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By Norman Lock
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 2014 Open Road Distribution
All rights reserved.
Each morning when he woke, he found that his papers had been worked on during the night. His affairs were being put in order – no matter how he tried to resist it, this "settling of accounts." No matter that, in desperation one night, he burnt the papers, including his last will and testament, which was now being written in a hand he did not recognize, leaving everything to his estranged wife, a woman whom he despised. Last night, having resigned himself, he took an overdose of sleeping pills, sufficient to stop his heart.
The pebbles grew into stones, the stones into great rocks. The rocks reared up into mountains, which cast their shadows over the land – their cold shadows. Darkness fell on the fields and the town and on a woman pinning sheets onto the line, her mouth full of clothespins and her breasts taut and lifted against her blouse. When her husband looked out the window and saw her, desire rose up in him. When she came into the house, he laid her down on the unmade bed and covered her body with his own just as the first boulders broke loose from the mountains and the avalanches began.
The cloud, which looked, they said, ominous – a roiling darkness minutely veined with fire – rolled over the city and, after a time, settled on a part of it "like a cupped hand." No light could pierce it: not the light from the streetlamps or from the house windows. Those who walked inside the darkness wondered at it – how it clung to them, their clothes and hands. When it lifted the following day, that part of the city where it had been was as if erased.
Because he had died under mysterious circumstances, an autopsy was performed. The coroner removed a bullet from the right ventricle; however, neither entrance nor exit wound could be found. The bullet was of a type used by snipers in the World War, during which the man's father had been lost and presumed dead. The man had never known his father, whom the man's mother hated still with a passion equal to her love for her son. The wound – the coroner observed – was perfect, as if the bullet had been "introduced into the heart by means other than a weapon."
At midnight, a man received a call from someone who assured him he would not see the sun rise; that he – the caller – was even now getting ready to come and murder him. Escape was impossible: the house was watched by confederates, impervious to bribes or entreaties. Shortly after putting down the phone, the man died of fear. He could not know that the caller had dialed the wrong number and that it was another man, in another part of the city, who did not see morning.
Each morning he woke to find in his bed an instrument of destruction: knife, noose, capsule, an ice-cold gun that felt in his hand like the breast of a dead bird. At breakfast, he would watch his wife pour coffee, butter toast, carry the remains of toast to the sink – look at her closely, his face a question. But hers gave no hint in answer, of an intent to do away with him by moving him to thoughts of suicide. They lived together: there was no one else in the apartment but them. If not she, then who? he wondered. This morning he found a black silk band on his wife's pillow and remembered how, during the night, he had dreamed of waking to find a black silk band on the pillow, had tied it round his eyes, and then, opening the window, had jumped. He woke, terrified and breathless, before reaching the street. Awake now, he takes the black silk and ties it round his eyes, jumps, and does not cease to scream until he hits the pavement. Later, searching the apartment, the police find (hidden behind his books) a straight razor, matches soaked in paraffin, an envelope of powder tasting like arsenic.
He brought a door with him and placed it against the hillside. Then he went in and closed it. What happened to him next is not known, because the door was for him alone. Later when they heard him scream, there was nothing anyone could do.
The trees now grew without any longer observing the limits assigned them by nature. They reached into the sky until they looked out over "the floor of heaven." Recalling the old story, boys climbed them. Not only boys but men and even some old men who wished for gold. One by one they fell – the old men and the young boys, too – not one of them having reached the top branches let alone the floor of heaven. Instead, they fell, all of them, earning for themselves neither wealth nor fame, only death at the foot of the unruly trees. Still the trees continued to grow without regard for the limitations of their kind until the roots tore from the ground and the earth was broken into pieces and destroyed.
There, where the grass was allowed to grow without let or hindrance, children liked to hide from those who might call them home to their lessons. This evening when their mothers went into the towering grass to bring home the fugitives, they found entrances to what appeared to be underground tunnels. Putting their ears to them, they could hear a distant sound like the gnashing of teeth.
It was the man who hit him over the head with a gaff. But she bound her husband's ankles and wrists with cord; and together, they dropped him over the side. They had met at the summer home of a mutual friend. A man "connected to the theater." Almost immediately, they had become lovers. Their affair was torrid, shameless, indiscreet. Her husband, however, knew nothing. Plotting to kill him had become, for the lovers, a game. The more they played it, the less impossible it seemed. Soon they thought of nothing else: the desire to kill him "perfectly" replaced their desire for each other. The night they disposed of the body, she dreamed of a crab scuttling across the ocean floor. The second night, of a door on the bottom. On the third night, she dreamed of a whale. It spoke to her in a way she understood. It told her to drive – now, before night was ended – to the sea; to take off her clothes and swim out as far as she could swim. The moon lay among the black waves like broken plates. She swam until she could swim no more. Then she sank beneath the waves. Her husband was waiting for her the moment she woke.
He happened to look down, idly, at a book lying open on the table and read in it his own death, which instantly came to pass. What he might have seen or thought he had seen in this book – his wife's cookbook – will never be known. Perhaps at that moment his mind was bent on self-destruction, as a mind will be from time to time. Or perhaps this: he saw there a recipe for a meal that, long ago, someone had predicted would be his last.
When he was struck down by his wife's lover, the scythe moaned in the wheat. In the kitchen, cutting open a loaf, she dropped her knife as the blood spilled out the bread's fresh wounds.
They had thought her drowned and her body, after so long a search, was never to be recovered. During the memorial service, when she stood in the vestry doorway in a wet dress, her hair wet and threaded with bits of green and orange weed – they panicked (feeling as if they were drowning) and ran outside "to stand under God's own sky and to breathe fresh air!" Their terror assuaged, they went inside again, ashamed. But she was for a second time gone – leaving nothing to mark her sudden, brief presence but dampness on the carpet and a bit of green and orange weed. This, too: the odor of river bottom as it is dredged up on the blades of oars into sunlight.
The drowned do not stay put. They circulate among the seas and oceans, rivers and bays, watching through the swaying window the sun and moon trade places in the sky, while they, too, move relentlessly on – impatient to find for themselves a grave, but pleased in spite of themselves with effortless swimming and the suave beauties of their world.
He drowned in a pool – at night, swimming alone – and was found the next morning by fishermen trolling off the coast for mackerel. How does one explain this except by saying that between a swimming pool and an ocean lies that which no man can contemplate without profound revulsion? A kind of drain or sluice through which the body will, on rarest occasions, be drawn from a small to a larger place, in accord with a law of physics yet to be discovered.
They had lived for generations in their village on the river. Lived entirely without violence or neurosis – "big city troubles." They liked their sedate houses and businesses, set back from the quiet streets, behind green hairpin fences. They liked the fields that swept down to the river – mobbed with wild flowers and Timothy in summer and, in winter, burnished gold by stiff winter wheat sticking up above the snow. They especially liked their river – the swans, the rustling music as the water swayed among the reeds, how the sky seemed to sink down in it some days and on other days how the water blackened and ran before the wind. The morning after the ribbon-cutting ceremony opened their new bridge to traffic (a thing they did not want), the first "jumper" leaped from the rail and drowned.
Sit still! she shouted; but the boy would not sit still. So she changed him into a chair.
Until that morning, furniture had never betrayed the slightest wish to move – ostensibly content with a luxurious, if sedentary existence, out of the weather, attended daily by vacuum and duster, caressed lovingly with fragrant oils. No one sharing the house with tables and chairs suspected that in their resinous or upholstered hearts they burned for a change of scenery: to face a different wall or window. That morning, while the man and his wife wielded pruning hooks among the trees, a table took its first diffident steps across the living room, with the woman's prized Limoges vase on its back – poised to fall and break. By nature smugly self-assured, an armchair threw its arms around the child's neck, who was at that moment eating barley sugar and daydreaming of lions, and strangled him. This was the first reported instance in what has come to be known as the Revenge of Objects.
She was frightened now that she had murdered him, seeing in his eyes as they closed on her the image of her own face, which – she knew – he would take with him even to the worms.
The steamer appeared in the harbor at dusk, black smoke from its stacks losing itself in the coming darkness. As the boat drew closer to the wharf, men leaning against the bollards to smoke heard band music on the water: "The Mountains of the Moon," a tune none had heard until then, which seemed to dissolve in the suddenly chill air. Night fell; the ship's lights trembled against the black river. Here and there, passengers could be seen standing in the light that splashed down onto the decks. The men on the pier had never seen such a ship. It came to rest, gangplanks were let down and now the passengers began their slow disembarkation. They wore clothes the men thought peculiar – clothes that had been fashionable in 1912 when the Titanic is believed to have gone down. But the name of this ship was H.M.S. Titanic. Later, when the passengers were questioned, they laughed at the idea their ship had sunk! Didn't we know it is "unsinkable"? There had been ice in the sea lanes and thick fog – they remembered the fog; but they had slept soundly that night and long – dreaming, in first class or steerage, of ballrooms or barrooms, polo or bocce. The best sleep of our lives! they said while they waited with letters in their hands for those who had promised to meet them.
Forbidden to look at the sun, he did and ever after saw unimaginable sights.
The children stopped their play and looked at the ground from which – they said – a music was coming like "ants singing." But the mothers and fathers who had gone outside to see why the children had grown so silent heard nothing, though they strained to hear and went so far, some of them, as to kneel and put their ears to the ground. They could hear nothing like a music anywhere underneath the grass – all except the simple-minded one who mowed lawns in summer. He said shyly, "Like ants singing a nasty song that makes me want to run and hide." That evening as the sun fell swiftly behind the hill, the children hid themselves down the wells, in storm drains, culverts, and other places inside the earth and were never seen again, although afterwards the simple-minded man said he heard them, from time to time – heard them sing a terrible song.
The first thing the angel did when he came to earth was, with the help of a locksmith, to take off his wings. The second thing was to go up in an airplane. The third was to marry a woman, whom he called "angel," although she was ordinary. When she died, he took his wings out of storage, had them cleaned and oiled and the rubies in their intricate works replaced by a watch-maker. Then he returned to the place from which he had come – satisfied that he had lived the life of a man.
In another version of the story, the angel, having grown tired of life on earth, killed his wife and took her home in order to "give his beloved a head start on eternity."
In a third version, the wife murdered the angel, sold his wings for a fortune, and lived happily ever after with her lover, who was reasonably imperfect, had a wicked sense of humor, believed entirely in the here-and-now and not at all in the hereafter.
During the night, lightning opened an ancient oak's trunk below the first fork. In the morning, a hand was found revealed in the splintered wood – a hand fresh as if recently alive, although the ring on its finger was of a kind worn in Holland and in the Dutch colonies in the 17th century. This, the university archaeologists were able to ascertain with certainty. How the hand had been caused to be locked in the wood and how it had been preserved there were never adequately explained. Some of a fantastic disposition believed it had belonged to a malefactor, a thief perhaps, who had forfeited his hand in punishment and that it had been brought to the tree by a carrion-bird to nourish its young. But why it should have remained intact they could not say. One other explanation was put forward: that the hand had been at the throat of a woman – a wife, surely – when it had been severed "by a miracle," then buried in the tree. But the proponent of this theory was ridiculed. She was of unstable mind, after all; and hadn't her husband lost his hand in an accident?
From the fissure that had opened during the night "like a piece of black lightning" issued a seemingly endless column of giant ants of a kind not previously identified but now believed to have come from the depths of the interior. In a short while – shorter than anyone had thought possible – the ants carried off the houses with their contents down to the last bed, broom and cup until nothing remained of them, and the ground where they had stood was beaten flat. Why this neighborhood had been singled out is unknown, as is the fate of those who had lately dwelled there. Some think that the former inhabitants are now living in a reconstruction of their original houses deep below ground under an artificial sun. Whether they were brought there to rescue or to punish is hotly debated.
The pit is full, he said. Wiping blood from his hands, the other man answered: Dig another one.
In a seaside hotel, he fell ill. His wife slept on the sofa in the other room because of his feverish tossing "like a man caught in the surf." That night he dreamed of drowning. The next morning when she went into his room, he was dead – the sheet wet and his hair caked with sand.
Those unfortunate enough to open their closet doors that night were smothered by the coats hanging inside. It was revenge taken by objects whose function is to humble themselves in the service of their owners. What is more, to stand in harm's way, between their owners' vulnerable bodies and the harshest of elements. Those who considered themselves lucky to have escaped their coats had only to wait until the next rain, when they were impaled on their umbrellas the moment they were unfurled.
If they had owned a new electric mixer instead of an old-fashioned egg-beater, they could have switched it off before it flew across the kitchen and attacked the baby.
Excerpted from Grim Tales by Norman Lock. Copyright © 2014 Open Road Distribution. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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