This story has been drawn from the May/June issue of the American Reader, available here.
I. 1844, Haggard County, Western Territory, USA
It was either brutal beatings or the Indian Removal Act that made Emmett Fuller’s head all touched the way it was, and both of these were the fault of his father. By the end of the oughts, Cornelius Fuller had put an end to more Cherokee lives than any other man under the influence of Andrew Jackson. When it was announced that the Indian survivors were due to march just north of our town, bound by the government for the Oklahoma territory, Cornelius was struck by a brief bout of pride, and subsequently took his ten year old boy to share it with him.
No one in town could reckon why he thought this was a good idea. Emmett’s mother had died at birth, and this had already made of him a nervous and generally incapable boy. He found school untenable and whimpered often of a pain in his ears from ghosts attempting parlance. He was ill-equipped to witness four nations worth of Indians diseased and without water, women waving away flies from the shrunken bodies of their babies, an old man grating feces against his ribs. The boy filled his eyes with all of this and was never again able to view or experience violence of any kind without succumbing to intense, dizzying nausea.
His father too was surprised by an unassailable ache of guilt he could only contemplate through a veil of liquor and rage. For the remaining year of life he had before he killed himself using a pulley, a length of rope, and a pitchfork, Cornelius would stage an unprecedented campaign of beatings against his young son, as if the boy was a thing incapable of pain or even death. Emmett could neither defend himself nor keep from growing sicker with every blow, his blackened eyes scanning the distance for a horizon by which to orient himself as his father cried and struck.
Emmett was the one who found him in the December-cold dark of the barn out back. Cornelius clearly felt unworthy of a simple gunshot or hanging. He’d rigged a rope and pulley around an overhead rafter, and let himself drop down onto a pair of pitchforks braced to a stall-post. Although he’d spent weeks planning the angle of descent, only two prongs of one pitchfork found purchase, through the underside of his chin, up through his mouth, into his tortured old brain, and out through the top of his hat.
After a brief stay with Father Maynard, Emmett went to live with Archibald and Dilsey Rae, a wealthy, childless couple on the county outskirts. In exchange for a crooked shed out back, Emmett tended to the Rae’s immodest garden and grounds.
It wasn’t long before Dilsey Rae began to notice this considerably younger boy, tan and tautly muscled, probably from his nervous habit of tensing and releasing his fists wherever he went. Gray and fearful perhaps, but in the afternoons, when Archibald rode Betsy into the scrublands to shoot gazelle, Dilsey aimed to see what she could do about alleviating the boy’s jitters, and her own perpetual boredom.
What passed between them couldn’t rightly be called lovemaking; Emmett’s love for Dilsey was requited only with lust and careful instruction. But the sounds they made! You died to hear it, the human volume, the hallowed growls, loud enough to fill the whole town. After they’d been at each other for a full year, their Afternoon Sound became something beyond human, and carried for actual miles at its daily peak, and this is perhaps what drew Archibald Rae home early one day in ‘44 from hunting gazelle.
When he creaked the shed door open to admit an oblong beam of light, Dilsey shut her eyes against it. The boy was beneath her, too enthralled to notice the presence of his boss, until cool air interrupted the stifling heat of Emmett’s shed. Dilsey let herself come defiantly over her lover for the last time, stood, and absently began to gather her clothes.
The beating Emmett received was cursory and quickly abandoned; Archibald hated fighting in the best of times, and hardly wanted to touch the wailing, vomiting form of Emmett Fuller. Moreover, he felt no small measure of care for the boy who’d become something like family to him, however disloyal. So Archibald switched to sharp admonitions, and ordered the boy off the land, out of town. His father was Sheriff to all of Haggard County, so the threat had real weight; Archibald did no different than he pleased. As the townsfolk watched, Emmett trudged dutifully east into town towards the common graves, a picture of unprecedented sadness.
He returned an hour later, with more determination but was again lightly beaten and sent away. An hour later, he returned, and then an hour after that, and then for nearly a week’s worth of hours, he came, he took increasingly fierce beatings, and he left.
This went on until Sunday evening, with almost everybody in Haggard County out for dinner and drink. The festivities audibly quelled when he limped around the corner of Sandy’s, a vision of human suffering. Eyes blackened and shut to the world, left arm broken and misaligned, blood clotted all over him, his body emptied of everything but a singular, unshakeable will.
Sheriff Rae must’ve been summoned; he was there in front of the house with Archibald when the boy approached, the whole town in tow.
—I’m awful damn sorry, Misters Rae, but I come for Dilsey.
—Daddy and me, we talked to her. Says she wants nothing to do with a rapist.
—Can’t say I know what a rapist is.
—Then a rapist’s a man on his knee here, and I don’t aim to even consider leavin’ without Dilsey on my good arm. I’m sorry, Sheriff.
The Sheriff brandished a Colt from his holster. The gun gave out a meaty crick as he thumbed the hammer.
—Don’t be. Just go. Twenty miles north, you’ll find Spitzworth. I got no say what you do in Bloom County.
—Can’t go to no Spitzworth.
—Nonsense. Plenty of work there for a thing like you.
—Where she at?
—Archie and I’re giving you just shy of one hour to be heading that way. A fellow could rightly call that a good deal, no?
The Sheriff reared his hand back and planted a slap squarely across Emmett’s battered face. Emmett fell back and steadied his head in his good hand to combat his nausea. He caught himself on a post and then squinted up north as if to divine the feasibility of his options.
—I don’t think I can oblige you there, Sheriff.
He craned his neck to glimpse Dilsey through the second floor window, and then only curtains. Without looking away, he said the last words of this life of his, this life of beatings and suffering, this life his mother had died just to give him. He thought of the two happy years with the Rae family, their habits, the almost unbearable amount of time it took Archibald to leave the house to hunt, or the mid-morning silence held by the garden he kept alive.
He said: Water Jefferson.
They said, in unison: What?
Emmett said: Ain’t much else I know how to do than…what I know how to do with Dilsey, except carin’ fer green things. So I’ll have to make you use that Colt, Sheriff. But there ain’t no reason to let Jefferson die. He’ll keep yielding up mangoes as long as you double his water.
The Sheriff said, Duly Noted, and hiked up his revolver. Archibald turned away as his father put a clean red hole in the front of Emmett’s head, and a much less discrete one out the back. The gun boomed, and the boom resolved itself into a growl which scraped and crawled over the town, the ragged plains, up into the twilit sky. From the inside of the house, Dilsey listened, and hoped to feel as if she’d have to quantify a loss, but there was nothing save for the grandfather’s tick and tock, and the throb on her face from where Archibald had slapped her when Emmett first approached the house.
Ever the old showboat, the Sheriff had the boy hauled past Main Street in a wheelbarrow, flies alighting indecisively upon his torn clothes, green eyes, and the bent, broken arm which cleared the wheelbarrow to wave farewell. As Deputy Crawford hauled the load east, the townsfolk gave it a wide berth, as if to avoid catching whatever strain of bad luck the boy’d spent his life dying from.
By most accounts, Emmett Fuller hadn’t been gone a full day before he loped back the way he’d been wheeled, this time through the grim sounds of Monday morning industry. Only the drunks were there to watch him turn the corner around Sandy’s naked, covered from hair to bare soles in a poultice of soil and viscera. He looked to the drunks like some African savage, except for the fright he kept in his dazed, open eyes. His arm was unbroken.
At the Rae place, Hilda the maid was hanging laundry up onto a cord tied up front.
—Ay dios mio!
How come you’re not hanging the wash from Jefferson like always?
Hilda kept calling for God, backing away, before finally breaking into a run, and then there was Dilsey stepping out the front door. She stopped and stared.
—No, she said.
—Can’t say, Dilsey. Did Mr. Rae cut down Jefferson?
—You smell dead.
—That’s what I am without you, Dilsey.
—Why you keep saying my name?
—Don’t know a prettier word.
—Sugar up your talk as much as you please, I’m not in the habit of following dead men to Spitzworth.
From the distance thundered Betsy’s hooves.
—Dilsey, I ain’t going to no Spitzworth without you.
Dilsey shook her head violently.
—You need to know one thing, boy.
—Teach it to me.
—I can’t say I love you, not rightly. I only love your big dangle, you get it yet?
—I don’t need it back.
—Don’t need your love back, you say? Well ain’t that kind.
—Just lemme go head and love you, and you can spend our life teachin’ me how to go about gettin’ you to love me back. You can start with my dangle, and we can build something on that. I know how good it feels for you to lay with me afterwards. I know what passes between us in that room.
Archibald trotted up and stopped Betsy before his wife and his foe.
—Mornin’, Mr. Rae.
—Goddammit, that’s impossible.
—I came back.
—Well, that’s about the only thing I already know. Rodolfo!
—I’m here for Dilsey, Mr. Rae.
Rodolfo appeared at the front door. After he spotted the resurrected man, he took two steps back into the shadows of the house.
—Get daddy. Tell him to bring his Samuel Colt.
—How come you don’t shoot me, Mr. Rae?
—I don’t shoot people. Never people.
—I believe I know the feeling.
But of course, the Sheriff knew no such feeling, although his face paled considerably upon seeing the resurrected. He couldn’t even look into Emmett’s eyes as he brought his colt under the boy’s chin and sent his brains skyward and slightly to the north, as if to nudge him that much closer to Spitzworth.
This time, they wheelbarrowed him west, towards the town fire pit. Deputy Crawford—who was beginning to seriously question his vocation—cut the boy up into cookable bits, and watched the body burn.
It took some effort for all parties involved to convince themselves that the Sheriff’s bullet had glanced off of the front of the dummy’s especially thick skull, though they were quick to omit the details of his missing wounds, his fully healed arm. Whatever rationalization they cobbled together, Emmett blew it all to Hell a week later, at night this time, while the Rae family slept.
Dilsey woke first, and knew the dark wasn’t empty. She listened for breathing. When there wasn’t any, she reached out for the glass of water she kept beneath the bed, just as it was placed helpfully in her hand. She screamed, with more breath than she knew she had. The glass shattered on the floor, shards of it gleaming in the moonlight, and Archibald reached for his rifle. It was not there, so he lit the bedside oil lamp and there was Emmett Fuller, crying, inexplicably covered in dried viscera, wielding Archibald’s rifle, and trying to keep from vomiting. Dilsey began to cry.
—Please, Emmett, she said through tears. Just leave us alone! I don’t love you! If it makes you feel better, I don’t love anyone, not really.
Emmett could barely hear her, reeling as he was under the strain of holding an instrument of death in his hands.
—Think of me as more of a teacher to you, Emmett! Please, just go from here! You find a nice girl and give her what I taught you.
Meanwhile, Archibald walked slowly over to the blood-covered boy, eased the rifle out from under the crook of his arm, which seized suddenly around the walnut handle. Archibald yanked and the gun came free. It is important to submit that the youngest Rae man was at this point still cloaked in the Emmett-free dream he’d been having, and couldn’t be bothered to summon his father.
So, he took up the rifle. Emmett kneeled, and forced himself to look into the eyes of his former employer and friend. Dilsey quit the room in tears, just before a brief pang of Archibald’s morals was finally swept aside by his desire for sleep, and he fired. Dilsey only heard the shot, and saw Hilda cleaning up after. As for Archibald, he’d never killed a man before, which is why he wasn’t bound for his father’s job, and something about him came away from it all wrong. He would spend the rest of his life enveloped in a confounding fog.
It took him a week to return, but he did, turning the corner at Sandy’s and heading up Main Street, again encrusted in old blood. They shot him and burned him, this time utilizing a fire pit two towns over. A week later, he turned left at Sandy’s and walked up Main Street. He was shot and burned, but returned only to be shot and burned again, only to return. Finally, the Sheriff was possessed by an idea. He ordered Emmett roped and alive, which was exactly how he was delivered.
Deputy Crawford, eager to be done with the saga of The Man Who Would Not Be Murdered, led him in front of a low wall by the western end of town. The whole county had gathered, giving the fields and their pests a solid half-hour of unbroken respite. From the back of the ranks came solemnly the Sheriff, leading Dilsey over to the firing site with her eyes cast down. He handed her a rifle, she let it drop, he picked it up again, he dusted it off, and he forced it into her hand, held it there. Dilsey began to cry and her knees went, so the Sheriff squatted down with her and whispered.
—He’ll come back until you make it clear you don’t want him, you hear? One little squeeze and he’s over. You go back to filling your days doing nothing but being pretty, bossing Rodolfo and Hilda around, and livin’ off of what I give my lazy son and daughter-in-law. Now stand up.
So Dilsey stood.
—Aim right at him. See that sight up at the end of the barrel? Point the top of that at whatever you want expelled from your life.
She aimed. Emmett raised his chin at her defiantly and braced himself for the shot. He breathed hard through his nose to combat the sickness, but he kept his eyes open.
—Thumb that hammer there at the back.
She needed two hands but the rifle did cock.
She thumbed back the other.
—Now squeeze the trigger—don’t pull it—nice and steady.
CHROME, screamed the rifle, and half of the townsfolk jumped, but Emmett still stood, swaying. Dilsey threw the gun down and her hands up. The Sheriff stooped over to retrieve it but Archibald interceded, grabbing the gun from his surprised daddy and forcing it into Dilsey’s grip. She went limp and Archibald freed a hand to smack her head, to punch one of her tits, to make her understand what all of this was, what had to happen for their lives to continue unimpeded. He forced her fingers around the trigger, held the gun up. Dilsey bit his hand until the blood ran, and together they fired.
Everyone knows there’s a half-second between trigger and target at mid-range on a Winchester, and in that silent half-second, most men try to wince their way out of the bullet’s path, futile as it may seem. Emmett instead took his half-second as a chance to smile tenderly upon the proceedings, as if Dilsey’d whispered something sweet at him. This smile grew to become no small topic of conversation for many years in Haggard County, and the general consensus says that for him, this was a form of romantic progress; Dilsey wanted him dead and gone, but at least she didn’t want to do the actual killing. This was a positive step in their admittedly unorthodox courtship, he probably thought, before the bullet ripped into his left lung and exploded.
His body was cut into red chunks of flesh by the progressively less obliging Deputy Crawford, and each chunk made a pyre in a different town and burned as Crawford watched, skeptical.
II. 1988, New York City, USA
Chelsea’s working The Den today and she lets the powder snow on down, sugaring up the aluminum foil as she lights the lighter underneath. It feels wasteful of the finest wares in ye olde East Village, but she swears you burn all of it if you keep the straw right over where the lighter meets the foil and suck not too hard the hybridized coke these guys in the Bronx or maybe upstate are cooking up which zooms right through you and makes conversation more than just the ridiculous competition talking to Brandon’s usually like. Brandon’s also here—Brandon Balm, I mean—to buy from Chelsea but he won’t leave me alone with her here in The Den, which is decorated to make you feel as if you’re not in debt to her, and the whole place isn’t actually run by Dave Tong in the backroom armed for anything shy of a full-fledged riot and whose dick you may have to reckon with should you ever fall too far behind in your payments. You forget all that and there’s just Chelsea’s thin Filipina form in a little black skirt soiled here and there by ashes and she lights up my foil as Brandon jaws onward and onward about what a great show Columbo was and why’d it have to get taken off the air, and thank the good lord it’s on its way back next year in syndicated glory and if this sounds empty and boring, you don’t know Brandon Balm, and you don’t know that all of this is part of his carefully metered seduction. You know that movie Rain Man, where that one waitress drops all these toothpicks, and Dustin Hoffman counts them all real fast? Well, Brandon could fuck that waitress in five words, I’ve seen it. It’s in the way he scooches over on the good couch, little by little, as if he’s got to be close to Chelsea for them to really communicate. Me, I try like Hell and fail to open my mouth and deliver something she’ll get to keep forever, something that’ll get her thinking about me as more than a loyal customer, that’ll let her know that great thoughts are set to a boil inside me, that I’ve read everything Proust ever wrote plus understood it. Brandon couldn’t even pronounce à la recherche du temps perdu but he knows how to talk about Columbo and scooch, scooch, closer with all of his sexy expressions, and that practiced look of attentiveness and he’s telling her the plot of a Columbo and she is smiling knowingly down at a blackened square of foil when she suddenly grabs her stomach in pain and bends down, nose to the coffee table. We both—Columbo and I—drop to the floor, pulling out spent credit cards to scoop up the dropped specks of white, while also attempting to emit suitably soothing sounds, but when her groans get worse, we sit on either side of her to nurture, to comfort, to rub reassuringly but the sharp, clipped scream that darts out of her little bony body is loud enough to hurt and we stare as she screams again, louder and longer this time, sounds I’d never known she could make, and then the sound of shucked oysters, and then a man’s arm thrust out from between Chelsea’s legs, through her fishnet stockings, a hairless arm emerging further from beneath Chelsea’s skirt to probe blindly around. It grabs onto the other end of the coffee table and yanks it flush with the sofa for leverage. Chelsea’s screams are no longer even sounds, but more like a peculiar new quality of the air or the light. The arm’s muscles tense and pull and from Chelsea’s pussy emerges a man’s head, veiled in what’s left of her stockings.
“Noooo, no,” says Brandon, turning away “no, sir. Huh-uh. Not happening.” He buries his face in a corner to mutter and cover his ears, but I remain transfixed, only barely believing. Like if I just change my position, I’ll see the strings, the mirrors, the angle that renders this humanly possible but the man keeps coming, breaking through Chelsea’s labia and pubic bone to get his other shoulder out, and he’s still indeed crawling from Chelsea which I say out loud a few times without realizing I’m screaming it and now he just plops onto the floor, flopping and gasping for breath and Chelsea? She’s all dead and split open and staring at nothing in particular the way the dead do in the movies and the guy, Chelsea’s murderer, rises and turns and stares at her all blooming outward like a crudely pitted plum, poor Chelsea, and then he falls to his knees to supplicate in front of whatever it is she’s become, cries “Sweet Jesus, not again,” and vomits over her, making new colors of her pooling blood and doing his best to apologize, first to Chelsea, then to God, and then to no one in particular, and then he takes a bewildered look around the room and sees me.
“I’m sorry I’m so sorry but what direction’s Haggard County in?” he says, in this really fake old-timey accent. “I’m Emmett Fuller. I’m looking for Dilsey Ellen Rae from the town of Feats,” and that’s what Dave Tong walks into with this enormous black dude I’ve never seen from the back room, holding those semi-automatic rifles with the curved clips Afghanis are always using on the news. They take a moment to stare, and though I’ve never before tasted this exact flavor of silence, I know that it’s one of grim deliberation, consequences, and courses of action which will no doubt include the end of me and Brandon, who now has his head pressed flat against the white wall as if he’s staring through a crack into the next room.
“Under God, I’m sorry, I just love her so much,” the newborn man is saying when Dave puts a rifle burst into the man’s head and neck which disappear in singular splats. Then another shot, and I’m still alive, but Brandon isn’t denying reality anymore behind me, and then the black guy points a rifle to me. I take a last look through sour gunsmoke at the sofa to see if there’s anything left of Chelsea to commit to eternal memory, and Dave saves my life: “No. The other guy was a talker. This one’s harmless.”
Neither man thinks to ask me what happened, so I take a cursory step towards the front door, and then another, and then I’m running, down St. Marks to 2nd and then 1st, without stopping to think of anything besides December and how cold it gets when you forget your jacket and whether or not Dave’ll come to his senses and pursue me and where can a white guy go to get that good shit they cook up in the Bronx.
III. 1848, Feats, Western Territory, USA
On the day of Archibald Rae’s death, Emmett Fuller hadn’t stepped from a woman for a whole year. Before that, there’d been a brief rash of them, two months’ worth of the man getting born all over. It started with places far away, as far away as Mexico and the Northwest Territory. He’d burst through some poor woman and head for Feats like a demonic, unseasonal pest. Soon, he got himself born closer and closer, tearing open women all along the western counties, getting shot, stabbed, burned, beaten, dying of thirst or starvation or disease on his way to Dilsey, and the town’s women began to scream at the Sheriff to simply stop murdering or to imprison the poor boy, which the Sheriff’s pride would not allow.
Murdering all those Emmetts had been especially hard on Archibald who was never adept at taking the lives of non-gazelles, however plentiful those lives might be. He grew more and more ill as the Emmetts came and dropped. He became increasingly fearful of silence and the dark, spending hundreds in oil to keep the house bathed in flickering light, a whole house drowning in amber. He’d taken to leaving tarpaulins up on the walls for when the Emmetts arrived so he could minimize his cleanup time, but as he spiraled deeper into paranoia he neglected to scrub them, and they wriggled blackly with flies. With an eye to hygiene, he had once tried strangling an Emmett, but this had proved too horrific for him to bear.
Emmett’s strategy over those two months remained peaceful, and had consisted of posing clipped, precise arguments in single lines, such as “Dilsey, just let me live near you” or “Dilsey, I swear I’ll never even speak to you” before Archibald could put him down. Deputy Crawford, who once assisted in the burning and burying, had moved east for law school, so these arduous tasks fell also to the rapidly unraveling Archibald. The periodic reek of burnt human flesh had saturated the house, and the smell had long since driven off the servants, who had crossed themselves before closing the door forever behind them. Even Dilsey, a once rabid devotee to order and cleanliness, had come to pieces after she told her husband she was miraculously pregnant in the middle of their Emmett-free year and he told her—with a grim shake of his head—that it couldn’t be so. For what if Emmett were to emerge? He chased her all over the house to put an end to that child, and so there was none, and from that day, Dilsey didn’t much leave her room or speak to her husband.
This was the height of Archibald’s paranoia. He’d even come to suspect Pee, his bluish mutt, of housing inside of him the soul of Emmett Fuller. Could it not be said that the dog had started poking around the dead garden shortly after Emmett stopped getting resurrected? Was Pee’s fur not the same ghostly blue of Emmett’s pale skin? And did he not adore Dilsey? Even though she spent the bulk of her days buried in blankets, she’d float an arm riddled with bedsores out from under the sheets and the dog would bark and lick and nip at her fingers, and then there was the dog’s gaze. Its green gaze ruptured every sense Archibald had that his decisions were sound, that Emmett was a true interloper, and that interlopers were born to be executed by other, better men. The dog’s eyes spoke of a peace which seemed to challenge his right to vengeance.
And there was, always, the pressing weight of Emmett’s return, worse in its way than his actual comings and goings. Archibald came to understand that there would soon be no reprieve. The only moments in his life he would ever have to treasure would be the moments just after killing an Emmett, reeling with guilt, and taking little solace from the knowledge that it would be awhile before the next would make its way over land and sea, to Dilsey. He took to drifting through town ignoring the cautious greetings of his former friends from his former life, followed of course by his wife’s ex-lover in the form of a mangy, fearful young mutt. When every last moment of his life began to take on the lucid confusion of dreams, he knew he’d reached his limit. But if Emmett was to be the victor, Archibald would claim one more kill.
He waited for the sky to produce its first weak wintery light and set out, relieved and exhausted. The silence outside was almost tangible, like something he could pocket. He took hold of Pee’s collar and a Colt with three bullets. He couldn’t possibly know that two towns over, Emmett Fuller had already burst through a deputy’s wife and been immediately arrested, alive and bound for prison, but perhaps it would have made little difference.
Either way, Archibald walked up the hill behind his house so exhausted that—for a few moments—the revolver seemed to be carrying him and not the other way around. He felt like a kite the revolver was flying until he realized it was Pee dragging him, not the Colt.
He halted the dog.
He realized there was no way he could shoot Pee, until the dog turned its infernal green gaze upon him, stuck its dumb tongue out.
He cupped the dog’s head in his hand and held it flat against his own left temple. Kissed the dog.
He raised the gun to his own right temple, squeezed the trigger, and there—in the last place he would ever have thought to look—he found peace.
IV. 1847, The Oklahoman Territory, USA
—Kilt nine men with this leg right here. The seventh one’s what got me in that big ol’ prison wagon in the first place. Mitch Harrow, whose head I kicked in up Broad County, I was bragging about that one, ’cuz you may not know this, Judge, but when I kicked the kick that kilt him, his head snapped clean off. Flew…had to be fifteen feet.
—I reckon you’ve said that more than once. And I ain’t no judge. Now let’s talk about what in fuckhell happened on your way to Oklahomey.
—Let’s do! So, I was bragging about Mitch’s flying-off head and doing my prison strut, you know—gotta get tough on them fellers right off, ’specially you don’t know no one there, am I right, Judge?
—I’m still no Judge, but keep it coming.
—So we’re all chained to wagon walls and the ride’s just bumpier’n Hell, so I say to ’em all I says “Hey”—and I’m pointing now at the meanest sumbitch in there, I say—“Hey, this ride’s bumpier’n fucking that guy’s fat ass mother,” get it?
—Not…no, I don’t fathom.
—It’s how I’m saying it. This fat guy’s mama’s all fat and jellied and one kinda’ bumps all over the place tryin to keep one’s cock inserted.
—That ain’t been my experience, son, but proceed.
—All’s you need to know, Judge—or whatever in Hell you are—is that I was calling the biggest man on the caravan a son of a fat ol’ horsewoman with big horseteeth and horseshit for breath!
—I’m thinking your joke’s a horse or two in surplus, now point all this in a direction and get us there.
—It’s fine you don’t get it. Point is, once ol’ Osborne—that ended up being the guy’s name—he starts acting like he ain’t the bitch-teat we all know he’s being, I start getting more than miffed. Then, and this is just fucked right here—he starts crying foul on my seven victims, says four of ‘em was ladies, which only one actually was, Captain.
—Keep guessing. What’d this Osborne look like?
—Fat as Hell, like I say. Jesus, I must’ve killed a real somebody for you to be so interested.
—Your storytelling abilities are making interest real scarce is my verdict.
—All right, have it your way, Senator, I’m getting the firing squad either way for the nine I felled. Point I’m jumping to is: this feller Osborne and me are on opposite sides of the wagon, so we’re on separate chains.
—Just tell me about the other fellow. Your ninth victim.
—I’ll be there directly, Commander. So all the other boys on my side they stand up and put their wrist-cuffs real high to give the chain some slack, and the boys on his chain do the same. Understand? So we finally get enough slack on the chain to fight around the wagon. But get this, get this, are you ready for it, Archbishop?
—Can’t say so, my son.
—He’s about to get up and I do one of these jumps you ain’t never seen the likes of. I mean, I move so fast I start running up the side of the wall, over to the—ready?—ceiling and I’m up there defying Grattivy for a second before I does myself a little one of those whirling dervish kicks, just spinning on down to him, and he tries to block it. So, what I do? I fuckin’ snap the cowpie’s hand off, Professor, okay? Clean off. Done that with heads, like I said, and even arms, but I never done that with no hands before.
—You’re something else. Now how about that other man? Number Nine?
—All of this is vital to him, every single tiny little word, be patient, Doc. Guy’s hand snaps off, and then I snap the other and he’s sitting there, you know, crying oh good lord, Weiland Borne, you are indeed a kicker and the men giving slack, why they’re saying roughly the same!
—Course they are. You defied Grattivy.
—Exactly that. So then I give him the ol’ horsekick, and I’ll award you my eternal soul if I didn’t take his head clean off his shoulders, except! I admit I did not kick it clean off.
—Strip of neck remained.
—I’m applauding, see that? Weiland, I applaud you for kicking a man’s head tantalizingly close to right off his neck.
—Thank you, Proctor.
—But did you kill anyone else?
—I surely did. Apparently, this hill-moron with a big pecker likes my work, asks for a boot to his head, his very own head, how crazy’s that? I can tell by your eyebrows that must be yer man.
—He asks you to kill him? Now what’d he look like?
—Yeh, asked me, and he looked like a hillpoke. Tall, pale, tired-eyed. A man like that you look right through and see naught but the emptiness of a woman’s love. Offered me a lady’s engagement ring, which I already traded so don’t come a-lookin.
—He say where he got it?
—From a woman he loved called Ditzy Rae. Woman did a number on him.
—Said she couldn’t keep up her mind ever, loved him, claimed not to, fucked him, claimed not to have. Before he left on the caravan, she actually passed him that ring.
—And you kicked his head in.
—No, why do folks always call it kicking the head in anyways? In my experience, there’s plenty more of the head getting kicked out but yeah I kilt him, my ninth and last since they put me here on the row. A real puker, that ninth.
—Puked on ye?
—Well, he was already sick from what happened to Osborne, and then he just kept on bringin’ it up. Tell the truth it hardly helped my prison strut, all that gore and vomit raining down like a pestilence.
—Stay classy, Weiland. That’s all I needed. Guard!
—Thankee for the visit, Sheriff.
—You knew the whole time?
—No trick to smelling Sheriff. Did I kill someone special on that wagon?
—Think you might tell me how come?
—Okay, Weiland, what the Hell. ’Cuz he ain’t dead no more, no matter how hard you clobbered him, no matter how much of God’s Grattivy got defied.
V. 2527, Android Processing Station, North Satellite, Earthspace.
CLIO-3 241-error report #394-66B7 Type: Unknown.
***System reports a living male ejected from the synth-vagina of cyborg-maker-6 at 0943:23. On-site technician Dr. Maya Tanaka reports that the unidentified specimen seemed to “materialize” from somewhere inside synth-placenta #3043.
>>>0948:33 the body was conveyed to Tech-Processing where Dr. Tanaka reports that she failed to reach the Manual Cancel Processing Button in time.
>>>0949:41 the human was processed. Body rejected installment of: Generator / CPU / Routers / Radar / Weapons / Wiring. Labeled Unfit for Military Rotation 0949:43. Time of Death 0949:44.
>>>1011:57 Dr. Tanaka reports that further examination reveals that the genetic material of the unidentified human found no matches in the Clone Database. AUTOPSY AUTHORIZED.
>>>1344:09 AUTOPSY reveals a 100% pre-evolved human male, born before 23rd Century upgrades. “Appendix” found. No gills or bio-implants. Low radioactive resistance. Unsterilized sexual organs.
>>>1420:23 In tandem with system error Dr. Tanaka has been granted Class-3 Station Leave.
VI. 1865, Tucson Hospital, Arizona Territory, USA
Here they come from the other end of the darkened hall, the entire night staff, eyes bleeding tears, even the men, some of whom hug other men, which I’ve only ever seen a few times, and never with such passionate sadness. They burst into the Intensive Ward like a parade of pure sorrow, wailing like spirits, and one of them, Nurse Lucy, spots me watching. Something like pity enters her eyes as she realizes that I cannot comprehend their sadness, that I’m left out of some human-wide tragedy and approaches my bed wearing a rescuer’s expression.
“Miss Dilsey,” she says, all baleful, and I wonder how they let such a fat old woman be a nurse, and why it’s up to me to die in her impotent care. Her voice cracks into a sob so moist I can almost taste it, and suddenly I want to. I want to taste of her sadness, I want to cry along. I’m certain I’m entitled.
She tries again: “Miss Dilsey. Someone went and shot President Lincoln. They just…at some city-theater. A dirty secessionist.”
She says this and moves on to Mrs. Haverchuck’s bunk, and then Mrs. Forster’s, lighting them up like an angel blessing souls and I start to cry, amazingly, for the first time since that bastard killed my baby. It feels like a part of me I’ve kept tightly tied has unraveled, but not on account of Lincoln, the ugly old Republican; I sided with the South on more than a few issues. It’s just a cry, probably, like urinating, which I have to do into a pan now, plus it comes out pink.
Whatever it is, I close my eyes and let it come, tears and tears of it, and after a few dozen of them, my bed sags and creaks as someone sits down. I keep my eyes closed.
A sigh of apology. —Yeahhh.
—What took you so long this time?
He freezes, and the bed goes even stiffer than usual. He must be surprised that I’m actually talking to him for a change.
—It ain’t always right. I don’t always come out right.
—The world’s bigger’n anyone ever thought. There’re things out there you wouldn’t believe, people you thought were dead. Sometimes I just end up in the wrong part o’ the world is all.
His voice still sounds overly cautious, as if he expects there to be, any minute, some exasperated man come to kill him, but honestly? I’m 64 years old. Whatever it is they say I’ve got, it’s killing me. I got little else in my life, so why not take some comfort in the man who loves me more than any man has ever loved any woman?
—Emmett. What’s dying like?
—I’m not sure I’ve ever done it.
—What have you done?
—I don’t rightly know how to explain it.
—You see black? White?
—Naw, you see everything all at once, on account of God’s not being able to speak languages. When he calls, it’s like seeing everything there is, all at once, instead of getting it moment-by-moment. You can’t keep your concentration on one thing in your mind or vision, ’cause all of ’em are calling for contemplation. But me, I just think of you so hard, and the weight of your not loving me is so heavy, I can’t be pulled away from suitoring you, no matter how hard He yanks and calls me to rest.
—Maybe I’ll try it.
—If I can do it, I reckon you can too.
—I’m not sure I agree.
We share a silence, then I open my eyes. The ward is still exploding, patient by patient, in tears and there he is, all of seventeen again, the boy I taught how to make a woman bray.
—Do you think, he said, you might try out letting me love you now? You don’t have to do it back. I just need somewhere to keep it is all, so it don’t hurt so much to carry around.
I take a moment to deliberate.
—Tell you what, Emmett.
—Teach it to me, Dilsey.
—You can love whatever I’ve got left that’s still worthy of it. But I will never give it back. Because I hate you.
—Yeah? How come you gave me that ring, then?
—Brief bout o’ pity. I hate you. I hate you for killin’ more women than even your old daddy ever got around to. I hate you for driving my husband to murder my baby. I hate you, Emmett Fuller.
—I hate you so much, you horse’s asshole! I hate you for ruining my life, you owe me a whole woman’s life! I was supposed to do nothing, that’s what your fool head never understood. I was supposed to eat mangoes off of Jefferson. I was supposed to have a baby to give me something to be good at, to finally really care about, to have someone on the edge of this bed besides you.
—Dilsey, I’m so sorry.
—Keep your sorry and fuck it with that elephant’s trunk of yours. But someday, a body’s going to figure out how to make a body out of you for good. And when they do, you’ll burn, don’t think for a half-breath that you’ll not feel every lick of Hellfire you’ve got coming to you in the next life, you stupid, simple son of a dead whore.
—So you’ll let me love you, then?
One of the patients, a union boy, screams.
—I give up, yes. I surrender. Love me, oh Demon from Hell, I surrender to thee.
His hand closes shyly around my own, as if Demon from Hell is just my pet name for him. Around us, the nurses and doctors roil and dance to the music of the nation’s woes but I just let the hate burn onward, listen to him breathe and breathe.