International Writers Magazine:
sound came once more. He stiffened. It was closer. His whole body
knew it was closer. It was not just in the hearing. It approached.
It made inroads. It said so. The metal toe. The kick. The slash.
Ping Too smiling through his teeth. Oh, would Ping have a thirst
for amontillado! Oh, were he himself the finest of stone masons,
setting Ping Too up for the full sentence; to make an end of my
labour, to force the last stone into place; to set the best of mortar,
Caught between the professor and the captain. Again.
In the darkness,
in the cell, he had himself convinced to use all his body parts, to
get them all into the game. It was the only way to pass the time, to
evade the terrors abounding, to keep a thin shred of sanity if nothing
Thumb and finger. Thumb and finger. He had them poised, ready to clutch,
grasp, snare the vermin dared be caught. If the smallest of the lot
trod the ground between those pincers, hed have an addition to
his meal. Perhaps the entrée, though small as it promised. In
the pit of darkness, this room with no aperture, no stars allowed, no
moon, no haze off the unseen horizon, silence baiting him as always,
he could not see thumb and finger. But they were there a perilous distance
apart. Then for hours, in the absolute darkness, they were but a whisper
apart, a hairs breadth, and at times his whole arm trembled from
the concentration. Sometimes, the length of that side of his body, down
to his toes, knew that tremble as an arcing electricity, knew the burn
it could threaten.
Now, there was another thing
. the toes. Time after time he had
tried to master the manipulation, to squeeze a big toe against its neighbor
when he felt the vermin at that extremity. Way back in his memory, from
an old news film maybe, he could picture a man making baskets; weaving,
for gods sake, baskets out of strips of dried grass, with his
toes! Toes like fingers! Toes using a double-edged razor blade to strip
the grass into long, slender pieces! A lifetime at it, most likely,
and that a likely mental reservation of his own. "Im due
a few, he said aloud in the circumscription of the imposed cell.
Would toes be at a greater advantage for vermin catching, them so unsuspecting?
Ha! thinking like that! What an attribute for them! Or then, there was
that other man he remembered without arms, who typed with his toes,
he too in an old film of sorts. Oh, he could see the carriage return
sling backwards harsh as a bolt in a rifle, could hear the bell click
on an old L. C. Smith/ Corona, a metal monster with music in its own
right, the dumb, inert, potential of great novels, short stories cutting
to the quick, poems that could melt him down in their abject simplicity.
All from that black giant of quick mechanics. He could hear it again
and again that musical bell, that energy sign. Oh, the short sentences
of the typist, Hemingway stuff, stripped down, adjectives cast alive
into the stream, the return bell ringing and ringing. Most likely an
A Flat, hed try to convince himself, though tone deaf. The bull
charged. The people ran. Pamplona exploded. A Flat, without a doubt.
Then the itch, invariably, would begin at a point on his back he could
not reach, and it was arriving again by the clock, perfectly timed in
its entrance. At the small of the back, as if in between the cruddy
vest remnants he wore, forced on him by the prison captain, and the
worn and thin blanket he tried to sleep on, infested no doubt with creatures
warmer than hed ever be again. Bare, the air talking on his skin,
his arms, at least the one not shivering, felt the chill, knew it to
the bone, trying to be company with the itch.
A shiver, a bodys full shiver every once in a while, the entire
course of him, was the most pleasure he might have for hours. It would
attest to his total consciousness, his whole being, as much a passage
fully memorized and fully realized from his old reading days taking
hold of him, finding his soul: It must be understood that neither by
word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued,
as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my
smile now was at the thought of his immolation.
Oh, dear Christ in heaven, he had catapulted now through E.A. Poe to
the captain; jailer extraordinary, stick wielder, percussionist, with
the long yellow teeth, the sneer and contempt embedded in his face,
hatred in-born for America and the mothers of prisoners and the Grand
Canyon and a Saturday full of football. The captain, Ping Too, long
and fanged and yellow-toothed, with the metal toe on his shoe, just
the right one, meant for backs, shoulders, elbows, bone, sinew, body,
the very reach and portal of the soul. He did not know if it were Poe
or the quickened sound beyond, a noise in the night, like the swagger
stick striking on another back, across bare flesh. He and Fortunato,
he and the captain, the captain and Fortunato. Where did it end or begin?
He could hear his old professor, John Norton, reading the passage, coughing
his cigarettes into the paragraph, posing his hand between belt and
self, sitting on the edge of his desk, nodding at the words, his voice
alive, the tower bell ringing at the end of class, May smothering him
with trees and the promise of evening.
His voice repeated itself: Caught between the professor and the captain!
It was at him again. The then and the now. Still, he clasped that finger
and that thumb, those entities in the darkness, poised, relentless,
waiting. Hunger, he realized, would accompany him all the days of his
life. Oh, such weariness it could sustain. A being in itself. It would
never change. No matter how many times Ping Too kicked him, no matter
how many times the stick flashed in the air and he could feel its slash
before it hit his skin, the void in his body would reassert itself,
the ever-calling vacuum, wanting, needing, crying for food, more food,
decent food, one solitary piece of rye bread soft enough for his teeth
where he held off the pain. It would do no good to get pain there, in
his teeth. If he let it in it would be with him forever. Hed suck
it out of his teeth before hed let it come at him, gnawing its
way home, coming like an insidious disease, taking over, controlling,
as conscious as breathing. Suck the teeth dry of pain, that was the
trick. Call on perseverance repeatedly. Make it stand-to. A man made
demands on his body, on his complete self, the ego and the muscle, the
sinew and the thought, the search and the grip. The echo came in the
back of his head, even if it had to be that way until the last day.
What he feared most was the lack of measurement, the inability of allowing
or creating reference points, two points around time, time at the center
of two points as distant as stars. There was that hunger for the sight
of stars in this room without aperture. That hunger was there like an
organ of skin, enveloping.
It was déjà vu, it was a turntable event. The sound came
once more. He stiffened. Again. It was closer. Again. His whole body
knew it was closer. It was not just in the hearing. It approached. Again.
It made inroads. Again. It said so. The metal toe. Again. The kick.
Again. The slash. Again. Ping Too smiling through his teeth. All over
again. Oh, would Ping have a thirst for amontillado! Oh, were he himself
the finest of stone masons, setting Ping Too up for the full sentence;
to make an end of my labour, to force the last stone into place; to
set the best of mortar, forever.
"Yo!" he said into the darkness, quickly alert, his voice
making an attempt at strength, soldierly, once again in the ranks. His
mind leaped another leap. The finger and the thumb! No matter what joy
comes, keep the finger and the thumb deployed. Be vigilant. Be ready.
Anew came the full shiver. A shot of joy few minds would ever understand
came over him. Alive and alert was he, down to his contriving toes.
Oh, one grasp. One grasp! Oh, but for Christ, one grasp.
Then, as if timed by some legitimate god, a god of the deserts, a god
of the deep unknown, a moan came out of the darkness, serious, cutting,
soul-filled. It arched through his body. The rotted vest, the filthy
piece of cotton beneath him, felt cold as stone, as hard, and as brittle
if he moved an inch the wrong way, crumble and shatter its promise.
Once more he was penetrated and violated in the darkness. Ache was in
his soul, he was positive of that. It had a presence he thought immeasurable,
untouchable. But here it was, at him, in him, with him, paining him
as no pain had ever come to him.
Even yesterday, when Ping Too had kicked him so many times that he lost
count, where the metal plate in his shoe was now felt anew, was not
as bad as hearing that moan, knowing Ping Too at new carnage and employ,
speaking indirectly to someones mother. It nearly cost him his
concentration. The finger flickered, tremulous, came back to place and
the organ of his skin searched its wide expanse for the presence of
vermin nearing that vise. Courage came anew, and vigilance, determination.
There would ever be the thought of mortar setting in place, a cry lifting
itself to the limits of the universe, a metal toe plate rusting back
to its beginning.
He thought his eyes had closed for a moment, that sleep had come in
the place of Ping Too, that the moans and other sounds faded into the
stiff darkness, lifted off to a distant place, yet to be remembered
with vivid clarity. Sleep had come. He woke, this prisoner, stood up
roughly with ache anew, stiffly and absentmindedly slipped the rotted
vest off his torso, and removed the remnant pants torn at the crotch,
torn the length of one leg, letting the frayed string belt fall away.
He dropped them and the worn cotton blanket into a tattered cardboard
box at his feet, kicked the box under the cot. In dawns first
precious light he looked at his brothers picture, the bars on
his collar, the distance in his eyes, his brother seven years a prisoner
of war, dead of an abrupt stroke on the rescue plane, never to come
He touched the picture frame, cool in the first sparkle of light, spoke
the words again, as he had every morning for more than a year, and stepped
into the shower, the words echoing, beseeching, apologetic in the bedroom
behind him: I know, Charlie! I know!
Tom Sheehan Feb 9th 2008
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