“One sound begets night, Rabbit.”
A flat, wet edge slid up Clerk’s windpipe. An immense, rubbery force squashed him to the stones of a support column. The palm over his mouth was pulling his head back under dark hollows between low roof beams. At the opposite side of the column, below Clerk’s tied wrists, a tapping had begun. Mossy coils swept his shoulders as the bulk shifted to set the knife off in darkness. The hand edged from his mouth. Fingers prodded the cotton deep between his teeth.
“I can almost hear Mother crying . . . ‘Baby! Where’s my baby?’ Listen to that ditch of a womb. Your darling star’s winking his last winks.”
The cloth binding was yanked like reins, jerking Clerk’s lips into a forced smile, and he felt the ends working at the base of his skull, winding, knotting, while breath poured thick and slow beside his ear.
“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Tis hard, this ill handling.’ You expect pity from me. Ought I to pity you? Have you been so moved at the chicken in your stew bowl?”
The pressing hulk released Clerk and the heavy breath drifted away. Feet scuffed and idled about the room while Clerk trembled on the column as if someone were shaking him, and then a gust rushed around his body, cooling wet paths along his leg, and the door slammed. Beyond the stone pillar locked within his embrace, a square of gold paper flexed, and light slanted over the top of a tall cabinet. Across the face, crude wolves chased girls through flowers. On top, a stone owl with yellow-painted eyes glared at the form twisting silently in a patch of light like a mouse in a trap. The door banged again, and an avalanche of wood tumbled. Clerk heard repeated explosions of crumpling paper.
“See, I think you’re of two minds. The horrible, wee brat’s mind—which has not one desire more interesting than dropping sugar in mother’s tea. Then there’s Second Mind. The one that knows Mother for a vexing shrub. Could have interpreted those fine, precious rushes in your veins. But then again there’s First Mind, grinding Second Mind in the dust. My advice is—you’ve nothing to lose by it—let Second Mind up for a frolic.”
Clerk could hear wood beginning to pop and feel his back warming. Behind him, garments rustled and slid. Liquid splattered and deepened in a hollow, and a yeast smell swept about his nostrils. On the skin between his shoulder blades, fingertips lit, and Clerk jerked on the column. Close to his ear, a bubbling slurp ended in a gulp.
The fingers, soft as a wing’s end, drifted up and down his spine.
“Are you angry with me? Rabbit, you’re not being fair. Am I supposed to believe that you didn’t choose to be here? You created this, all of this, with your magic. It has formed exactly as we wished it.”
The beard crept up his neck and vowels slid out one by one.
“You have wanted something. Awake at night, you lie there wanting it, agitated, shivering for it—am I wrong? Half in a dream, you called out. And I answered you. And you have followed my voice to this altar. Now, unwittingly willing it, you offer yourself to me.
The palm drew up Clerk’s jaw.
“When first I saw you, I could feel it, that chestnut of a heart knocking, wanting to become a part of me! I opened my arms, and across the fields you came. In your little suit, your breastful of ruffled lace. A virgin to the king, bearing his own, golden, blood-chalice in little hands.”
The beard sank over his face. He felt a greasy organ sliding across his cheek and over his nose. The beard lifted. Upon his skin, a cooling residue gave off an odor: wine, earth of graves, and swollen mice.
“Let go your fright, Rabbit. To be sure, it’s not what Mother had in mind for you. But this, this is ours, not Mother’s. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste it.”
The wooly mass sank forward again and then came up with a jerk. Someone was thumping the door.
“What are you doing in there, you great boar?”
“Who is it!?”
“You know abundantly!”
“What you got up in there? A tender suckling pig? Open the door!”
Like an immense toad, the hulk sprang from Clerk and plunged about the room.
“Let me alone. I’m poorly off now!”
“You’ll be worse if you don’t open this!”
“This one I’m in on! Open it! Open it!”
The pounding continued, sharper: a rock striking wood. Clerk saw an arm in darkness shoving its way into a shirt sleeve.
“You open up this singular instant or I’ll be spreading word!”
The fingers were pinning straining fabric.
“Selfish, selfish man!” continued the voice. “Don’t you ruin him!”
Breath came across Clerk’s cheek.
“Not one squeak. Not a twitch of your wee whiskers.”
A cool gust washed over Clerk’s back. He heard Fat Man say, ‘Petey, Love, pleasant surprise as always,’ the door banged, and the voice dimmed.
Clerk tried his hands against the binding. As he tugged this way and that on the column, his head veered over the wires of a cage larger than a man. In a bowl upon its surface floated two fingers. A woozy film passed between Clerk and the bowl. He slipped down the pillar. Streams of blood went forking down his arm.
Outside the room, one voice had started into a tirade, incomprehensible, furious, and then both voices climbed together as if two mad apes had been stuffed into a crate.
Clerk ground his teeth on the cloth gag. He turned his eyes from his arm. Through cage wires, he could see a curve of bowl and the base of a clay wine jar. At the far edge of the cage, out of reach, lay the knife.
Clerk straightened on the pillar. He reached with his foot and kicked and scraped the cage in a circle. The jar tumbled off, spilling wine across the dirt floor, and the knife jerked gradually closer. He rocked his way around the column. Facing the cage, he stretched his arms, caught the mesh, and pulled it near. He groped until his hand came down upon the knife handle. He fumbled, trying to turn the blade edge-upwards, but dropped it down the side of the cage.
“I’ll kill you; I’ll kill you; I’ll kill you!” one of the men was bawling.
Clerk’s chest shuddered wildly, and air quaked in his nostrils. Tears were sluicing into his eyes, blinding him. In the blur, a slice of firelight shone on the floor. He squatted. His bound hands patted the earth until his fingers struck metal. He drew the knife close and rolled it, blade facing upward, point against column. Steadying the hilt with a finger, he pressed and sawed. The knife fell to the side, and he set it up and bore down again. He felt the edge cut into his palm, and then something broke. He snatched at his wrists, yanked, and his arms flew apart.
Clerk fell backward against furniture, into a rain of teacups and trinkets. He scrambled up, started toward the window and then halted like a frightened deer, a strip of cloth dangling at one wrist. He leapt to the door, drew the bolt, dashed back to the column, and snatched what remained of his blouse from his sliced and ruined suit on the back of a stool. He fumbled, trying to keep the bloody sleeves in his fingers and to make a knot at his waist as the door began to rattle in its frame.
Clerk let the garment go and seized the knife from the floor. He hooked a wooden stool with his wounded hand and lugged it to the tall cabinet. As the door began to thud, he climbed onto the stool, placed the knife on the cabinet ledge, lifted the stone owl above his head, and hurled it through the paper window. He placed his toes over the cabinet’s iron hasp, his elbows on the rim of the cabinet, and heaved himself up. As he wriggled to the top, he heard a cracking and then a pounding. A hand caught his ankle and yanked. Clerk grasped the knife handle and jabbed down. A blast of anguish let loose in the room, and Clerk shoved himself through the window, into the light.
Clerk’s shoulder bashed earth and then he was rolling, scrambling from the dust. He glanced up and down rooms torn open and structures spilling jumbles of block and beams. A roaring came from inside: murderous, disbelieving.
Pushing his injured hand to his chest, Clerk started up the alley. Broken paving stones and mortar gouging the soles of his feet, he fled past concrete fists and heads thrusting from coifs of rubble and along lines of burned trees with strips of inner bark coiling in wind. He crossed streams of spilling debris and alleys choked with masses of tough, winter brush that tore lines down his flanks, and the shouts behind faded. As he rushed up a smooth lane, he tore off the gag and gouged cotton from his mouth. Above the sound of his feet slapping stone rose his own cry, piercing as the call of a bird. As he ran and climbed in the ruin, blood splashed down his front, dribbled and smeared, and dropped like red coins.
Between pillars broken like snapped-off bones, Clerk limped from worm-eaten, stacked hulls toward a golden, open space: the abandoned square. Under a gulf of blue chariots and strung froth, weeds bent and shuddered in a channel of light. An icy wind struck his chest. He stumbled waist-deep in weeds, trying to bind off the flow of blood from his hand with the length of cloth at his wrist. At a sound like moaning cattle, he stopped and stared across weeds, up building faces. In one high window, an amber nugget burned. In a lower opening, a hanging cloth gave off a blue glow. The brown, softening ring of walls held faint, tumbling echoes, a battered, plaintive stampede of the fleeing and dying. One harsh, repeating, bark gradually came clear. Clerk whirled. At the foot of a broken pillar, two figures were sliding along, bending to the earth.
Clerk dashed away across the square, seed pods pelting his groin and thighs. At the opposite side, he stopped at a tree fallen against a stone wall, roots pulling up clods of red earth and limbs twisting above a swath of sharp, glass edges.
He looked back.
Under the broken clouds stood a man, the folds of his white robe lapping weeds. Behind him a wider figure bobbed, stick flashing, arm clutching his shoulder. The robed figure stretched a hand toward Clerk. A cold wind hissed over his feet. His legs quaked. He felt a pain, like a nail through the center of his forehead. He closed his eyes but could still see a hairy mouth forming malevolent shapes. He opened his eyes. They were close now. Clerk could make out bared teeth in the fat man’s beard.
Clerk grabbed a branch. He pulled his way along, bleeding, stepping and slipping up the smooth trunk. Past the top of the wall, he let go. Between wrenched corpses of ancient war machines, he sprang to his feet and started up a dirt bluff. Through blowing dust and refuse, he crawled to the hilltop, where he slipped along the tight mesh of a metal fence until he found the wire caving out. He dropped to his elbows and wriggled through.
Clerk stuffed his fist under his arm. Bleeding and naked, he loped between tilting crosses and headstones leaning like slabs in a stream, and a valley of lights bloomed and widened below him.
The carnival grounds came near: dark, floating carts, the hoop of the thrill-wheel with its constellation of fists unmoving in red sky. In the gloom, restless lions were muttering, and tigers in their cages groaned like gored giants dying in caves. Without pausing to rest, Clerk ran between angels broken-winged and crestfallen and under branches spreading bare and wiry in deepening night.
“One sound begets night, Rabbit.”