The Wind Howled
Text copyright: © 2010 by Peter O’Brien
Thinking of tigers, Black Sparrow wandered down the hill. When he was halfway down the steepest part (very like the bridge of a leaning alligator's back, he said to himself), he heard the chatter of water and stopped to listen, but couldn’t tell if the sound came up from the valley or from there in the bracken? He then stepped deliberately onto some dark rocks among the clinging roots of a gigantic old oak surrounded by more rocks and dirt. It was not shadow in absence of any other element that accounted for the deeper color of the rocks on which he now stood, though shadows there were, but in at least equal part water had bruised them. Some of the wet rocks harbored moss.
Looking down at the crevices Black Sparrow found the source! He jumped to his feet and gave a shout, though he felt silly and embarrassed at his outburst since there was no one to tell of the spring he had found—yet might it, with the combined flow of other springs, gain strength and tumble on forevermore? He tucked in his shirt and bounded down the slope. Maybe he would find snails, chipmunks, a hedgehog, a beaver. He would have lots to tell. A boy he went to school with once said, ‘There's oil in the water, that's why it shines. What's more, there's a river of oil. In that river, oil flows black as night and makes the water look wrong, but it all ends up in the ocean.’ In reply, Black Sparrow had scrunched up his eyes and nose, held his breath until his face turned deep red, and then let the air out with a puff.
Fall was full of miseries and for many reasons I hung back from the people of Bretchem. Even my half brother, Black Sparrow, I ignored. Him I had known. He was familiar to me. We both walked among the faces of those thousands and shopped at Miller’s and Johnson’s. I often saw him at the blue shuttered coffee house on the West End. The owner, Fred Bell, watched the entrance, told jokes at each opening of the awkward plywood door. He had a warm gaze for the boy; they devoured candied sweets noiselessly at the window, leaving a pile of empty plastic wrappings that gleamed and sparkled in the late afternoon sun.
The locals knew I couldn’t rest being near the boy. One frigid day I peered over my magazine to see a black bear on the cover of his magazine. Later he had black licorice. I decided he had a proclivity for that ancient hue. Perhaps I would have overlooked the evidence, but, no, I had to take notice, for one night I woke out of restless dreams to the whisper, ‘Black Sparrow is my name, Black Sparrow named me.’ ‘Who's there?’ I cried, and then fell into a deep sleep.
It continued to rain in large, scattered drops, as I hastened through the grass. Beads of water gathered on my suit. Walking early was but the dictate of habit and would have carried little weight in that regard, except I beheld that boy at the grave and decided to approach him. I paced, keeping my eye on him. When he came to the crest of the hill, beyond the last column of pernicious stone, I stepped deliberately toward his person.
Clouds rising from the valley engulfed the hillside in wisps of white. I deliberately halted my steps and absently searched my pants pockets for a useful gadget. Taking little comfort from that preoccupation and tangling a nest of string besides I removed my eyeglasses for a cleaning and marked the boy’s progress. Nothing so far had deterred me from my goal. I wondered what that young lad had in mind, where he would go on so much land. I fumbled with the things in my pockets again. This time I recovered a pen light. I shined the narrow beam on my arm and pretended to survey the swaying oaks and poppies as Black Sparrow made his way in the fog down the hill. "Maybe it’s myopic of me to game him so," I muttered, capped the light, and continued on after the boy.
I tripped over a deer carcass. Observing the withered remains of the departed animal I recalled the nettling suspicion and irritation I had had back before the cemetery gates as an invisible loose heft of mutinous hay encumbering and shielding my body. As I breathed then, so I breathed. Black Sparrow stood on the path at the foot of the hill. When I passed within a certain space he turned slowly and invited me into the wood; that is he revolved and stared hard at me.
I was troubled by the notion that he expected me to follow him. I had taken the precaution to conceal myself with a false beard. The shock was that he seemed both to know me and not to see me at all. I could take no hold of the situation. From the impasse came a weariness of crowded footsteps on the pregnant earth. The rain splattered on my mud-stained suit. Moving on was difficult, yet I stumbled past the luminous deer skull, and, with each step, urged my mind to undertake the wholesome enterprise. And lo! Troublesome nettles took swift wings!
He spun back ‘round and continued on as if nothing had happened. At first I hid behind a maple, but soon I stepped out and followed him to a fork in the trail, a place I knew well. Black Sparrow continued to the right; in less than half a mile he would reach a ridge that pivoted sharply, at a point from which a descent called the Ostrich's Neck was possible to the Pebbly Basin. This he would scramble down. I felt sure he had in mind venturing so far. He would go to grace his walk in the rain.
Cheerfully I started on my own route that I might arrive before him, but before I had taken two steps the boy called—and I—I answered! I ceased to follow; I stopped planning how I would speak. Would there be a large, warm, orange, feathered ball of light? A beaver? Dragon lizard eggs? I laughed out loud, rested with my black shoes seeping into the mud, then fell to my knees, overcome at last.
Was ever a man so transient? Even as I rose, a premonition of woe presented itself, that I would appear strange and peculiar to the boy. I foresaw barriers to fruitful collaboration. Doubtless some discipline he knew that I did not or could even fathom prepared him for this meeting. My inconstancy nullified my company. What was it he sought? I trudged along until I was beside him; he looked searchingly at the clouds and ground.
I perceived that he recognized his half brother despite the fog and the false beard, for he called me by name. “Mr. Roblomo!”
It was no use pretending, so I smiled and held out my hand. He gave me five and ran farther on.
At the second valley, a Joshua tree with wet amber limbs and sunlit halo. Light wafted through a fold in the blanketed sky and gently touched the earth. My uneasiness increased. I heard a rustle. “What’s that?” I thought. As we continued on, I fancied I heard a cry some ways distant, yet so long and drawn out and in such a low tone that it scarce sounded human. I scanned the horizon but could see nothing. A low cloud obscured the ridge from which the doomful sound had come.
Trembling, I felt inside my pockets. Even as I did so the undulations of the dreadful moan came again. "Aaaieee, o-aaaieeee. Aaiee." Closer and almost articulate, the sound awakened the chill in me. Such moans disrobed the grass of morning dew and spirited placid woodland animals to sleepless melancholy and nameless dread.
The opaque beams of our heavy faraway orb blazed through a break in the sky. The sun shepherded the dome above, brooding over me. I turned around. Nothing was there save the mingling limbs of two gray scrubs. The many stems' bulky leaves swayed freely, like hands in greeting, despite a momentary lull in the air. Reaching roots of the scrub rested on the ground. No eyes, no bones, no spirits did I see. I fingered the hem of my pocket, hopeful that one of the things I had brought, by virtue of its scientific nature, would assure me that the supernatural had no stake in Bretchem. In the end I abandoned pen light, knife, string, and grapes to deeper contemplations and all but forgot I brought them and why I brought them.
I stood there I know not how long. The moan and my haggard form motionless in the wood.
"Please," said Black Sparrow.
Startled I turned. Moments ago the gnarled scrubs with their clinging roots and grotesque contours had been all that there was, but the boy stood in the midst of them now, with tangled dirty hair and considerably wet from the knees down. I could see his knee through a hole in the denim; it was thin.
"Hello,” I said.
He grasped my sleeve and pointed down the path. "Please,” he said again, but before I could answer, he squatted and quickly began tying his shoes; whether in single, double or triple knots it was impossible to tell; his fingers moved quickly with the laces. He glanced up when he finished. “The fisherman will be at the river already. Last week we went fishing and made fishermen’s’ knots.”
“The name of the river is the Seqkevo,” I said.
Black Sparrow jumped to his feet and grabbed my sleeve again. "No, it’s the Mad River!" He tugged and let go. His arms spun wildly, like sails of a windmill on a gusty day, as he ran. “Aarrhh!” he shouted, his voice audible well after he disappeared through the trees. As if in token of his departure the sun broke through. The light danced on the conifers and on the wet slippery rocks. A last report of thunder rumbled, then died utterly away.
I steamed, pouted, plunged my hands in my pockets, cursed, and cursed again for behaving like a ghost. “Hello,” I had said. “Hell,” I muttered. Black Sparrow! I behaved so strangely, standing like a soldier at his side. Black Sparrow headed to the river! I ran after him, slipped on some wet leaves, tumbled over, and hit my head on a rock.
For some time I lay where I had fallen, drifting from sleep to awareness, listening to the river. Drops of water fell intermittently on my face. Climbing back on my feet I stumbled on in a daze.
I found him skipping rocks across the gray water. “Did you find anyone?" I said. I sat down on a low rock, looked up at the tree-rimmed sky, coughed, and shrugged at my words. I had talked unfittingly, whether too loud, soft, hasty, slow, or indistinct I couldn’t tell.
"Aaiiee! Are you finally here then?” said Black Sparrow.
As he spoke these words, I noticed for the first time the man emerging from the river and dragging a large net behind him. He set the net down with the rest of his gear beside a leaning conifer, shook each leg, dumped the water from his boots, and proceeded towards my person in long deliberate strides. I sank back against the earth, my body twisted uncomfortably. It seemed that he would walk right over me, when, at the last possible moment, he stopped. In one of the ancient trees a mockingbird sang its stolen song: Sam. Sam. Sam. The air stirred. Colors grew bright then faded.
"Hello," I muttered.
The sky turned a sickening yellow. I felt a faint touch on my eyes, and a breeze.
The fisherman revived me with splashes of cold water, but I fell back to sleep and fell into a dream: I was walking into a cave. The fisherman was with me. He said, ‘I don't understand it. He must really have been moving.’ I wondered if he meant me, before I realized he was talking about a fish he almost caught. My head hurt too much to argue for or against his skill, dexterity, and luck in the sport. I heard myself say, “I didn’t much care if the fish escaped precisely, narrowly, quickly, slowly, skittishly, elaborately, or gracefully from your nets.” Then the boy appeared and said, "I know why you didn’t catch the trout.”
"You think it's a curse. Don’t you?" said the fisherman.
“Hmph,” said Black Sparrow.
"Arrr! Come on, boy,” said the stranger. “The river, the stories, this place has a reputation."
"I don't believe those stories. You know I don't. Adults make those stories up to scare people.”
“Is that what you think?”
The cave gave rise to the deep and resonant sounds of that watery pasture. Black Sparrow went on talking, but I couldn’t make out the words, so I watched his shadow and nodded, pretending I could hear him perfectly well and agreed with everything he said. A scraping sound echoed in the crannies of the cave. My heart pounded. Outside the light brightened, a whistle sounded.
I woke with a start to the gentle persuasion of flute song, but I was still in the cave of my dream. I looked around for Black Sparrow and the fisherman, but they were nowhere to be seen, and a Tiger was plodding towards me! She yawned, then pawed and sniffed the fishnets that lay between us. Just then, Black Sparrow poked his head out from behind a rock at the entrance to the cave, and looked in.
"Sparrow, look out! A tiger! Fly! Fear this place!" I cried. My words boomed and reverberated around my head and neck.
"Hello,” he answered unconcernedly. I could only see his head and the gleaming silver flute he carried. Before I could yell or stand the Tiger recoiled and charged him, but jumped straight over Black Sparrow and disappeared into the fog like a phantasm. "Say,” said Black Sparrow, as if nothing had happened, “do you want to go to the coffee shop later? It has such high counters! And the shopkeeper Mr. Bell, why he's the best, Mr. Bell is. Why are you in the shadows?" He stepped towards me. "It's lovely to walk in the rain. Did you see the cat bite her fleas? Were you eating? Sleeping? It stopped raining, see." He lowered his voice, and added confidentially, "This is a quiet cave." His eyes sparkled. "Wait, I’ll draw you something."
He ran into the cave, picked up a rock shard, and etched a tall angular Boy and curve of equal height that signified Bow. He completed the set with an archetypical feathered arrow with a pointed revolved v of slightly shorter length. This he slanted upwards and drew slowly as though tracing a sunbeam. "The drawings of ancient man survived a couple thousand centuries at least,” he said knowingly. “They could have bleached them or rubbed them out, but they didn't. The pictures they drew survived."
I smiled. Here was something different.
"The Cat!" he shouted, and pointed at something he could see from his vantage point, but I could not, and ran back out of the cave and into the wood.
I crawled outside, blinked, felt the warm sun on my face, observed the fastness of oak and birch on either side, and wondered if I had arrived late to a place where much had happened and not a trace of it remained.
I am walking to the river. I am walking to the river of fools. I am walking to the river of fools all over again. I have walked this path before, but I don’t remember it. I am walking to the river of fools, the river of dread. My head hurts. I will stop and rest. My clothes are ragged. I need new clothes, a new suit. Everything is wet. I am walking to the river in radiant light. It is quiet but for the wind. Let me begin again to the river.
I had not gone far when I passed from a grove of oaks to one of firs. A sudden coldness gripped my bones. So, I thought, it will be fear and quiet, stillness, the infernal dread. I walk in my damp suit. My appearance is strange. Will these brown roots support my weight? The river washes all things away. The river cleans. I walk to the river. I was a warrior, but show me a weapon that I may take it, clutch it fiercely, throw it down, trod over the rifle, destroy the weapon. What have I done? I must listen. I hear it, hear the one who pours water from heaven: the river.
Drip, drop, drip. These are the noises of the No. The water pours. I am too tired to listen. The way winds along without ceasing from old origins, changing the landscape, altering course, even in the quiet of Now. The brook sleeps, the river sleeps and pours. I want to taste and fish the river. I want to bring in the nets at sundown, but I grapple with inventions, computers, legislators; I dwell on footsteps, trust judgment: she penciled a maze in the hemispheres of my brain in the hours since last we met. She says, that which is lost confuses the No, that which remains lost is absorbed and becomes nothing. What then? I knew a German doctor who fancied logic puzzles; for me, the intrigues of logic game quagmires is past. Let the puzzles go unsolved, I say. Nevertheless, a game or two I would play had I leisure and company. I come to the end of the path through the drooping firs and conifers. My footsteps tell me, not there yet, not so soon. I am impatient, long to hear the flute. O, ambiguity of feeling! How glorious the things we struggle against! And what strange reverie is this! But I must master myself or else live confined in a riddle, or confined in music, that is, in the rests between notes.
Strange though hard to predict, I heard nothing. The blasted quiet of normal throbbed in my ears, like so many routine days. When my half brother was born she passed away.
The Tiger crept through the trees, claws and teeth bared, and crossed the path without a sound. I saw her grace, but the dream continued: Black Sparrow and the fisherman sat on a log. The boy pretended to play a guitar that lacked strings, while the fisherman sat remarkably straight, a hand at his side, the other hand flat on his belly. His mouth opened wide as if in song, yet no sound came out of it. The Tiger was uppermost in my mind, but I found myself reluctantly peering at those two minstrels, and from the twosome to a wooly hat that lay upturned in the wood chips as if for coins. I stopped in my tracks before them, as one bushwhacked by an uncanny foe. The straight-as-a-post fisherman opened his mouth in progressively larger o’s and smiled at each seeming rest, yes, and breathed in the gaps between notes of nothing. His fellow conspirator (Alack, what shall a mute musician be called, Black Sparrow?) only raised his head once—and when he did I realized I had been mistaken. He was not Black Sparrow at all, but a short and squat man, with a tan complexion. On his face and in his somber gray eyes, I marked a surprisingly dreary absence of countenance. Then, as quick as lightning, he lowered his head over the unstrung guitar in his possession, and worked such desperate finger picking and slippery chord changes into the sojourn or song, with such abrupt motions of his hands and neck, that further scrutiny of his face was impossible. I was at a loss for what to do. The sun shown exceedingly bright on the three of us, while the oak tops swayed and the leaves rustled.
I almost made up my mind to sit with them, but upon further examination of these personages I suddenly loathed to be near them, waxed uneasy in degrees by their dumb show as the one who sung silence listed slowly back and forth, and his companion who was now a mummy pretended to strum the elusive melody in unison, its bandaged head nodding to the intelligence of his hollow ear, as his head bowed over the unstrung guitar.
To alleviate my distress I went on to a fastness of oaks, and, with acorns dropping right and left, followed my footsteps to a boulder that hung over the river like a claw. There were other rocks not far from this one, and I saw them and the shadows on them, and the shadows were black splotches.
“Mmm,” yawned the Tiger, and broke into fragments of light. I shielded my eyes from the glare, glimpsed a glowing cat dart inland, and clamped my head in my hands.
“No more!” I cried, “No more!”
I collapsed again, and fell into another bad dream, in which I knew at once something was wrong. Light sparkled as I descended the riverbank. The shallows snared me; the mud grabbed. Barely keeping my shoe on, I wrenched my foot free. I squinted and entertained distractions: canes, barristers, tea, the things imagination offered. It was too deep to wade. I stepped over a ledge concealed on the bottom and felt the tug of the current. In no time, I was in the middle of the river, a folding, changing water, trying to keep my head above water. I swam to the other side and walked out of the river.
How the sheep came to be awkwardly perched on the short, steep outcrop of land adjacent to the path that ended in a straight drop to the river, craning its neck in a peculiar way, I cared not to know, but this innocent bleated once from firm ground, bleated once in the air as it fell stupidly off the side of the hill and tumbled head over hoof, landing with a splash in water that appeared shallow, but which must have been several feet deep at least, for it appeared unable to stand, floated hence like a log, no complaint to mar its journey, drifting ever deeper, such a pretty raft without a steering mechanism as I had ever seen, while the dangerous flow offered no escape, and the sheep, still silent and watchful, swirling and whirling round while keeping its beady eyes fixed directly forward, looked neither scared nor uncomfortable, but mesmerized—as its kind does in at least one other situation, namely when they look uphill and think they are lying down—and its blue mark dipped, so that only its back was visible, and when finally caught in an eddy it jerked its head upright: it turned round and round the whirlpool; a mass of water poured over it and another, steady, steady, even so; it sank soundlessly, came up once, twice, once more?—but it was only spitting white foam with the river racing on, excited, indifferent, greedy, like grim death.
At the crest of the hill among some large oaks lay a shabby wide-brimmed hat and a hammer that was notched and split. I wondered who left the hat behind and who deposited the wood shavings I saw scattered about the grass. I fancied I should dislike him. As I ruminated in this gloomy fashion a mighty struggle broke out in a dense clump of bushes between two formidable and craggy rocks. Loud grumbling and complaints issued pointblank from the dense foliage, whereupon a sheep bleated, ran, and started backing down to the very place from which his mate had fallen.
In the meantime, a tall and lanky man sprang into the open and retreated as suddenly, clenching his hand. I backed away and stepped on someone’s foot. The owner of the foot grabbed me round the neck, thrust his fat head against my jaw, bundled his gray hair over my eyes, and blew his stink in my face. I uppercut my left and made his nose bleed, but he was a big fellow and fresh on dry land. He threw me to the ground. “Bring the pail, Joe!” he exclaimed.
The tall and lanky man pulled off his shirt and threw it and the hammer in the trees. “One shot of river water coming up for the boy with flaxen hair. How’re you doing, eh? Har, har. Now hear this: the dirty river water drives the sheep batty, sends them to their deaths, you see, and people, makes them loony too. What do you say, try some of this drink? There couldn’t be a better time, what with the dollar down; no, never a better time to drink and stockpile. Will you? You’ll like the flavor, trust me. It’s got something bold and daring they’re testing in the lab. After you have a little, you’ll want more. You’ll want the sheep to jump or you’ll jump with him. Frank--”
The other cut in, “You’re just excited! Hold your horses!” He turned to me, “What’s that? Don’t want any? Been there, done that? I know, and my pal here knows. Unfortunately, we really don’t have a choice in the matter. Wait to you see the water! Then you’ll believe me, then you’ll know. Joe!”
The bucket had water in it, but what else? The brown liquid swirled as Joe stirred whatever it was, river water mixed with dirt, preservatives, artificial fertilizer, and sheep guts, say, but the danger I perceived was no more polluted water than it was a hairspray. The danger was a hypodermic needle at the service of these lunatic nurses. Joe threw the contents of the bucket in my face, and the needle entered. A train bellowed in the night. I was stalked on a walk. Day returned. I stumbled forward like a blinded antelope. Neither the large bearded one nor his buddy “Joe” interfered with my leaving. Footfalls of a drunken ethereal kind carried me down the hill. Halfway down I looked back and saw Frank’s beard and Joe’s eyelids still stationed at the top of the hill. I continued on and suddenly the river was one step away. I tripped, reached for a leaf on the edge of an edge, and plunged headfirst into the flow of it. They laughed at the leafy edge as they fumbled for my arms, but when a tiger came up behind them and roared to shake the leaves from birches they ran for their lives.
“I can’t,” I said.
“No, but the drug will wear off. There is light!”
And so I forgot and forgetting forgot.
I thanked the tiger and walked a little ways to a juniper with wood beams nailed across its sky bound boughs. What a tree house! It rivaled by height and degree any I’d seen in any wilderness and appeared as a Goliath next to the tiny tree houses of our local orchards. The nails in Goliath buckled, her branches supported splintered cherry timber. I looked to see if anyone was in the juniper. The lower and middle sections had no visitors, but the carpenter had reached far with wood, hammer, and nail, so looking for lovers and loafers I shaded my eyes and peered ever higher, ever deeper. That only birds and squirrels would climb so high I believed a certainty, yet here I encountered another beam laid flat, there another, and in the shadows yet another, and, to my astonishment, a man was crouched on it.
“Good day!” I cried, knowing I was asleep. “I’m in need of dry clothes. Do you have an extra pair of pants?”
The man remained motionless on his board and silent as a turnip. I shifted my weight and ground my heel in the sand. Jeans, you blockhead, I thought. I shielded my eyes from the glare and looked up again. He was a stout fellow with black pearls for eyes. I approached the tree trunk and the first of many footholds. The stout man occupied the high, I would take the low.
“I’m coming up,” I said.
A yellow jacket dropped to the ground.
I looked up; the board was vacant. Here was a puzzle. Where had he gone? And was the jacket a gift or an exchange? What had he in mind? I left the jacket on the ground and climbed. Verdant green leaves swirled, rustled, and circled down and two leafy twigs also fell. A gunshot. That was a warning, I thought, and jumped down. I kept moving. “You’re hunting!” I shouted, “It’s illegal to hunt here, but I won’t report you.” The colors of the juniper swirled and mixed with the earth. “You killed someone,” I said, “You don’t have extra clothes. Fine!” I noticed a pair of red pants and fishnet lying in a thicket next to a sleeping man. “Maybe the pants belong to him,” I thought. “Why is he in the brambles?”
“Say, are these your pants?” I cried.
He had freckles, red hair, and was partly covered by a blanket. Explosives were attached to his legs, and when a wind swept through the wood his hair flopped down. I smelled something odious and familiar (it could only be human flesh!) and turned from the body.
“You’ve made a mistake! A joke!” I cried, and reeled, my stomach churning, but I could neither leave nor stay. The stout man appeared on a low-hanging branch devoid of leaves. His face covered by a bandanna he growled, pointed a double-barreled shotgun at me, and then seemed to hesitate and trained it on the corpse and charges instead. In a panic I fled, ashamed and disgusted that the red pants belonged to someone beyond the grave. The report came, then another. Smoke rose from the weapon. The stout man hunched over and cursed, pounding the shotgun with his fist, but just then the tiger leapt out of the bushes and knocked him out of the juniper! He landed on the corpse and blew up.
The explosion launched the stout man’s upper body like a rocket made of straw amid fire, chips, brush, nettles, and thick black smoke. The flames smacked, popped, and licked the ground, now fierce, now fading, one moment encircling the bushes, saplings, and juniper, the next retreating from mud and wet leaves.
A sound of twigs snapping sounded behind me, as I was joined by the fisherman. “Rich,” he said, smiling through his beard from a gap in the trees. It was sheer tomfoolery, I thought, his curiosity, while fire raged and scorched the ground beneath his feet, and so I told him. With a broad arm gesture I indicated the unyielding blaze, but the fisherman was unflappable. He said, “Yonder folks are roasting a pig.” I gaped at him speechless. “Remarkable, isn’t it?” he went on, “Who would carry a little piggy all the way out here, build a fire, and lay him out to cook?” He narrowed his eyes, and I looked and saw for the first time the shadowy figures he referred to, bent over a camp fire, and not far off, either. I wondered at the sight and threw up my arms. “I know not whom to believe,” I said, “but you are an honest man and I am a horse. No, no, be critical for once! You are right. I made a mistake, let’s leave it at that. Fisherman, you’re extraordinary! What will you think of next?”
I winked and pointed at the two shadowy men and their fire.
The fisherman grabbed my arm and pumped it hard. “Yes,” he said. “Those two! They’re camping here. I’m sure of it. Well, wait here if you like,” he said, and strode towards them, leaving me at the juniper. I waited, as he approached and addressed the shadowy men. The nearer one handed him a bundle, the fisherman returned.
“Care to replace your wetsuit?” he grinned.
“What does one do with supernatural apples? For so these are!” I said.
He nodded, looked hard at me, and then off in the distance, as I changed into blue jeans and a nutmeg-colored shirt. When I looked back at him a stack of paper flapped in the fisherman’s hands. He set the stack under a rock and asked me to excuse his absentmindedness. The voice, like and yet unlike his, startled me. He seemed to be speaking his thoughts out loud, and to have started right in the middle of them. He said, “And I must be careful not to offend anyone. Failing that, I must offend only the right ones. Mr. Rodomo is in my story, and there is something about madness. I inevitably start talking, otherwise it would be a more difficult, time-consuming endeavor. What? A necessity, you say?”
But I had not said, ‘A necessity.’
“Now, Rodomo, look,” he said, his blue eyes penetrating mine, “You’ve already gone against the grain. It’s up to you to follow Black Sparrow. Yes, I know about the incendiary material and your dreams. Follow your half brother. He knows the way. Here nothing will happen, but where he is, according to my records, or rather my outline,” he shuffled the stack, “Oh, yes, the vulnerability of the river to man. You’re the actor, act it out. Sit in a grove, ponder first if you must, but go to the river and think of the ways it is vulnerable. Go now. Go!”
He pushed me on down the path, and as I had no choice, I continued on my journey through the trees and scrub land until I reached the river. Black Sparrow sat on the bank, fishing, but I had nothing to do, so I sat down on a log. The fisherman followed behind me and pointed at the boy; he had risen to his feet and was standing among the water birds, dipping his line in the water. There were also pebbles, driftwood, and shiny black shells.
“Look!” I called to my half brother, ignoring the fisherman’s gaze. “Some good rocks!”
We skimmed pebbles on the water, befriended a passing dog, and shouted back and forth. I observed Black Sparrow. Later I sat and waited, pondering my condition and what to do about it. I knew I had to satisfy the man with the master plan. So I rose and walked to an alder tree and thence to a colony of ferns. A disturbance of crunching leaves and breaking sticks started as I approached the shadows, then abruptly hushed. Never mind, I thought. Nature is vulnerable to man. My inner voice was an albatross. Black Sparrow looked sidelong at me as he ran. The river was high.
The fisherman shouted, “We must be able to wash, bathe, and drink from a source that supports life. See this? That? Them?”
“And so we must,” I murmured. What?, I thought, Nothing further on the vulnerable? He on higher ground will not be pleased. Ho! I am fearful. Did I mean to say the albatross is a Lion? Ho hum. The albatross, I’ll have you know, is a Tiger. The albatross a Tiger? I’ll not believe that either. Ha! You’re weird, not at all like Charconiza. He’s cool. You’re quirky. I wonder, should I extend my finger to tap my thigh? Why not make a snake a mole? It’s the same thing as lions into moles. And the Lion acquiesces to sit. Still she, to see her stripes, is a Tiger, but hold my tongue, for when she comes we’ll know her! Until then turn ‘round!
“Are you a hunter?” said the Tiger. “I see your flesh and teeth. Kindly look away. I don’t wish you to see mine. I am too grand. I perceive you don’t trust me. Very well, do not.” She roared.
I heard footfalls and thought it was the fisherman, but the someone huffing, puffing, and splashing up to us was not he, but a sincere-looking young man in blue overalls with red suspenders.
“Rowlork,” said the sincere-looking man, quite out of breath. “I read. At night. Last night. The book. Roared. Now I’m. Pulled inside!” He gasped for breath. “I think I’ve said that before. Is there a counter here for the number of times I’ve come to Bretchem? I wanted to have a look at her. Is she real? What is real? You must flee to get out. I feel as if I’ve escaped her hundreds of thousands of times!” He repeated himself without blushing, and, without explanation, ran straight for the tiger and the mammoth ferns. The Tiger swatted at him without disturbing her seat and missed by a yard.
The Tiger yawned. She said, “I, the Tiger they call Tennessee, am guarding the passage through the ferns, you know. It’s wise to do so, so long as there are sales, and there have been sales every day since man left the wilderness and put on shoes. I mustn’t roar you understand. I am resolved. Attend! Tiger is addressing you. I didn’t mean to roar,” she apologized. “What are you up to? Is there meat to be had?” She came nearer. “Oh, relax. I’m not hungry. I have a book. I want you to tell me what it says.” She sauntered back to the hole and returned with a book in her jaws. “Here,” she said, dropping it at my feet.
It had a red velvet cover. I wiped the book on my sleeve and opened it at random. Clearing my throat, I read, “I am guarding the passage through the junipers, you know.”
“That’s what I said. Where is it from?”
“Good. You left out the part already known.”
I continued reading. “And roaring she—“
“Leave it!” the Tiger roared.
I shut the book.
“The novel! The story!” she repeated.
I threw the book away.
“A thing more dangerous to you than man to tiger or tiger to man.” She growled and lowered her head. When next she spoke her voice was low, the growl mostly gone, but her eyes flamed. “You remind us who we are and tell us who takes us. A genuine blockhead, a garden variety simpleton, or some such.” She pawed the ground. “To be a Tiger: tigers hunt at night or in the day if food is scarce. I see I impress you. We must live. As the ocean feeds on rain, I tear animals apart. I tell you this because I like you. Your kind is different. Do you know how I came by this internet? Oh, and I understand your females.” She purred. “I know them!” she spat. “But honor and think well of a man of property who possesses . . . her.”
Tiger lolled on her side and turned her head. We exchanged glances. In contrast to her words the Tiger’s eyes, ears, and teeth seemed to say, ‘I know something you don’t.’ She moved to conceal a gap in the foliage behind her with her body.
The bushes quivered and the ferns rustled, but presently the foliage assumed its previous shape and made no further sound. Silent shadows remained shadows, but no sooner did I avert my eyes from the leafy patch than the leaves brushed and stirred again, and a low rumble issued—from Tiger’s stomach! The leaves brushed and flapped some more, a hand momentarily parted the ferns, and suddenly an unfamiliar voice whispered loudly, “Writing is easy work!” pointblank from the concealing darkness! Someone was hiding in there!
The Tiger rolled her eyes. “O is making comments,” she said.
“O?” I asked dubiously.
“Yes, O, the author of the story you’re in. O comes ever so often.” She sighed.
“Zebra—er, excuse me—Tiger is it?” said the stranger, who still could not be seen, though it was clearly a man. “Sorry,” he said, without waiting for an answer. “Perhaps you could tell me where our story takes place? I lost my pen and the manuscript is a mess, really. Hmmm.”
“Bretchem,” purred Tiger.
“Repeat that?” pined O, his voice cracking obsequiously.
“Bretchem!” Tiger roared and batted the ferns at the place from which the voice issued.
I wondered who this O would turn out to be, but no one crept out and no reply was made to the savage beast. Tiger, for her part, panted and waited distractedly before speaking again. “O’s evidently having trouble making us,” she winked. “Which is to say O barely knows which story he’s penned this time! And that means you and I may find ourselves short of breath.” She showed her teeth, panted, and looked, I thought, close to tears.
“But as for you,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me, “imagine a mature female of your kind whose mate left her. Where does she turn? It must be to someone not too . . . ,” she added, shaking herself. “Well,” she resumed, “you will do. You welcome her freely, and in time, because you love her, she acquiesces. Oh, but you plotted. You consoled her hoping she’d love you. Deceit and lemmings sleep together where no one sleeps for long. She leaves you. In doing so she liberates you from any more repulsions.”
I did not know what inspired the attack, but I thought it wise to answer. I said, “You speak boldly concerning the affairs of humans.”
“Ha!” said the Tiger. “My book is the tale of the capricious beast who journeys on and on, his proper execution of arduous duties of kind and description per se contained and prescribed and not to exclude washing, hunting, and climbing trees. The critics call it a potpourri of bizarre mischance, with profitable allusions to cooking, philosophy, and fairy tales. Come,” she showed her teeth. “Do you want to be a developed character? My advice to you is, think twice! Granted I am no ordinary tiger and you may be what you are,” she admitted testily, “but wait and watch? Mice, pinwheels, and wind chimes, I say!” She spat. “And what do you know about me?” She sighed, shook her head as though to dismiss melancholic ghosts, and roared.
“I am content to sit here,” Tiger continued. “Tommy was tart.” She continued down the list. “Teddy turmeric, Oliver was olive, John was juicy, Michael was a melon. I’ll explain. Every night I eat Bretchem meat on Bretchem roads. This so infuriated Mayor Pi, that he ordered his deputy, a capital fellow by the name of George Balse, to conduct a manhunt. Balse had two days. If the murderer were not apprehended within the alotted time, then he, Balse, must keep looking, cross the border to other river towns and byways, because, said Mayor Pi, we already looked here. Such were his words. I stationed myself in this place to wait for hunters bearing semiautomatic rifles and crossbows.” She glanced at the underbrush. “We’ll see who comes out.”
“O?” said I.
“No, O is busy writing dialogue, sleeping, and working at the five-and-dime in between stints. O’s a cad.”
On ‘cad,’ a boot stuck out of the gap, and its owner, a man with a bushy beard, bright hazel eyes, and a red stocking on his nose, poked his head out of the same.
“Oops, wrong story,” he said, letting go of something, and dropped back down the hole. Tennessee kicked the something in after him, a warped bicycle wheel.
Tiger was incensed. “We can’t, we mustn’t allow loggerhead men to leave their baggage wherever they please.”
I wondered what had become of O, but I was fascinated. “Is he in another story?”
Tiger gave me a stern look. “He seemed to think so.”
I could make nothing of her answer.
“The loggerheads are a nuisance,” she continued. “Sometimes they come in droves. But tell me, Are you still here? I will be on the hunt soon and you tarry. You’re not safe here. We might be enemies, see. The only game in Bretchem is man. For heaven sakes, say something! Do something! If you had a crossbow and shot it, if you had a shotgun and fired it, maybe then I’d reconsider.”
As the Tiger spoke, I had a vision of a man dressed in black from head to foot; he walked quickly down a stair and across a rocky beach; his dreary suit hung stiff as a splinter; his tilted top hat gave him an austere, gloomy, and sinister air. I thought it best to find safer ground, but as I made to go the Tiger circled round and charged. I fell to the side, which turned out to be lucky for me—otherwise I would have fared far worse. Even so she managed to claw the back of my neck before slinking into the woods. I stumbled to the river and washed the wound as best I could. I had nothing to dress it with but my shirt. I used it.
No sooner did I return, pressing the cloth to my wound, than there was another disturbance in the bushes and ferns. I guessed I would soon discover the cause. Sure enough twelve men of various ages dressed as hunter-hikers, bearded, and carrying considerable gear, walked out of the foliage in single file. I soon had reason to thank them, too, since they lost no time in wrapping my wounds in fresh linen, supporting me under my arms, and leading me to a pocket of soft cool moss beneath a weeping willow. Presently one of younger ones in the crew with a face full of freckles and a shock of red hair approached another man in the company, a chap with thick dark eyebrows, who appeared to be the leader of the band.
“It won’t be long now,” said the latter.
“Who do you suppose he is?” said the lad.
“Why, an acquaintance, Nakamatsuki. Of course, we’ll pass him a ribbon before we get started. He doesn’t have one, you will recall, or if he does it will be in poor shape. I for one am pleased with these.” He waved some red and blue strips in the air.
“What shall we do with him?” said the lad.
“The cool ground and moisture will bring him back. Such shriveled skin! Out in the rain, I guess.”
The leader turned towards me. “Sir?” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
He muttered to the freckled lad, “See, I nudged him,” and then turned back to me. “We’re leaving now,” he said. “Take care. We’ll return this afternoon if you fancy a lift to the Land Beyond the Ferns. Rest up!”
And with that he set off with his companions. I watched them go, tried to ignore the pain in my neck, and nearly succeeded in conjuring up an entrancing vision of sugar plums, volcanoes, and rhinoceros eggs when Tiger reemerged from the woods west with the suddenness of a coyote. She made straight for the weeping willow.
“You’re well? That’s good,” Tiger purred, breathing heavily on my face. “So good!” she roared, dashed to a fir tree, and commenced tearing the bark with her claws.
A shot echoed in the wood. Tiger scraped the tree a while longer, then bolted. In her flight, she brushed a thorny bramble. As it sprang back and forth from its root I couldn’t help thinking, brambles had bounced back and forth like that for ages and I wished they’d get on with it and stop their swinging.
As it swung about fifteen more men with rifles came out of the Ferns along with the original band that had just left. The entire crew looked lifeless and languid now, including the two I heard speak. Dipping their heads and crooning, “Hush!”, the crew approached the willow with clumsy steps, pointed up and down, waved each other on, and paid me no mind when suddenly and for no apparent reason they became more animated and scurried to a nearby aspen and sycamore and then back and forth between them in a frenzy.
The freckled lad who spoke before said, “Surely he is near and we are afraid but we have our guns.”
A hulk of a man with a long curly pony tail who appeared to be directing the new company spoke for the first time then, looking over his shoulder. He said, “Who said guns and not rifles? How many times do I have to say it? All’s we got is rifles!”
At this remark all the men—with the exception of the one who seemed to be their chief chief, the one with the dark, thick eyebrows—turned and looked ‘round, whereas he stopped beneath the willow, looked at me with a sad countenance, and shook his head.
After a brief time the hulk shouted, “How could he have breached the river?” and prodded the shoulder of the very tall man in front of him for an answer, but that gentleman only rolled his eyes at the sky.
“He can’t swim. That’s known!” sputtered the very tall man with a thin, breaking voice, and dodged behind an unwieldy sycamore, as he evaded the hulk’s slow fists. The very tall man’s arms swung into view from behind the tree, once, twice, three times.
“You hear, Brekenridge. I advise you not to say that again, and to better your tracking skills!” boomed the hulk at the very tall man, who reappeared, and clapped his hands to his head.
But their thick-eyebrowed leader shook his head. “Gentlemen,” he said, “Please, no fighting. Lest you forget, you are armed men pursuing a hostile animal. Where he has been you will find destruction, devastation, ruin, and dead people. Where you stand now, gentlemen, cities have crumbled, leaders collapsed, men and women, fathers and families, all et cetera.”
“Men and women, what?” someone shouted.
“Murdered,” the leader replied.
“That’s our George,” said another, and this time it was an old man from the first group who stepped forward into the sun to make his remarks, then smiled and lowered his eyes.
A stillness followed, a shadow fell, and in its wake the hunters assumed long faces, like wayward politicians. Stillness brought atrophy, no one wanted to move.
I wanted to say, ‘Why don’t you move?’ I wanted to tell them they looked like spent politicians. ‘You’ll want to move,’ I would shout, ‘because a tiger, a tiger,’ and then tell them about Tiger. Would they listen?
I turned to the leader. “Say hallo, have you had any luck?” I asked hopefully.
He looked up in surprise, his mouth half-open, but before he could answer a chorus of shouting broke out from among the men. “Hey aarrr hey whoah!” they exclaimed. The quarry was near.
The hunters made ready: those who had set their firearms down were now reaching for their weapons; the leader recovered his voice and barked orders; the young lad with freckles blushed the color of his hair, closed his eyes, and pointed his rifle at the sun. I wondered at the rhyme and reason of the company, for they frequently changed aim and shifted ground.
“What game?” I shouted.
“O,” said the leader they called George matter-of-factly. He pointed at a small man with delicate hands and broad shoulders perched at the top of the willow and said, “Abracadabra.”
I stood by, confused, but the word appeared to be the signal his men had been waiting for, and at once the entire host burst into a song of long and short vowels and began marching around the tree. High above, the author O, meticulously dressed in the same multipurpose predominantly green attire as the hunters, the uniform I noticed then for the first time, caused the tree’s supple limbs to shake and leafy twigs to fall as he jumped and climbed, with astonishing speed and agility, throughout the baffling arrangement of voluminous branches. He stopped, played a few notes on his flute, and flung a rope overhead.
The men took aim. The flute swung wildly about, O zigzagged up the tree, the hunters fired and missed their mark. The men grunted and pivoted their feet. The hulk coughed. A thrush flew by and a warbling strain drifted to the ground. Again O played his gleaming silver flute, this time to the hunt song. Affected by the music, the hunters smiled, blushed, and nodded at one another. Even George took part in a spontaneous circle dance around the tree, and, in his enthusiasm, clapped the back of the old man, who happened to be in the middle of a do-si-do, almost knocking him down. The music held them spellbound: the men lowered their rifles and opened their mouths and eyes wide; but the moment the music stopped, which it did in the middle of the second refrain, the hunters roused themselves, took up their rifles, and marched around the tree, raising the alarm and singing the song of the hunt.
“How long will this last?” I wondered after the hunters and I had circuited the willow nearly twenty times. The question was still hovering in my conscience when a single shot echoed in the wood, and O fell like a stone, breaking branches as he fell, until he landed with a heavy thud on the ground. The very tall hunter smiled distortedly and held up his rifle with both hands. O was dead. The hunt was over.
The tall killer raised his rifle high above his head and ran. The others followed suit. When they reached the ferns the slayer, George, the freckled youth, the old man, and the rest of them disappeared down the hole to The Land Beyond the Ferns. I ran to O, where he lay covered in blood on the thick roots and moss. The blood cleared and evaporated. Otherwise, I found the circumstances ordinary for a dead man.
The corpse lay on its back in the white midday sun. O had died with ogling eyes, knit brows, and a slightly parted mouth. Uncertainty and pain marked his frozen regard. I looked from his face to the flute balanced on his breast, then crouched down to shoo away a fly which in spite of my efforts circled and landed on the dead man’s lips. The fly turned scarlet. Disgusted, I brushed it onto the ground and picked up a stick with which to poke it farther off, and would have poked it, had not an arm flung out and a hand covered the black-turned-red fly. It took me a moment to realize whose hand it was.
I jumped back.
O had died, I was sure of it, but neither could I deny that the dead man wrinkled up his nose, blinked, smiled, and said, “Another day of this and I’ll laugh myself to death,” then closed his eyes.
I bit my fist.
He lay with eyes half-closed, looking very pale indeed. Suddenly he said, “But I suppose it’s no use pretending,” jumped to his feet, grabbed my hand, pumped it hard, and I recognized the fisherman! “Pleased to meet you, Rowlork. No, that’s quite all right. No need to apologize. No, you’re quite welcome. I’m delighted, simply delighted to see you! Welcome to the story or welcome to the continuation. Welcome to the present! Pardon me, I don’t know what I’m saying. Welcome, welcome!”
I was distracted by something in his eyes. “Sir,” I blurted, “I see the river, Tiger, and Black Sparrow in your eyes!” for that was what I saw there.
“Oh yes, certainly,” he replied, as if this phenomena came as no surprise to him, and, leaving me perplexed as ever, added, “Have a look.” I edged closer, momentarily observing his tousled hair and crooked nose before I met his eyes, which swam with pictures of all sorts. I waited for Black Sparrow to emerge again.
“Yes, have a look,” he repeated, “In the meantime it may interest you that Black Sparrow is walking alone, though it is more direct and accurate to say, Boy and River and Tiger are synchronized and Black Sparrow is walking alone, with a stick in his hand. You will want to know, of course, about Black Sparrow. And why not? I’ll let you see. Me, the undead author, heh, heh. The fisherman.”
“I must see!” I said.
“Is Black Sparrow in danger? You wonder. Well, go see, for how could I possibly answer with certainty? But before you go, and I see you have a mind to, put on some clothes. Proper garments,” he added in answer to my look. “Those rags are torn. Here, try this coat with ten buttons.” He produced the items out of thin air! “Squirm inside, that’s right. See what works, get plenty of rest. The suit and shoes dry instantly when wet. Rubbish, you’re thinking now, but have a look. See, you like it even so. Go now, sharpen wood, swim, run away. You’ll find a passage four miles upriver. Bring back writing and, remember, on the lines. Don’t be afraid. Consider claiming the dreams that follow you around.”
He looked over his shoulder as I stepped past him.
“You ever walked el camino a la fantasía,” he said in Spanish, “It is the haunted road. It’s how you came to know. It’s how you sing what you love. It’s where your bones lie.”
My chin quivered, I had no answer.
Noticing a goodly patch of grass near the fisherman I flung myself on the ground and tarried in a trance, before I lurched my mind free and ran through the woods upriver. The land disappeared under O’s eye and the pseudomorphism of a tiger eye upset the sky. I told O this. “That’s weird,” he said.
I lunged uphill, heedless of the sharp sticks scratching me around the eyes. I tore across the fields hidden in the wood until the buzzing subsided. “Bees or brains?” O said.
“Is Black Sparrow alive?” I shot back.
“Is he alive?” O echoed. “My eyeballs reveal much but they are nothing compared to the pictures you see there,” he said and waved his hand in a grandiose manner above his head. “The sky may answer your questions if you wait a little longer.” He paused and looked earnestly up at the great white bubble of a sun. A rook floated in the ether, its shadow fell between us. “Up, up, up,” O urged, “a hundred kilometers upriver. Do what you must but don’t waste time. Okay, I’ll come with you.”
We started through the next wood. Black Sparrow brandished a stick, the Tiger washed herself on the shore, the boy backed into the water and dissolved, the sun erupted into a blinding sun!
O fell behind.
It was hard going, this path of broken jackknifed rocks and thorny hedges, with branches that poked from either side between the eucalyptus. I crashed into the bushes and jumped rocks until, to my relief, the sprawling hedge row parted at a large plywood sign: THE NOTCH. I had entered a forest of close gnarled hemlocks, and the full and heavy scent of pine needles and decay filled my lungs. I looked back. The artist was clutching his foot, cursing the rocks and his misfortune.
“Cartwheels, somersaults, and hexadecimals!” he cried and collapsed in a heap on the ground.
The wall was blocking the path.
“Here, put these on,” said O, standing where I had fallen, with bruised knees and bumped head from my collision with the six feet high stone wall.
O handed me a tuxedo. “You look upset! I had to stop you somehow. One needs decent clothes to face death the right way. Be quick about death. You don’t want to join the ranks of latecomers dawdling at the hearth in a rickety rocking chair. Trust me, you don’t want to end up dead in anything less than a tuxedo.” O laughed maniacally, and continued howling and laughing while he scribbled excitedly on maple leaves, pieces of parchment, and scraps of linen that he plucked from a pouch at his belt and pinned to the wall.
“I’m making corrections,” he muttered as he attacked a scrap of paper, “improvements in the text. For instance, I didn’t die back there, only pretended to. You’ll thank me later.”
“Then while you’re at it, how about a door in the stinking wall!”
“Stinking wall, hmmm, not the description I’d have chosen, but there you are.” O regarded the wall and placed a fat finger on one of the many large splotches of lichen on its surface. “It’s old, solid, Arthurian romantic,” O mused. “Dignified, yes; formidable, perhaps.” He paused. “A door, you say. Or would you prefer steps on one side or the other?”
“A way through.”
“Right, a locked door then. Who has the key? Do you intend to knock and hope for the best?”
“Come on, O, open the door.”
“You’re quick. Well all right, but take my word, the tux will fit you to a T. You won’t be able to use your legs though; immobility is the tradeoff for your door. No, don’t argue with me.”
I walked through the doorway of stone and lost the feeling in my legs.
O called over the wall. “I know what you’re thinking! Forget about the boy. It’s tiger now, so look up. The sun will tell what you need to know.”
I wormed away from the wall in my tuxedo.
I didn’t get far before a man reached out from behind a tree and set me sitting upright. “Hi, I’m Pollen Perch, a member of the Ptolemy Party.” He was a tall, intelligent-looking man, with bushy eyebrows and a stern nose, sitting on a rock in a grassy glen. “You have been blinded by the sun,” he said. “I’ll wager it’s an eclipse that got you.” He raised his hand slowly. “My legs give me trouble,” he continued. “If I could stand! But do you see the sea of people who are unable to move? Sometimes we raise our hands, all of us at once, but no one moves his legs. There are days I don’t even try I get so low. But not today. Today I feel I can stand for the first time in years.” He leaned forward as he spoke and braced himself against the rock. “I’m six feet eleven inches tall!” He grabbed my arm. “Huh?” he said, but it had already happened.
“The sun! The sun!” I cried, and, as I raised my eyes to our brightest star, I saw the Tiger’s teeth and claws bearing down on the land. I felt her presence, and I was no longer Rowlork. I was Black Sparrow. I whipped out my stick and waved it in the air as I ran. The Tiger splashed into the river.
The stars unfolded and rolled over me. I was the boy I sought, I couldn’t escape him, I couldn’t escape the truth. I was he, and it was he who sought me.
It wasn’t long before Tiger caught up with me and looked me over as she ran.
“Why are you so serious? My father was a terrible beast, slain in these woods by a two-legged.” She paused. “O was responsible for the death; he blew a trumpet. What suits him, goes, you see. The men came running, and my father came running on his four paws.”
“Man cleared the land and hunted the tiger to extinction,” I said.
“Yes, the genocide of the race you call Tiger.”
“Tiger!” I said, but before I could say another word she roared and grew her impressive tail.
“Leave me,” she said, “unless you can talk about fish. I don’t wish to think of lost pride. I remember them always. You can see them in my face.”
“If I traveled some place far,” I began slowly, since Tiger looked very stern. “If I could go anywhere, I’d go—”
Tiger cut in, “I prefer zoos. In zoos one watches people, lives in a cage, receives rapid medical attention, and dies in peace, with lots of drugs. Yes, few of us remain. Would we thirst in the desert if an elephant led us to water? I’m pulling your leg, zoos are mediocre. Here comes O.”
She growled, but I knew she only growled to keep her voice low. “At the apex of the hour, pulling a story from the sky. Look! See stardust ink. O transcribes, ‘the boy and the tiger sat quiet and still.’ O says you and I heard a noise in the bushes. Perhaps we did hear a noise in the bushes.” The Tiger narrowed her eyes. “Your friends are hiding in the bushes.”
“Who?” I jumped, narrowly avoiding her swiping claw. “I don’t see them.” I pressed my back against the rock outcropping where she had cornered me, feeling light-headed and lost. The river was on my immediate right.
“Tell me about fish,” Tiger repeated. “Do they float? Why? Are they succulent? How?”
“Mackerels, snappers, blue fish, rainbow trout.”
“What are you sitting on?”
I moved aside and picked up a torn piece of paper. “A note,” I said, surprised.
There was nothing for it, but to read it in hopes of delaying the Tiger’s attack. “It says, ‘To whom it may concern and my dear luminary, a musician will stop by this rock.’”
“That’s the entire note? I don’t know what that means.” She paced, pondering the words. “Luminous, lightning, light, e pluribus unum, a leading light. Check my work, I’m not a lion for Pete’s sake. Is there any more? Yes? Read the remainder.”
I noticed the post script. “`P.S. Swords to ploughshares,’” I read aloud. “`A magic trick frees the dead to raise their hands, while the tiger keeps its orange tint. See notebook. A gentleman followed his vision, stepped out, touched cold ground. A shiftless sort came to join what’s left of the company . . . . ’”
“Excuse me,” said a well-exercised Pollen Perch, emerging from the bushes, with an instrument case in his right hand. “Allow me to introduce myself once again. I’m Pollen Perch, not of the shiftless sort, let’s get that straight from the beginning. Let’s see the note.” He grabbed the paper. “It says, a reporter appears, says he would like to play, and pulls out a violin.”
“A violin!” I said.
“No! Heavens, no! Or, in a manner of speaking, yes, it belongs to that family: a viola.” Perch sighed, clutched the case to his breast, and flipped the lid.
“Well?” I said, stalling for time.
“It says here, he plays a ditty and rumbas to the river.”
“So you’ve come out of the bushes and are one of that sort,” put in the Tiger, and sat on her haunches.
“Ptolemy Party emissary, at your service,” said Pollen Perch. “Incidentally, I’m seven feet tall when I wear these tennis shoes. It says here, I, the Ptolemy Party candidate for member-at-large wear a badge and walk a bit too triumphantly. Also, a friend of the boy is nearby.” He smiled at Tiger. “That must be me. I was born in Keenouee, pronounced Keen-ou-ee or Keen-ou-hie. Oh, Mishawaka. It says so at the end of the entry.” He frowned and handed me the leaf. “Whoever wrote that note is wrong. I’m from Drapery Corner City, a hundred miles north of Bretchem. Contrariwise, I’m up for principal viola in Bretchem. I’m on my way to the concert hall now. Left my demo at home. If you read the local newspapers you’d know, you’d be in like the gym.” He played a reel and danced into the river.
“He’ll drown himself!” I said. “What do we do?”
“Do? Nothing, boy. Nothing,” said Tiger.
Pollen Perch popped back thoroughly soaked, his pants plastered to his legs, his coattails dripping on the ground. “I see you are still on the riverbank,” he said, “I suppose you want to hear the waltz I composed for my lovely Mia. I first serenaded her on a winter’s night in a house by the ocean in an upstairs room while the birds sang and I longed to come out of the room and go down to her. ‘You’re lovely,’ I cried, ‘I play for you.’ She said nothing.” He sighed. “It was another waltz I played that night. I don’t recall the name, but it was very French and Mia loved it. She banged the doors for hours afterwards. She does that, you know, when she is pleased. This rapid opening and shutting of doors is part of her charm, you see, and showcases her jarring personality. Anyway, methinks I played long into the night, while the clouds rolled out to sea and the moon shown on the golden hay and barley.” He put his blue viola back in the case and closed it. A cloud swept over the land. I closed my eyes, and Perch began to sing:
The lark out of hand, I never saw the sea
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” I clapped and jumped in the air. “Hurrah! Encore! Hurrah! Maestro! Magnifico! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” It truly was a remarkable and tremendous performance and I was in no mood to make sense of anything anymore. Even Tiger smiled, arched her back, and stretched, before waxing philosophical again. She said, “What happens when the landsman gets on that ship may also occur at the Hole to the Land Beyond. But to whom were the lines addressed? To me? To you? Ah, Rowlork alias Black Sparrow, to whom?”
As she spoke, the clouds rolled in, like a patch of pitch in the celestial sphere, and she said, “What we have said is the silence of snow flurries falling on top of moose dung and the mud.”
“I dare say Pollen Perch knows about fish,” I said quickly, hardly knowing why I wanted to change the subject.
“Of course, that was it,” said Tiger. “I didn’t ask Perch about fish.”
“As a metaphor you impress me,” said Perch, ignoring the question altogether. “I am returned from playing the viola farther on down the riverbank, an errand I took on myself, with the advantage of keeping the same body for the duration of my visit,” he explained, “whereas you, Black Sparrow, I understand, have undergone the trauma of becoming who you are now, while leaving your old self behind. I should know. I saw both of you, and have known you both for about the same time, i.e., not long, though I have known the new you longer, relatively speaking.” No sooner did he finish his explication than he ran to the Wall and flung himself over it, and Black Sparrow saw himself in third person, alone at the river, dragging a stick in the sand.
“Mr. Perch, what news!” I shouted, but the wall was gone. In its place, the fisherman. He was facing the river and another wall, a new wall. A leg appeared over the top of the latter and Pollen Perch dropped to the ground on this side again, like a sack of potatoes.
“Here,” said Perch, “you’ll need these.” He dropped a sack of beans at my feet and ran off.
“Hmm,” said the fisherman, “Dealing in bean grenades are we?” He turned and walked away, but when next he spoke he was on the other side of the new wall. “Purple shoelaces, no trade-ins, what next? Allow me.” Suddenly, large chunks of rock fell to make an opening in the wall, with a cherry door, and O walked through. Behind him, before the door shut again, river whitecaps foamed, and aspen and birch swayed, while I walked with a stick in my hand. The fisherman ran his finger along the wall. The door disappeared, the wall was seamless as before.
“There is no way around,” said the fisherman, “no way around the wall, no way around.” His voice faded.
I approached the facade and pressed my right palm against the cool, damp rock. I took a deep breath and let it out slow. Black Sparrow next to me, looking at the wall, in the same attitude as myself, Corrin Rowlork.
I didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t trust you,” said Black Sparrow, “you talk unnaturally.”
I asked what vexed him.
“Oh, you know,” he said. “I can see. I saw you with that fisherman. He said, follow his footprints, and they are as black rubbery tires. One can lift them up, like the ones in the cartoons.”
Black Sparrow said some other boys were going to drown a cat. He wanted to save the cat.
He pleaded with me. “The cat is innocent,” he said.
I had an image of a woman paddling away in a canoe, swimming ashore at a difficult place, and then refusing to leave her island of mud, saying she would not get in a boat, but this was madness!
Black Sparrow kept saying he wanted to save the cat. I said I would help him help the cat, but he sobbed and begged me to save it. As it was still possible to delay the walk home I closed my eyes, sat vacant, numb, confused, and tired, beside Black Sparrow, and absently stroked a milkweed seed pod. Bluebirds were singing. I closed my hand on a rough wrinkled seed pod and squeezed it tight, then unclenched my fist, opened my eyes, and watched as the ugly gray outer wall puffed out again. A few mangled leaves fell from the plant; otherwise it looked much the same when I set it on the rock.
When I awoke Black Sparrow was gone. I walked until I found him in a clearing with the fisherman. There was a large glittering box, a pickup loaded with sand, and forks and spoons scattered willy-nilly. White and pink granite boulders dotted the dusty ground. Black Sparrow pointed at the truck.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “What’s in the box?”
The fisherman frowned.
I looked about me. The very tall man who’d shot O, and who I thought had left for good, was sitting prominently in a maple tree. “What you got in there?” he echoed, balancing a stone in each hand. He threw one of them at me, and missed by a yard. I glared at him, trying to fathom his intent.
“Madness begets madness,” he shrugged.
Black Sparrow tugged my arm. “Come on,” he said, “Hurry, don’t lose time. The box landed right here at the end of the story. I saw it land. The fisherman wants to open it.”
“Do you think we should chance it?” said O.
“Maybe it’s a trap,” I said.
“No!” Black Sparrow said. He placed his hands on the lid.
“It could be treasure,” said the fisherman. “If it is, then I get some. Don’t I, Rowlork? You’ll let me. Won’t you? If it’s black forest chocolate and bars of gold?”
“A vault, a vault,” I said, and tried the box until it opened and the day’s dust drifted down on the mutilated partial corpse lying inside. Partial, I say, because only the abdomen and parts above were there, and mutilated, because it was caked with dried blood and covered in dirt. A red bandanna encircled the neck of the man I had seen blown up at the juniper some time ago. I screamed and tried to force the lid down so Black Sparrow wouldn’t see, but it wouldn’t budge. Only Black Sparrow was not tall enough to see.
A sound like popcorn popping started. Clouds of gray mist rushed skyward. The milkweed seed pod I had crushed in my hand danced wildly on the rock. Dense black smoke filled the air. A heavy sulfurous odor accompanied the ominous black cloud. The seed pod fell off the rock.
The corpse uttered mirthless, despairing laughs, grew still, then resumed cackling hyper-banshee. Darkness came. An airy numbness took hold of my knees and gripped my bones. The clouds swept down, the lid closed, the box shook. We were men shouting, a boy screaming. An alien voice spoke in the annals of my brain, “The pilgrims belong outside the guarded gate house. It’s right to expect nothing more from them.”
“Get out of my thoughts and show yourself,” I growled.
“Easily done, and I don’t harbor ill will toward you, a decent fellow whom I would like to know better.”
I peered around the box at Tiger. Her magnificent head turned, bringing a score of whiskers and a flat bead nose close to my face. Something had happened; Tiger was tall, but tigers are tall. It was I who had shrunk.
“I understand that you speak,” I said, “but a mistake’s been made.”
The box popped open.
“This is not your story,” the Tiger roared, and grew. She grew until she filled the sky and still she grew. She grew as the Earth spun and the stars shown.
The air, the ground, the ground squirrels, the sparrows, even the shadows in the cemetery looked gray to me. I brushed at the dirt that stuck implacably to my leg. The sky was not a Tiger. As for the graveyard of familiar slabs and homely mounds, it was quiet now. Half-forgotten and empty it looked, like Mr. Bell’s coffee shop at the end of the day.
I longed for a campfire. In the burning woodland mists I found absence, the root of which I traced like an arrow back to town. And what’s more, as I reflected on my youth the shadow of Black Sparrow visited me, asking, Who will the messenger be?
The thorns clutched the graves, like so many gnarled hands. The wind was choppy. I asked myself, “Do the dead wake the living?” I found no answer. “Who?” I shivered. “Will they return?”
If I were Black Sparrow, then I would grow. Mr. Bell was right when he said that a boy grows like a kite that unwinds its string slowly and then rapidly spins it out. Black Sparrow had not yet spun it out. When I was a boy I tried eating spinach. I squinted my eyes and pulled my ears until I began to grow. Thankfully I had a home. One boy, one of many, earned his pennies in a sweatshop. He worked in the blacking factory, pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish, and visited his father on Sundays.
Had I only fallen asleep? “Yes,” she said, “Everyone did.” And then she looked earnestly down at me and said she hadn’t the slightest notion of coming back to try her fortune on so long a venture, whatever she meant by that, but I nodded. She said I was in good company and well loved. Then she remarked, and the words stuck with me every day thereafter of my life, “You have heard and seen much. In my estimation, you barely escaped from the land of appearances, but you are home now and not afraid. There was a Tiger; goodness knows, there aren’t many Tigers left. I say you were lucky to find her. Will you journey there again? That I don’t know, for the land is as it is and not a dream if dreams be as we think of them.” The nightingale sang mournfully to the unseen congregation in this merry field of death as man hewn rocks and mounds passed away into darkness—I heard breathing on the wind—while down in the woods by the river struggling trees sipped the dark brown water. And in the dying light the trees seemed to part their ways for me, but the illusion was momentary as the wind.
This is the first story, I, Orin Roblomo, told upon my recovery from a former madness, and it mined the only material I had available at the time: my two years as that recovering mental patient or lunatic. All of the characters herein and all of the places appear as relics to me of those days of chaos in my brain; a chaos that changed as wildly as the weather: it is therefore entirely allegorical, metaphorical fiction (whatever else it may be). In the real world there is no place like Bretchem, no woods with holes from the United States to China or another world; no Black Sparrow, in the concrete sense. I hardly need say so, only if you have listened through to this point, then perhaps you learned while you tarried in Bretchem of what one madman perhaps lived as a madman, allegorically and largely in retrospect. If the mad Hamlet’s view had been given from inside Hamlet, if he had lived to tell his life, maybe part of this story would be his too. But if you have walked a mile with these figments in wayward shoes and seen enough, then I hope you will forgive me the memory of some dark days I had to consider (and muck around in) . . . before I walked on.