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The Wilful Eye
Tales from the Tower
By Isobelle Carmody, Nan McNab
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2011 Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab
All rights reserved.
CATASTROPHIC DISRUPTION of the HEAD
by Margo Lanagan
Who believes in his own death? I've seen how men stop being, how people that you spoke to and traded with slump to bleeding and lie still, and never rise again. I have my own shiny scars, now; I've a head full of stories that goat-men will never believe. And I can tell you: with everyone dying around you, still you can remain unharmed. Some boss-soldier will pull you out roughly at the end, while the machines in the air fling fire down on the enemy, halting the chatter of their guns – at last, at last! – when nothing on the ground would quiet it. I always thought I would be one of those lucky ones, and it turns out that I am. The men who go home as stories on others' lips? They fell in front of me, next to me; I could have been dead just as instantly, or maimed worse than dead. I steeled myself before every fight, and shat myself. But still another part of me stayed serene, didn't it. And was justified in that, wasn't it, for here I am: all in one piece, wealthy, powerful, safe, and on the point of becoming king.
I have the king by the neck. I push my pistol into his mouth, and he gags. He does not know how to fight, hasn't the first clue. He smells nice, expensive. I swing him out from me. I blow out the back of his head. All sound goes out of the world.
I went to the war because elsewhere was glamorous to me. Men had passed through the mountains, one or two of them every year of my life, speaking of what they had come from, and where they were going. All those events and places showed me, with their colour and their mystery and their crowdedness, how simple an existence I had here with my people – and how confined, though the sky was broad above us, though we walked the hills and mountains freely with our flocks. The fathers drank up their words, the mothers hurried to feed them, and silently watched and listened. I wanted to bring news home and be the feted man and the respected, the one explaining, not the one all eyes and questions among the goats and children.
I went for the adventure and the cleverness of these men's lives and the scheming. I wanted to live in those stories they told. The boss-soldiers and all their equipment and belongings and weapons and information, and all the other people grasping after those things – I wanted to play them off against each other as these men said they did, and gather the money and food and toys that fell between. One of those silvery capsules, that opened like a seed-case and twinkled and tinkled, that you used for talking to your contact in the hills or among the bosses – I wanted one of those.
There was also the game of the fighting itself. A man might lose that game, they told us, at any moment, and in the least dignified manner, toileting in a ditch, or putting food on his plate at the barracks, or having at a whore in the tents nearby. (There were lots of whores, they told the fathers; every woman was a whore there; some of them did not even take your money, but went with you for the sheer love of whoring.) But look, here was this stranger whole and healthy among us, and all he had was that scar on his arm, smooth and harmless, for all his stories of a head rolling into his lap, and of men up dancing one moment, and stilled forever the next. He was here, eating our food and laughing. The others were only words; they might be stories and no more, boasting and no more. I watched my father and uncles, and some could believe our visitor and some could not, that he had seen so many deaths, and so vividly.
'You are different,' whispers the princess, almost crouched there, looking up at me. 'You were gentle and kind before. What has happened? What has changed?'
I was standing in a wasteland, very cold. An old woman lay dead, blown backwards off the stump she'd been sitting on; the pistol that had taken her face off was in my hand – mine, that the bosses had given me to fight with, that I was smuggling home. My wrist hummed from the shot, my fingertips tingled.
I still had some swagger in me, from the stuff my drugs-man had given me, my going-home gift, his farewell spliff to me, with good powder in it, that I had half-smoked as I walked here. I lifted the pistol and sniffed the tip, and the smoke stung in my nostrils. Then the hand with the pistol fell to my side, and I was only cold and mystified. An explosion will do that, wake you up from whatever drug is running your mind, dismiss whatever dream, and sharply.
I put the pistol back in my belt. What had she done, the old biddy, to annoy me so? I went around the stump and looked at her. She was only disgusting the way old women are always disgusting, with a layer of filth on her such as war always leaves. She had no weapon; she could not have been dangerous to me in any way. Her face was clean and bright between her dirt-black hands – not like a face, of course, but clean red tissue, clean white bone-shards. I was annoyed with myself, mildly, for not leaving her alive so that she could tell me what all this was about. I glared at her facelessness, watching in case the drug should make her dead face speak, mouthless as she was. But she only lay, looking blankly, redly at the sky.
She lied to you, my memory hissed at me.
Ah, yes, that was why I'd shot her. You make no sense, old woman, I'd said. Sick of looking at her ugliness, I'd turned cruel, from having been milder before, even kind – from doing the old rag-and-bone a favour! Here I stand, I said, with Yankee dollars spilling over my feet. Here you sit, over a cellar full of treasures, enough to set you up in palaces and feed and clothe you queenly the rest of your days. Yet all you can bring yourself to want is this old thing, factory made, one of millions, well used already.
I'd turned the Bic this way and that in the sunlight. It was like opening a sack of rice at a homeless camp; I had her full attention, however uncaring she tried to seem.
Children of this country, of this war, will sell you these Bics for a packet-meal – they feed a whole family with one man's ration. In desperate times, two rows of chocolate is all it costs you. Their doddering grandfather will sell you the fluid for a twist of tobacco. Or you can buy a Bic entirely new and full from such shops as are left – caves in the rubble, banged-together stalls set up on the bulldozed streets. A new one will light first go; you won't have to shake it and swear, or click it some magic number of times. Soldiers are rich men in war. All our needs are met, and our pay is laid on extra. There is no need for us to go shooting people, not for cheap cigarette-lighters – cheap and pink and lady-sized.
Yes, but it is mine, she had lied on at me. It was given to me by my son, who went off to war just like you, and got himself killed for his motherland. It has its hold on me that way. Quite worthless to any other person, it is.
In the hunch of her and the lick of her lips, the thing was of very great worth indeed.
Tell me the truth, old woman. I had pushed aside my coat. I have a gun here that makes people tell things true. I have used it many times. What is this Bic to you? or I'll take your head off.
She looked at my pistol, in its well-worn sheath. She stuck out her chin, fixed again on the lighter. Give it me! she said. If she'd begged, if she'd wept, I might have, but her anger set mine off; that was her mistake.
I lean over the king and push the door-button on the remote. The queen's men burst in, all pistols and posturing like men in a movie.
It was dark under there, and it smelled like dirt and death-rot. I didn't want to let the rope go.
Only the big archways are safe, she'd said. Stand under them and all will be well, but step either side and you must use my pinny or the dogs will eat you alive. I could see no archway; all was black.
I could hear a dog, though, panting out the foul air. The sound was all around, at both my ears equally. I knew dogs, good dogs; but no dog had ever stood higher than my knee. From the sound, this one could take my whole head in its mouth, and would have to stoop to do so.
Which way should I go? How far? I put out my hands, with the biddy's apron between them. I was a fool to believe her; what was this scrap of cloth against such a beast? I made the kissing noise you make to a dog. Pup? Pup? I said.
His eyes came alight, reddish – at the far end of him, praise God. Oh, he was enormous! His tail twitched on the floor in front of me, and the sparse grey fur on it sprouted higher than my waist. He lifted his head – bigger than the whole house my family lived in, it was. He looked down at me over the scabby ridges of his rib-cage. Vermin hopped in the beams of his red eyes. His whole starveling face crinkled in a grin. With a gust of butchery breath he was up on his spindly shanks. He lowered his head to me full of lights and teeth, tightening the air with his growl.
A farther dog woke with a bark, and a yet farther one. They set this one off, and I only just got the apron up in time, between me and the noise and the snapping teeth. That silenced him. His long claws skittered on the chamber's stone floor. He paced, and turned and paced again, growling deep and constantly. His lip was caught high on his teeth; his red eyes glared and churned. The hackles stuck up like teeth along his back.
Turning my face aside I forced myself and the apron forward at him. Oh, look – an archway there, just as the old woman said. White light from the next chamber jumped and swerved in it.
The dog's red eyes were as big as those discs the bosses carry their movies on. They looked blind, but he saw me, he saw me; I felt his gaze on me, the way you feel a sniper's, in your spine – and his ill-will, only just held back. I pushed the cloth at his nostrils. Rotten-sour breath gusted underneath at me.
But he shrank as the old woman had told me he would, nose and paws and the rest of him; his eyes shone brighter, narrowing to torch-beams. Now I was wrapping not much more than a pup, and a miserable wreck he was, hardly any fur, and his skin all sores and scratches.
I picked him up and carried him to the white-flashing archway, kicking aside coins; they were scattered all over the floor, and heaped up against the red-lit walls. Among them lay bones of dog, bird, sheep, and some of person – old bones, well gnawed, and not a scrap of meat on any of them.
I stepped under the archway and dropped the mangy dog back into his room. He exploded out of himself, into himself, horribly huge and sudden, hating me for what I'd done. But I was safe here; that old witch had known what she was talking about. I turned and pushed the apron at the next dog.
He was a mess of white light, white teeth, snapping madly at the other opening. He smelled of clean hot metal. He shrank to almost an ordinary fighting dog, lean, smooth-haired, strong, with jaws that could break your leg-bone if he took you. His eyes were still magic, though, glaring blind, bulging white. His heavy paws, scrabbling, pushed paper-scraps forward; he cringed in the storm of paper he'd stirred up when he'd been a giant and flinging himself about. As I wrapped him, some of the papers settled near his head: American dollars. Big dollars, three-numbered. Oh these, these I could carry, these I could use.
For now, though, I lifted the dog. Much heavier he was, than the starving one. I slipped and slid across the drifts of money to the next archway. Beyond it the third dog raged at me, a barking firestorm. I threw the white dog back behind me, then raised the apron and stepped up to the orange glare, shouting at the flame-dog to settle; I couldn't even hear my own voice.
He shrank in size, but not in power or strangeness. His coat seethed about him, thick with waving gold wires; his tongue was a sprout of fire and white-hot arrow-tips lined his jaws. His eyes, half-exploded from his head, were two ponds of lava, rimmed with the flame pouring from their sockets – clearly they could not see, but my bowels knew he was there behind them, waiting for his chance to cool his teeth in me, to set me alight.
I wrapped my magic cloth around him, picked him up and shone his eye-light about. The scrabbles and shouting from the other dogs behind me bounced off the smooth floor, lost themselves in the rough walls arching over. Where was the treasure the old biddy had promised me in this chamber, the richest of all the three?
The dog burned and panted under my arm. I walked all around, prodding parts of the walls in case they should spill jewels at me or open into treasure-rooms. I reached into cavities hoping to feel bars of gold, giant diamonds – I hardly knew what.
All I found was the lighter the old biddy had asked me to fetch, the pink plastic Bic, lady-sized. And an envelope. Inside was a letter in boss-writing, and attached to that was a rectangle of plastic, with a picture of a foreign girl on it, showing most of her breasts and all of her stomach and legs as she stood in the sea-edge, laughing out of the picture at me. Someone was playing a joke on me, insulting my God and our women instead of delivering me the treasure I'd been promised.
I turned the thing over, rubbed the gold-painted lettering that stood up out of the plastic. Rubbish. Still, there were all those Yankee dollars, no? Plenty there for my needs. I pocketed the Bic and put the rubbish back in the hole in the wall. I crossed swiftly to the archway, turned in its safety and shook the dog out of the cloth. Its eyes flared wide, and its roar was part voice, part flame. I showed it my back. I'd met real fire, that choked and cooked people – this fairy-fire held no fear for me.
Back in the white dog's chamber, I stuffed my pack as full as I could, every pocket of it, with the dollars. It was heavy! It and the white fighting dog were almost more than I could manage. But I took them through and into the red-lit carrion-cave, and I subdued the mangy dog there. I carried him across to where the rope-end dangled in its root-lined niche, and I pulled the loop down around the bulk of the money on my back, and the dog still in my arms, and hooked it under myself.
There came a shout from above. Praise God, she had not run off and left me.
Yes! I cried. Bring me up!
When she had me well off the floor, I cast the red-eyed dog out of the apron-cloth. He dropped; he ballooned out full-sized, long-shanked. He looked me in the eye, with his lip curled and his breath fit to wither the skin right off my face. I flapped the apron at him. Boo, I said. There. Get down. The other two dogs bayed deep below. Had they made such a noise at the beginning, I never would have gone down.
And then I was out the top of the tree-trunk and swinging from the branch, slower now than I'd swung before, being so much heavier. The old woman stood there, holding me and my burden aloft, the rope coiling beside her. She was stronger than I would have believed possible.
'Do you have it?' She beamed up at me.
'Oh, I have it, don't worry. But get me down from here before I give you it. I would not trust you as far as I could throw you.'
And she laughed, properly witch-like, and stepped in to secure the rope against the tree.
She is not the first virgin I've had, my little queen, but she fights the hardest and is the most satisfying, having never in her worst dreams imagined this could happen to her. I have her every which way, and she urges me on with her screams, with her weeping, with her small fists and her torn mouth and her eyes now wide, now tight-closed squeezing out tears. The indignities I put her through, the unqueenly positions I force her into, force her to stay in, excite me again as soon as I am spent. She fills up the air with her pleading, her horror, her powerless pretty rage, for as long as she still has the spirit.
I left the old woman where she lay, and I took her treasure with me, her little Bic. I walked another day, and then a truck came by and picked me up and took me to the next big town. I found a bank, and had no difficulty storing my monies away in it. There I learned what I had lost when I put the sexy-card back in the cave wall, for the bank-man gave me just such a one, only plainer. The card was the key to my money, he said. I should show the card to whoever was selling to me, and through the magic of computers the money would flow straight out of the bank to that person, without me having to touch it.
'Where is a good hotel?' I asked him, when we were done. 'And where can I find good shopping, like Armani and Rolex?' These names I had heard argued over, as we crouched in foxholes and behind walls waiting for orders; I had seen them in the boss-magazines, between the pages of the women some men tortured themselves with wanting, during the many boredoms of the army.
The bank-man came out with me onto the street and waved me up a taxi. I didn't even have to tell the driver where to go. I sat in the back seat and smiled at my good fortune. The driver eyed me in the mirror.
'Watch the road,' I said. 'You'll be in big trouble if I get hurt.'
Excerpted from The Wilful Eye by Isobelle Carmody, Nan McNab. Copyright © 2011 Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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