The finer strands sway in the warm, dusky air, perceptible only to the dying. No, perhaps not strands; they are more like the long, dark gossamer tendrils of a celestial man-of-war descending through ether, through the high, indiscernible stone ceiling, through scream-filled air, there to melt into wrists and ankles, chest and hair, and now silently to shift in the poor light, savoring the pain.
There are other, coarser strands, though they are not strands either but leather thongs, wet not so long ago, drying now and contracting from the heat of nearby coals, from the heat of red iron, from the heat of straining muscle, and now contracting into skin slippery with blood, bursting now into flesh and muscle, exposing bone and shortening again to stretch arms out of their sockets with soft sucking cracking sounds, inaudible, though, under his screams.
Oh, he would talk now, he would say anything if only he could, but he no longer owns a tongue. He would sign, he would sign anything now, if only he could write, but what were once his knuckles are now only fragments within broken and discolored skin, anchoring fingers no longer recognizable as the thongs, now with the aid of whole and skillful torturer muscle, shorten still, to almost sever hand from arm.
The thing on the rack who screams has a name: Arnaud de Tierra, and, for a long hour now, an again-and-again-and-again confessed Marrano. And while he screams he can see those fine strands in the air above him—to him they appear like so many dark threads rising for the ceiling—as they reach down and now enter his one remaining eye.
Almost miraculously, Arnaud de Tierra finds his lungs still working and with new air he screams again.
There are two other men in this dark place, neither of whom screams.
To the one man with whole and skillful muscle, to the one well-practiced at turning the rollers tighter and tighter at the behest of the third man, to the torturer this is just another job. He is very good at his job. He is long since inured to screams. The torturer plies his trade at the behest of the third man, a man who does not quite smile while regarding the Marrano with bright hungry eyes.
The third man is a priest of the Holy Church. His name is Jaques Amilhac. His task is to extract from this screaming thing a confession, though he is now far past succeeding: no more can or will be said by this Marrano. Still, this man does not yet consider his duty done, not as long as the torn body breathes, not as long as it still hides potential pain. This man, this not quite smiling man, does not see, nor does he feel the finer strands, how they find him, too, and how they as eagerly enter through his shoulders and arms, chest and eyes, to savor evil.
Arnaud de Tierra was born to Jewish parents and was—as was the custom among Spanish Jews at the time—circumcised shortly after birth, forever to bear witness to his heritage, forever unable to hide this heritage.
His father, a prudent bookkeeper, afforded young Arnaud a good education in the art of numbers, which eventually led to his employment, at age twenty-four, with the Holy Church. His charge was to keep the books, the real books, those not shown the emissaries of the Pope. And this he did. Skillfully and discreetly. Arnaud de Tierra, no so long ago, knew many Holy Church secrets. Now he knows only pain and hopes only for death, though if truth be told he is beyond hoping.
When the hurting crests and he loses all hold on flesh and brain, he laughs instead of screaming. It is a raw, staccato screeching that he laughs and the priest frowns at this for he knows that his charge no longer feels the pain, and he motions for the skilled, practiced man to step back, to wait a while until the laughter again retreats into scream.
Jaques Amilhac was born a Catholic. He entered his order at the age of sixteen with dreams of sainthood, suffering and holiness. Now he is rich. He is not holy, though this he does not know, or rather, does not acknowledge. He is holy, he tells himself, for he does holy deeds. Does not the evidence lie before him, laughing still?
Six months ago the thing on the rack that used to be Arnaud de Tierra was given an ultimatum: profess yourself a Catholic or burn. He consulted with his father, who—unable to send his son to his death—could not advise silence. So, he converted and signed his allegiance to the Church, to the Pope, to the One and Only Savior Jesus Christ, and so kept his life along with his job.
However, the newly arrived papal bull proved that Jews will do anything for money and branded those who had recently converted (under pressure) as Marranos and traitors, unless, of course, they could prove otherwise.
Proving otherwise required significant funds. Those with insufficient funds to prove otherwise were first to confess, willingly or not, their attempt to deceive the Church, and to then die.
Arnaud de Tierra could not prove otherwise—not even with his father’s help—but refused to willingly confess his crime. Thus he was brought to this dark place, with its walls made of large and small stones, with its furnace and functional leather thongs, with its rollers and spokes and straining muscle, with its small high windows that only suggested an outside sky beyond this warm darkness.
Once arrived in this place, he confessed soon enough. He confessed while Jaques Amilhac listened and smiled. He spoke and blabbered and signed every page placed before him, signed them with his healthy hand.
By the rules and guidelines of the Charter he should now have been taken to his cell for the span of one full day and one full night to reconcile with his maker, to then, on the next morning thereafter, be burned at the stake. Jacques Amilhac, however, was not done, not while pain still hid from him, unbrought upon this man, this Marrano, this unholy thing still laughing.
And still laughing.
Frowning again, feeling betrayed, he again spoke to the well-muscled, skillful man and pointed at the heart of the laughing one. Though the man did understand, he remained still and instead looked back as if he did not recognize the language used, for what he was asked to do was not by any of the rules he knew.
Jacques Amilhac shouted then, and the man, fond of life, picked up the glowing iron and with it pierced the skin and muscle protecting the frantically pulsing heart, to enter it with a soft sizzle.
No more laughing.
Jacques Amilhac stayed long enough to see the remaining eye turn dim and staring, then turned and left, trailing his long, black cloak on the dirty floor with a soft rustle up the shallow steps for the fresh air outside, away from the smell of burned flesh; leaving the details of removal and disposal to the man he left behind and whose eyes followed the priest, not kindly.
As the shape of Jacques Amilhac ascends the stairs, the fabric of the air behind him shifts then rents so softly that not even the dying but only the dead can notice, and through it the dead can see a large, black pupil, the size of the room, the size of the entire town perhaps, dilated with excitement, pressed against the scene, relishing the moment and taking it in, savoring pain, death, and hatred.
Then this eye blinks, the lids of air and air close, and the rent seals without a sound, without a notice, as the well-muscled man goes about his business disposing of Arnaud de Tierra’s broken and slippery remains.
The earth turns many times.
We have not had solid food to eat in twelve days. I have not. Nor has my daughter who is twenty-six months old with a face that makes me think of Ueta, my grandmother, and her face, while she walked the dusty earth, toothless and parched, skin on bone.
The soldiers are back. What food we had hidden, they have found, and since we had no men left to punish for hiding it, they punished the children instead. They punished them by cutting off their hands with their machetes, two holding their arms while the third swung. They then dipped the stumps in boiling oil to seal the wounds and stop the bleeding. This will teach them a good lesson, they said. The good lesson is to never hide food from us, they said.
Some even laughed.
These soldiers, these men with the AK-47 rifles must have different ears from those we have. They have ears that do not hear the children, their cries, their moans, their begging. The do not hear every day, every night, mothers and their hand-less sons and daughters.
Despite the searing, three wounds turn infected. The children cry and their little hand-less arms swell up like gourds, then they die. Their mothers bury their silent sons and daughter in the same silence.
My daughter Abena is too young to punish, she could not possibly have hidden our food from them. Besides, her swollen belly tells them we have none to hide. I tell them this and they make as if to cut her head off with their long knives, then laugh and walk off, still laughing, looking for food, a pig, a fowl, a dog, anything they can eat. But there is nothing left to find, so I know they will leave soon.
Abena has stopped crying, she only moans a little now and then. I try again to give her my breast but they are both flabby and dry. Brown, empty sacks. She barely has the strength to find that there is nothing there for her to suckle.
Oko, Morowa’s son, the older of her twins, has died too. He also died from losing his hands. Oko was only eight years old. His left stump was raw and smelly and his arm had begun to swell last night. Akwetee, his brother, is still alive, but his stumps hurt a lot. I hear him moan every night. Morowa is finding something for him to eat, I don’t know where. I have asked her but she will not tell me and I find it hard to stay her friend now that I see that Abena too will die soon.
The soldiers left yesterday, the day that Abena died. Now there is only me. My brothers are gone and my husband is gone. My sons are gone, and now the last to keep me company, Abena, is gone, too.
I try to wish myself dead, but there is still some flesh on my thighs and on my arms so it will take some days, or weeks, before I starve all the way, but I will go to meet them one day soon. If only my stomach would cease screaming, I cannot sleep.
Morowa helped me bury Abena, and so we remain friends. We do not talk much. I sit now, moving with the shadow through the day, and I wait.
Then I no longer hurt. I look up into a face. It is the sky perhaps. Perhaps it is the face of all ancestors, looking down at me, waiting. But there is no greeting, no welcome, no recognition, only their eyes now, large and black, lusty and hungry as if they were drinking the pain of the earth. Then they blink, as the sky would blink, and perhaps it is the sky blinking, and I see nothing more.
And the earth turns many times.
Wherever she looked: shackles. The kitchen, the fridge, the messy front room, the messy children’s rooms, the cleaning closet, the front yard, the undone dishes, the dusty row of recipe books, the television. The brand new, $84 a month for 48 months with nothing down despite touch-and-go credit television set.
The television set was the latest in her row of shackles, acquired behind her back, while her car—ten years old and a menace—needed new breaks, remains unfixed. Her brand new, $84 a month, shackle.
It was Sunday, and William—it used to be Bill, but ever since that $40 for three hours in a hotel by the airport self-confidence seminar (paid for by his job, he said, and which he had to attend, he said), it’s been William, so much more respectable than Bill, don’t you think, and they stressed that it’s the little things build your confidence—this was the William who now had settled in for the day.
The morning set was Tampa Bay against Denver on the big screen, and, in the smaller screen within the big screen (part of what you get for $84 a month for 48 months apparently), Giants against Oakland. Then, after lunch, it was San Diego against Miami on the big screen and Buffalo against Minnesota in the little screen, or was it the other way around? Then there was an evening game too, she didn’t remember the teams. William would have his dinner by the end of the afternoon game and into the evening game, along with his second six-pack. And damn if he was going to be disturbed by anybody for any reason. And who was it who brought in all the cash anyway? She had no job, she paid no bills. Did she?
It used to be Bill, not William, and he had been the Bill she had dreamed of, although now she wondered how much of the Bill she married had been of her own making, fruit of those dreams. The better part, she realized, if not all.
The Bill she had married had been a shell, a container for her dreams, a vacuum that could have been filled by Bill, had there been a Bill there to fill it. But there was no person there, no real person there in Bill, and now they were shackled to each other and together and to their surroundings.
Only Bill didn’t seem shackled. Didn’t see a single one of them.
The twins were playing in the back, ruining their clothes in the wading pool, James chasing Paul again; Paul, the faster runner, keeping out of harm’s way. They were so unlike, she never quite understood why. Looking so alike, being so unlike, her two little guys, her two little shackles. Third grade now, another fifteen years, at least, before they headed out into life on their own. Fifteen years. That’s if she didn’t get pregnant again, and this she was doing her best to avoid. She was planning her freedom. Even if it was fifteen years out, planning it nonetheless, and she was not about to add another eight years to that sentence.
Someone scored and Bill, William now—she had to get used to that—was swearing and going on as if they had scored against him personally. Living vicariously? She assumed this was it. Couch battles. The front room was very empty. Very empty.
Though she did have her books: her evening, sometimes midnight reprieve. The worlds of Chekhov and Dostoevsky, of Helprin and Banville. She had these universes, these communions with great minds, great creative minds, these understandings she had once projected onto and into Bill, but which had found no home there.
No, it was not really an escape, she told herself, more like a brief waking up, an hour a day, some nights less, some nights more; it was an unfolding, a spreading her wings and finding the air firm and carrying. Bill would either be watching the late night news or sleeping beside her, mumbling and farting from indigestion. Her once hero, her now shackle. Sometimes he (clumsily) insisted on love making. That was her duty too, another one of her shackles.
Some nights were worse than others. Some closings of her books, and with that the shutting down of the world she had grown while reading were more acute than the softer shutting down of this other, perhaps sleepier world that held the twins and all her shackles.
Soaring through Helprin’s wintry New York once, she was sure, well almost, that she had left her body the better and the more thoroughly to fly. Every word had sparked another creation, every sentence was a new river, every page a city, a land, a universe. She had swept through the storm as pure perception, taking in the wind, the snow, the train, the drifts, the oh so wonderfully intense whiteness of it all and through the drifts and the driving wind, somewhere below, there she was, turned on her left side, away from Bill, the large book heavy in her hand, reaching over to turn the page to continue, when Bill, aroused she guessed, by some unspoken urge, touched her, his signal. That shutting down of her world was unbearable, that world had been almost impossible to close. And then to let Bill in.
She reached for the faucet to fill the sink, and noticed that her vision had blurred. She let her hand drop and swallowed. Outside, on the lawn, James and Paul were still shouting obscenities at each other, well not really obscenities, close cousins. She almost smiled at their intense but not hateful faces. There was love between them no matter how hard they tried to disguise it. Then fell the first drop onto her cheek and from there onto her left forearm.
She turned back from the window and looked into her kitchen, feeling suddenly that she was being watched. But the rent had already sealed. The eye savoring her suffering had already blinked. Those greedy lips already invisible.
And the earth turns many times.
“I told you, sweetheart. I love you.”
“But I saw you. I saw how you looked at him.”
“How did I look at him?”
“With… with your eyes.”
“What other way is there?”
“With those eyes that, you know, that love him still.”
“I don’t love him any longer, I have told you. It’s been over for two years.”
“Why did you look at him then, like that?”
“Chris, I don’t know what ‘like that’ means. I just looked at him. I was happy to see him. I hadn’t seen him for ages.”
“You’ve never forgotten him, have you?”
“No, I never have, to be honest. Same as I’ve never forgotten my first grade teacher. But that doesn’t mean I still love him, Chris. That means that I still remember. Memory. It is you I love, honestly, it is only you.”
“You spent most of the night talking with him.”
“I told you, it was the first time I’d seen him in over a year. We were catching up. We knew each other for a long time, you know.”
“Why did you have to invite him?”
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t. He came with Claire. I was as surprised, I guess, as you.”
“But pleasantly surprised.”
“Yes, to tell the truth.”
“Because you still love him.”
“I could tell by the way you looked at him.”
“Oh God, Chris, please, I was just happy to see him. Surprised and happy. I don’t love him. I don’t love him. How many times do I have to tell you? I like him. It is not love. My love is for you.”
“Why don’t I feel it then, right now? Why don’t I feel it?”
“I don’t know why you don’t.”
“Why don’t you look at me now like you looked at him? Happy?”
“Because you don’t believe me, Chris. Because you almost accuse me. Because you don’t trust me. It hurts.”
“Because you don’t love me?”
“I do love you. I do. But you really make it hard.”
“Hard to love me?”
“Yes. Sometimes. Yes.”
“So you don’t love me.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“That is what you meant.”
“That is not what I meant.”
“You said it’s hard to love me.”
“I said you make it hard.”
“Because you don’t love me.”
“Is that what you want to hear? That I don’t love you?”
“I only want to hear the truth.”
“I’ve told you the truth, but you don’t believe it.”
“Tell me again.”
“That I love you?”
“I do. I do love you.”
“But I’m hard to love?”
“Sometimes? Like now?”
“Like now, yes.”
“Because you still love him. Because that’s what you found out last night. That you made a mistake leaving him. That you should have stayed with him.”
“Actually, Chris, he’s the one who left me.”
“So you never stopped loving him?”
“I stopped loving him, Chris. He left me. He took his things and moved out. He hurt me badly. I stopped loving him after that.”
“Is that the truth?”
“It is the truth.”
“Then, why don’t I believe you?”
“Because. I don’t know, Chris. I don’t know why you don’t believe me.”
“Because it isn’t the truth, is it? That’s what I think. I think you still love him and I think you’re sorry you’re with me now.”
“That is not true.”
“How come it feels true then?”
“I don’t know, honestly. I don’t know.”
“I know that you still love him.”
“I do not.”
“I don’t care what you say. I can tell. I could tell last night. You love him.”
“I can’t deal with this anymore. I need to get out of here.”
“Because you love him?”
“No, because you don’t trust me.”
“I trust my eyes.”
This, she doesn’t answer. Instead, she stands up and leaves. She does not see the strands. Neither does he as he slumps forward onto the table, head on his arms. The fire in his chest is slow and smoldering, gouging his love for her with each exhaling, with each pulse, with each moment. The strands melt into his arms, back, neck, head. He does not know why he spoke so. He hates himself for speaking so. For he doesn’t doubt that, as yet, she loves him.
Neither of the two lovers see the rent. It is wider now and reveals not only eyes, but a face, indistinct, mostly presence. But the eye is dark and clear as it presses against this world to consume the beautiful suffering below.
And the earth turns again.
He loses control, more and more with each plunge; loses himself.
Up until now he has been very aware of and cared for her who lies underneath, fighting his assaults with her own. But now that the orgasm is in sight, now that it has begun to gather strength beneath, more and more, he no longer cares. Not about her, not about anything else.
He sees, but does not really see, her sweaty face, her eyes recently open squeezed close now and her features frozen in a rictus that shows teeth. Were he able to reflect upon it, he would have called it pain, what her face showed. Could he have seen his own, he would have seen a grimace similar to hers, similar teeth, similar pain. He sees none of this though.
He closes his eyes and strains with the effort as they slap together. She moans and says something he doesn’t hear. It has begun, and in truth only death could stop him now. She says something again and her eyes open. His stay closed as do his ears. The force has gathered fully now and is gaining focus. He no longer breathes. His legs tingle. His feet contribute. The focus is storming for the surface, obliterating and incorporating everything in its path. Now there is only focus. That is all there is: focus.
He hurts her. Her eyes see now and she speaks again. He neither sees nor hears. He does not mean to hurt her. He does not mean anything. He is seized. Then he breaks the surface, and she, who worries about pregnancy tries to squirm away from under him but cannot. He ruptures and fires his focus as deeply into her as he can. Again, and again, and again. She fights him now but she may as well fight a bear. Barring death, he will empty.
Then he breathes and finally she can push him off her. She gathers herself and runs to the bathroom to try to rinse him out.
He rolls over onto his back and breathes quickly and often.
He does not see the strands, nor the rent in the air that admits a dark eye, glowing with excitement.
And the earth turns again.
Three boys. One of them carries a small cat in a plastic bag. Now they cross the final street, more of a dirt road really, separating the woods from the projects. It does not quite rain, not yet.
Jake, tall, slightly ahead of the other two, turns to Lenny, the appointed carrier, “Make sure he gets enough air. Don’t want to kill him.”
Lenny looks down at the bag in his hand. Two bags actually, supermarket shopping bags, one within the other. Plenty of air getting in though. The little cat tosses and squirms and feels heavy and very alive down there, like a big fish. He’s even managed to rip a few holes through both. Should’ve used three perhaps, he thinks. Then he looks back at Jake, who expects a reply, he can tell.
“Keep him that way. Wanna make sure he’s okay when we get there.”
“He’s fine.” Lenny says again.
“There” is not quite a cave. It is more of an overhanging rock forming back wall and partial ceiling above the forest floor. A space, more than half of it a wall-less part of the forest, the rest brown-gray stone where the boys, and many other boys before them, have chiseled their names and secret signs to keep intrudes out. It is their meeting place. It does not have a name, it is mostly referred to as “there”, sometimes as the “place.”
The third boy is Thomas. It is his cat. Thomas carries another plastic bag. In it are the four wooden pegs, the string, and the needle-nose pliers.
Directly above and following them floats the rented air, a strip of access to a keen, unblinking eye greedy for what is to come.
“Tom, you work the pegs. Make sure they’re hammered down rock solid. Len, you keep making sure the cat gets enough air.”
“He’s fine,” says Lenny.
“We forgot the hammer,” says Thomas.
Jake turns to look at him. “We? You mean you forgot the hammer.”
“You’ll have to find something else to hammer with then. A stone or something.” Jake looks around, picks up a flattish stone, the size of a saucer. “This’ll do.” He hands it to Thomas who looks at it and weighs it in his smaller hand.
“This will work,” he agrees. Then adds, “Sorry.”
“Just hammer. Make sure they’re down deep.”
Thomas spills the contents of his bag onto the forest floor, and begins to hammer in the first peg. Lenny watches, bag in hand. Now he shifts the cat from his right hand to his left. It’s growing heavy, and still squirms and wriggles a lot, and it keeps reminding him of a fish just caught in his landing net, thrashing about for air, seeming twice its weight for all its desperation.
Jake supervises, indicating how far apart the pegs should be. “Deeper,” he says. “We don’t want him to pull them loose.” Jake then specifies how long to cut the strings, and what type of knots to use, both for the pegs, and later, for the paws. Lenny shifts the bag back to his right hand again. The life within still thrashing about. Ripping other holes in the plastic.
“We’d better hurry before he gets out,” he says.
Thomas looks up quickly, and then back to his task. He doesn’t say anything. Jake says, “He’d better not.”
Thomas ties the fourth string to the fourth peg. “Okay,” says Thomas. “I’m done.”
Lenny shifts the bag again, from right to left. The cat seems untiring. “How do we get him out?”
“What do you mean?” says Jake.
As another claw ripped a little wound in the plastic Jake saw the point. “Gloves,” he says.
Lenny and Thomas look at each other. Neither of them thought of gloves.
Jake says, “You’ll have to do it Tom, it’s your cat.”
“We haven’t had him that long,” Thomas answers. “He doesn’t really know me.”
“Doesn’t matter,” says Jake.
Thomas looks at the other two boys and at the agitated plastic bag. Another tiny claw rips another tiny gap. It’s not really his cat. Not anybody’s cat, really. Dagny brought it home. Just to see if they’d like him. And if he’d like them. It’s a he, she said. How can you tell? he had wanted to know. You have to look closely, she said. That was a week ago.
They’d liked him okay. He wasn’t special or anything. Just a gray and black sort of a small nuisance. Smart enough to go out when he needed, which mom appreciated. If he was anybody’s cat he was Dagny’s. He’d sleep in her room, on her bed. A real stretcher in the mornings. Friendly, mostly. Not today though. Well at first he was, when he’d picked him up. Purred a little too, until Lenny held out the bag under him and he sort of caught some drift of what was coming, and then started to claw his way up his arm and it was a real hassle to get him down and into the bag. He’d only gotten one scratch, which was lucky, considering.
“Well?” Jake says.
Thomas looks up at him. Whose idea was this anyway? It was Jake’s, wasn’t it? So why doesn’t he do it? Why didn’t he think of gloves, if he’s so smart? But there’s no arguing with Jake, not unless you want a good thrashing. Lenny looks uncomfortable, shifting the bag again, looking at Jake, then at him.
“Well?” Jake says again. “What’s the problem?”
Thomas gathers what’s left of the string and puts it back in the bag. He walks over to Lenny. “Hold it open,” he says.
Lenny separates the two pairs of handles and widens the twin opening. Thomas looks into the bag and sees the gray and black movement at the bottom, like a small angry cloud with claws. He knows this is really stupid but he puts his hand down anyway and grimaces in anticipation of the worst.
But the cat doesn’t scratch. No, not so much scratch as cling, as if to say “thank you, thank you, thank you” for throwing down a lifeline. And as he pulls up his arm there’s the little cat, stuck to it like a koala bear to the trunk of a eucalyptus tree. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Good,” says Jake. “Get him over here.”
This is no longer such a good idea. Nowhere near the right thing to do. Thomas looks from the cat to Jake. It is definitely a very bad idea.
“Bring him here,” says Jake, motioning towards him.
Lenny is folding up the twin bags and putting the wad in his pocket. The cat has settled in as a part of Thomas’ arm and is not about to go anywhere.
“Here,” says Jake again. “What’s the problem?”
Thomas begins to walk toward him, and makes to hand Jake the cat, which is where the cat, survival its basic instinct, catches on again. In one motion he leaps and is off.
“Get him,” Jake yells.
Lenny drops the bag and dives for the cat, which is running in his direction. The cat tries to pull up and change direction but slides and topples on the thin carpet of leaves. Into Lenny’s hands. Lenny gets a firm hold on his left hind leg and lifts.
“Bring him here,” says Jake by the pegs in the ground. “Here.”
The cat more squeaks than cries, then begins to hiss. His tail slashes the air while he swings his little body to get free from Lenny’s grip.
“Grab the other leg,” says Jake. “I’ll get his front paws.”
Lenny tries, but ends up bleeding and almost lets go. “Don’t drop him,” Jake yells. Lenny tries again and finds the other hind leg. Then he swings the cat toward Jake who catches both front paws with swift hands as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
“That’s more like it,” says Jake.
Thomas watches while his heart sinks. This was a terrible, typical Jake, idea. Then he stops worrying about the good or bad of the idea because he sees something that has no business being there. There are tendrils in the air, out of thin air, floating down and into not only the cat, but into Jake and Lenny too. Thomas closes his eyes and squeezes them shut to clear the illusion. But when he opens them again, the strands persist. They waver out of nowhere, as if out of some invisible hand, and down into Jake’s hair, shoulders, arms, hands, back. Same with Lenny. Same with the cat. As if they were puppets.
Jake swears and his hand starts bleeding. He looks up at Thomas.
“Get the fuck over here and give us a hand.”
Thomas doesn’t hear. There are all these strands.
“Tom,” Jake yells. “Are you fucking deaf?”
This Thomas hears and he expects the strands to vanish with his coming to, but they don’t. They flutter and move with Jake’s yelling about being fucking deaf. “No,” he says.
“Well, then. Get the fuck over here and give us a hand,” Jake says, yells.
This is a very terrible idea and he is about to tell Jake and Lenny to let the cat go when he notices his own strands rising out of his hands, his arms, and up into those other hands, unseen somewhere above the low clouds. He looks for those other hands and it’s like looking up from within a forest of tall and slender trees that dwindle into the sky above. No hand though, only air, gray and heavy with rain soon. Then he hears himself, against his choosing, say, “Coming.”
He sees himself walking towards the two boys and the cat. He sees, but does not feel, the strands follow, or lead, he can’t tell which. He sees himself reach down for the first string and tie one end of it nimbly to the cat’s left back paw. The other end is securely fastened to the first peg. Then the same with the right back paw.”
“Tighter,” says Jake.
Thomas tightens the string. The cat squeals. Not very convincingly, though, as if he’s resigned himself to his fate.
Then the front paws.
“Tighter,” says Jake again, just to show who’s in charge.
Thomas complies. Then he’s done.
“Good,” says Jake, inspecting the now moaning little thing. Then he turns to Lenny. Says “pliers,” like a doctor would say “scalpel” to his nurse.
Lenny finds the bag and fishes them out. “Here.”
The little cat, tied spread eagle on his back, seeing the pliers, comes back to furious life—it’s as if he knows what they are for. He begins to hiss, almost yelp. He pulls and squirms, tail thrashing now, trying to work himself free, trying to escape. Thomas, watching, can still see the strands.
“Okay,” says Jake. “I go first.” With that, he grabs the front left paw with strong fingers and with the pliers finds claw number one. He squeezes the pliers shut and pulls. The claw, to Jake’s apparent surprise, does not come out on the first try, but the cat now actually screams. Thomas has never heard a cat scream before and now he worries about who might hear and come to investigate.
Jake, put off by the tricky claw, pulls again, harder this time, and here it comes, trailing blood and thin dregs of tissue. “One,” he says, and grips the next one.
Still, the only thing Thomas really sees are strands. Looking up again, this time he thinks he can make out the fingers. Cloudy, way up where the strands converge. And now he sees the eye, as if some hidden giant was floating in the air looking down at them.
Jake says, “Four,” and looks for the fifth. He doesn’t find it. “How many claws per paw?” he asks, well, screams, to make himself heard over the cat’s pain.
“Four,” says Thomas, not sure who is answering.
“Shit,” says Jake. “I always thought five.”
“No, it’s four,” says Thomas.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Jake grabs the other front paw and goes to work.
“Five,” says Lenny.
“What?” says Jake.
“A cat’s got five claws.”
“I only count four.”
“They’ve got a sort of thumb as well.”
Jake looks closer at the paw, red and slippery now with the cat’s blood. He pokes around with the pliers and then finds it. He tries to pinch it. “Fuck it,” he says. “Too small,” and begins on paw number two.
Thomas watches, strands fluttering.
“Eight.” Jake hands the pliers to Lenny. “Your turn.”
Lenny is very pale, but takes the pliers. “You have to pull harder than you may think,” says Jake. Lenny doesn’t answer. He has trouble grasping the paw, for the cat still wriggles and kicks for his life. He has trouble finding a claw with the pliers. He has trouble pulling it out. Then finally, “One.”
The dark pupil consumes the scene below, the cat’s delicious little pain, Thomas’ delectable remorse, Jake’s scrumptious wickedness, Lenny’s toothsome shame. And above all, the cat’s spicy terror.
Finally, Lenny says, “Four,” and hands Thomas the pliers.
The cat is not calming down, but scatters droplets of blood all around him with his jerking and pulling. The strands are still there, now moving his hand, finding the paw, finding the claw, pinching it tightly, pulling it out. “One,” he says.
Finding the next claw, pulling it out, “Two.”
He hands the pliers to Lenny, whose pliers they are. Lenny takes them, inspect them, then looks around for something to wipe the blood off with, but can’t seem to find anything. He swears, then pockets them, blood and all.
“So, let’s see if he can walk now,” says Jake and bends down to untie the cat. “Damn,” he says, unable to undo the now slippery knot. “Anybody bring a knife?” he asks.
Lenny had, and brings out a pocket knife. He unfolds the blade and hands it to Jake, who proceeds to cut the cat loose. The cat rolls over and makes to stand up, does stand up and takes one tentative step, but topples over from the pain and screams. He stands up again, tries the step again, and makes it. Tries a second step, away from his tormentors at any pain, and makes it. Topples on the third. Up again, and makes it. A fourth, a fifth, away from them. Walking.
“I’ll be damned,” says Jake.
“You owe me five bucks,” says Lenny.
Thomas still looks at the strands. Wonders if he’s gone mad. Says nothing.
The earth turns.
The pianist looked both ways then crossed Second Avenue in a hurry. He continued east on 12th Street towards Third, hoping that perhaps he’d find a cab there. It was very late, or very early, depending on how you looked at it. No matter how you looked at it, though, this was not a good place to be right now.
He pushed his hands farther down into his coat pockets, to protect them from the cold. They still tingled a little from what was it, five, six hours of practice, no not really practice, recital, or audition, yes, audition, for that was what it had been, wasn’t it. An audition. She had wanted to hear him play, and then some more, and then, while she poured some as it turned out, very nice wine, to play some more. And then he made the, well not really mistake, of playing the “Pathetique.” Turns out she, just like him, held Beethoven above Mozart, especially his sonatas. And then it was on to the “Appassionata,” and the “Moonlight,” and the “Waldstein,” and then it was two a.m. and way past his bedtime.
He had—some errant notion from God knows where—half expected her to ask him to stay, but that, of course, was a ludicrous one, since this was the first time they had me. Brad had introduced them at the end of the recital by an up-and-coming genius from Boston. Not bad for Boston.
“Alice,” he’d said, with a sweeping hand gesture. Then added, “Agent.” His usual laconic self.
“Hi, nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
They’d shaken hands. His long, slender fingers touching her long, slender fingers. Barely.
“Brad tells me you’re looking for an agent,” she said.
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“I’ll have to hear you play sometime.”
That sometime began two hours later in her 12th Street loft. Brad had insisted on a late meal after the recital (which he promised to, and did, pay for). After the meal the three of them remained on the sidewalk outside, unsure of the what’s next? Brad, spotting a cab, solved his part of the question, and hailed it. He climbed in without asking if he could drop them somewhere. Instead he said, “Behave,” and slammed the door closed behind him.
The two of them watched the cab head uptown.
“I have a grand,” she said. “It’s only a few blocks. We can walk.” Then added, “If you’re up for it.”
He was up for it. So they had. Walked a few blocks. And that sometime had just ended. And now he had an agent, perhaps even, someday, a lover. There had been such glances.
He was halfway down the block towards Third Avenue when he saw them and they saw him. It was a touch and go. He tried to ignore them and they just about ignored him. His coat was not in fashion, and several years old. Jeans. Boots. Not wealthy by any sign.
Maybe it was boredom, maybe it was just a stupid lack of something better to do—it was certainly not from expected reward—an elbow gently poked a buddy’s ribs. That one. What do you think?
They diagonally crossed the street to block him. Three young men, late teens or early twenties. No one else in sight. No cabs. No cops. No cars. The pianist looked behind him. No one.
They met. They surrounded him.
Give them what they want. That was the policy. Don’t even talk. Wallet. Watch. Just hand it over. His credit card was registered anyway; he could call it in immediately.
He brought out his wallet and handed it over. The taller of the three, the one facing him, smiled. “Thank you, kind sir.”
He took his watch off and handed it over. The tall one smiled again. “Thank you, kind sir.”
“That’s all,” said the pianist. “All I’ve got.”
The tall one still smiled. Then looked to his two buddies. They were done. Easy. They were about to let him go, but didn’t. Four people on the sidewalk in the almost dark. No one moved. The boys or men exchanged glances.
“Can I go now?” said the pianist.
No one answered him.
Instead the youngest of the three men, the one now behind the pianist, brought out a bludgeon and hit him hard at the base of the neck.
Night fell like a guillotine and he slumped to the pavement. Night eased again, though not as quickly, and he found himself on the ground, looking up into three shadowy faces looking down at him. He sensed more than saw three pairs of feet. In boots. He registered: heavy boots. Reflexively, he pulled his arms and his hands in under his body lest they step on his fingers by accident. The tall one caught the odd motion, and its significance.
“Let’s have a look,” he said and stooped down to pull an arm and its hand back out from under the pianist.
“No!” It was a scream and the fear was apparent.
Ah, finally, a game. The tall one smiled again, pulled harder and brought the arm out. “Look at those fingers.” His buddies looked closer too. “Wow.”
“You some kind of magician?” asked the tall one.
“What’s with the fingers then?”
“I’m a pianist.”
“A piano player?”
The pianist tried to make eye contact with the tall one talking but could not find them in the shadowy face. And then he stopped searching and instead looked at the strands falling down into three men from above the buildings and down the narrow canyon that was 12th Street. They wavered like long halyards in a breeze and seemed to never end. He was still following the strands into the night sky when the boot landed square on his hand and brought blackness.
He woke up more than 24 hours later. A woman’s face close to his. “Mister?”
All blond hair and freckles.
He tried to answer, but couldn’t. His tongue would not cooperate.
“How you feeling?”
He heard, but could not answer. And he didn’t feel anything. He tried, as he always does when he first wakes up, to stretch his fingers, to reassure himself of their healthy presence. But he couldn’t. There were really no fingers there to stretch. His arms ended in heavily bandaged swollen pulps, the product of many crushing boot stamps to teach the fucking piano player a lesson.
The earth turns once.
Two rooms down from the pianist, in room C-14, lies Mrs. Collingstone of 545 Park Avenue, Apartment 442, New York, NY. She will not return to her 4-bedroom condominium and her art collection. Since her will is ambiguous on certain key points both the condo and the collection—and a sizeable bank balance—will be fought over by three children, one sister, one current, and one former husband.
Mrs. Collingstone, Ruth to those who know her well, Prune to those who know her very well, is dying. Dead really, as far as the person is concerned, alive clinically, but only just. Her body, outwardly still Ruth, is a seething cancer colony internally. Soon there will be no discernible organs. What keeps her clinically alive is the artificial heart—which, being off the cancer menu, remains impervious—and the respirator.
Where is Ruth in all this? There is no real agreement here. Has she already left for God? Her body shell sloughed and left by the spirit to fend for itself. Or is she still here, swimming among the morphine saturated goo, feeling what?
Were we to ask her, and were we to get an answer she would say, “Strands. There are so many strands.”
The earth turns its final turn.
Still as a mountain, the monk sits in comfortable lotus.
He sits as he has sat for generations perhaps, or for years or days—he himself is not entirely sure—but he sits as bait for the dark eye, for his many strands, to lure them to him.
He sits feigning pain, for only pain and suffering and their many siblings will attract the thirst of the celestial eye, and so he feigns craving, he feigns greed and hatred, he feigns lust, and he feigns pain.
He feigns these many sufferings all the while, vigilant as a cat, the spirit crouches behind the shield of concentration.
And after many generations, or years or days, finally, here they come through the fine rent in the air above: first one, then two, then thousands of fine tendrils descending for his still body and now landing one after the other in search of sustenance.
After a heartbeat or two, however, it becomes clear to the eye that there is no true sustenance here, no true suffering or pain, only the appearance of such delicacies.
At this moment the spirit leaps out from behind his shield and scales up the strands like an agile monkey, the sword of light between his teeth.
The disappointed eye—who some call Mara and some call Maya—is late in seeing him come, but once he does he moves to seal the rent in air but not in time, for the monkey has pushed through, sword first, and now, in swifter and swifter movements pierces the eye of darkness again and again, bursting it and spilling rivers and rivers and rivers of pain and hatred out into the ether, and as the mighty rivers evaporate so do the strands; and as he pierces and pierces again and again this celestial eye he also pierces trillions and trillions and trillions of terrestrial eyes who all spill their many thirsts and hungers, their pain and suffering; and now that the celestial eye is drained it, too, begins to evaporate and with it so do trillions and trillions and trillions terrestrial eyes for all hunger and all thirst—fuel for the engine of physical life—is gone, and so the engine itself shudders and stops and evaporates and that is the end of the world.