless swamp rat. Oh God—she was so kind, she was so good, and who are you, man? I mean, who are you? Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. You aren't worth the rotting hide off of a water snake." Vonnegut was holding an almost empty cut-glass bottle of rye.

The young man gazed blearily at Vonnegut. "Sir?"

"Oh God, she was so beautiful."

Someone coughed. Vonnegut looked up wildly, his eyes opening like lenses. "Lembett!" he rasped. "Murderer. Come here."

"Vonnegut, Vonnegut," said the large negro, almost amiably, "Who has the dominion? Who has the authority?"

"I am not inferior to you," muttered Vonnegut, hunching his back, "You murdering, cowardly black skinned, arrogant—" he groped for the word, "dictator! No, no, tyrant, despot, intimidator."

The negro chuckled. "Black skinned?" he said, clearly amused, "Who's talking about skin? Remember who you are. Behave yourself. Or you will end up like the female."

Vonnegut choked and stood up, his spine stiff and arched. "What?" he hissed thickly. The bottle of rye crashed unheeded on the floor. The thin amber liquid spread on and on. The young man watched the growing pool, fascinated. It spread between Vonnegut and Lembett like a heady lake. "You forget just what I am," sputtered Vonnegut finally, his jaw pulsing, his old yellow eyes bright and bulging. Dark veins in his head and paler neck grew thick and turgid. "I am of The Race!" he shouted, "My fathers ate yours daily. You were sacrificed to us and worshipped us as gods! I remember who I am, Lembett, you soft-bellied land animal!" His eyes tightened and he charged the negro, running stiffly across the wide planked floor.

The young man leaned forward, half out of his mind with fever and fear. "You are dead," he heard Lembett whisper softly, sadly. The big man lifted the shotgun and casually shot Vonnegut in the chest. The old man kept on coming. Lembett emptied the other barrel into him, a large room-filling roar. Vonnegut grunted and went down, his slack body sliding along the puddle of bourbon. Dark blood, almost black, trickled from the corners of his mouth. His eyes twitched back in his head. The young man saw Vonnegut's eyes twitch back. They met his. "River rat," mouthed the old historian, his lips curling up. Snaggled yellow teeth appeared briefly and he closed his eyes. The young man heard a double click and looked up to see Lembett closing his shotgun. The large man held the gun in one hand and sighted down the barrel at the motionless body of the historian. Calmly, deliberately, he shot it through the head.

The young man began to shiver. Lembett heard him and looked up. "This is none of your business," he said, his voice deep and rich. The young man nodded and couldn't stop. His head just kept on shaking. "Every beast must be ruled, especially the beasts that will not be ruled," the negro went on. "Otherwise all men will be overcome, and we ourselves become beasts, gluttonous, fecund, mindless rovers, without solitary will." Lembett lowered his rifle. "You can leave whenever you want," said the negro, "but now would be a good time."

"Are you going to kill me?"

"Not if you keep your mouth shut," said the large man. He prodded the misshapen corpse. "Besides, you're not an alligator. Not yet. Go, and sin no more."

The young man looked at the corpse, at first uncomprehending, and then shocked and uncomprehending. Across the rye-soaked floor lay the long grey heap of an alligator, dark dried blood crusting its snaggle-toothed mouth, a bloody hole blown through its back, a hole in its head.

"This one and his mate," said Lembett, "were supposed to use this place for a nest. For their children. They came to me a year ago as people, but they could not hide their animal nature from me forever. And as man was given authority over all creatures, so they were under my command. But they would not stay. Nor can you, until you determine your nature. You should leave now."

The young man fled, afraid he would turn into an alligator. The fever stayed with him all his life.

"Zenobia," said the nurse, "we must lower the morphine this week. His nephew is coming again."

Reading: Starlight And Storm + Gaston Rébuffat
Listening: "
Thoughts On Hold" + Eyes Full Of Stars

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