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Deploying a seemingly unlimited range of subject and setting, Bell’s latest collection of stories are as inventive as they are revelatory. From a monastic Chinese mouse who ponders his lot in life to the aching frustrations of a former drug addict attempting to connect to her son, Bell continues to refine his renowned craft on the characters who fall under his compassionate gaze.
Drawn by Bell’s command of language and voice, readers follow his cast of characters from Manhattan to the French Riviera to the American South to London, where the homeless, the barking mad, and the everyday saints are all revealed as unforgettably human in these sometimes poignant, sometimes devastating stories.
“The world these 10 stories conjure is a shifty, dangerous place, requiring of its inhabitants small acts of daily heroism. . . .A humane and mature book, the work of an important and talented writer.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Presents a crystal-clear vision of humanity that disturbs and intrigues.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
Date of Birth:August 1, 1957
Place of Birth:Nashville, Tennessee
Education:A.B. in English, Princeton University, 1979; M.A. in English and creative writing, Hollins College, 1981
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Barking Man and Other Stories
By Madison Smartt Bell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Madison Smartt Bell
All rights reserved.
We were never meant to come so near the face of humanity. The feet, certainly. Ankles, perhaps. Knees, or even the waist, under certain circumstances: crossing a kitchen counter, for instance, with all due circumspection. But when that aspect, the whole human visage, is bent so directly upon us—well, that can never be a good sign.
The face is so enormous its features cannot be read. It appears, at first, as a mountain of flesh, blocking off the entire east wall of our new cell. Only upon close study does it surrender its details, and disjointedly even then. The tremendous pores: a field of craters whose monotony is at times interrupted by a varicolored, volcanic rising, one of the large number of pustules to which the "Adolescent Boy" is subject. Above all that, what seems the entrance to a cavern, but those stalactites, in fact, are only hairs in the great slimy nostril. Still higher, and yet more disconcerting, the bulbous, jellied trembling of the eye. An eye which seems to be barely sentient, reminding me more of those descriptions of Portuguese men-of-war preserved from the Legend of the Voyage than a window onto any sort of Soul. Yet just the same that eye responds, contracts and dilates with changes in the light, devours information and seems always to be turned on me.
A monumental blink, a stately, whalelike roll of the eye wallowing in its socket, and the gargantuan stew of features is withdrawn. It fades away across the room to merge with other human forms in a blurry, distant landscape almost beyond our focal range. I turn back to the contemplation of the stalks. Though of course they are not the proper yarrow stalks; I have had to gnaw them slowly out of the chips of wood that line our cell, all fifty of them, yes ... And with no pen or ink or paper, I must hold the hexagrams in memory too, but then I have my skill for that.
Thunder within the earth:
The image of The Turning Point.
Thus the kings of antiquity closed the passes
At the time of solstice.
Merchants and strangers did not go about.
And the ruler
Did not travel through the provinces.
The Turning Point: I review the tradition, the commentaries. To be sure, some movement will begin, but whether for good or ill is indistinct as yet. I refer to the sixth, the moving line:
Six at the top means:
Missing the return. Misfortune.
Misfortune within and without.
This augury chills me through and through, but I strive to give no outward sign. That in the light and under observation I remain on all fours helps to mask my inward feelings. It would not do to discourage Li or Wu, now when morale is so important to maintain, at this turning point. Besides, as I remind myself, Misfortune in this case must be conceived as relative. The trouble coming from without, in fact, is summoned by some disorder within. With inner change and regulation the foretold catastrophe may be averted.
The Turning Point ... Till now we had all three of us been inclined to think it a turn for the better. At the slave market it had seemed for some months that whatever came would more likely be a turn for the worse—indeed, probably the last turn of all. For some months there had been only one purchaser coming to the big common cell into which we'd been tumbled willy-nilly amongst some thirty others. I understood, from overhearing the auctioneers' conversation, that hamsters, or as often gerbils, are nowadays preferred by the clientele. What then could explain the repeated visits of this single customer, a white-haired man with crumpled mouth distended over his false teeth, who came so regularly every week or so? What use could he have had for such a steady trickle of white mice?
Of course, it was not long before we knew. Though the others, uncivilized Occidental mice, resembling us only in their color, had no idea and never would. No sooner had I noticed that he always chose the fattest than I warned Li and Wu that we must all begin to refuse our food. The uncouth Western mice gladly gobbled all we left, so there was no suspicion. And certainly no possibility of explaining it to them. They are completely out of reach. I'm sure they could never read or write, even given the materials. They speak a clumsy, squeaking argot, barely comprehensible to us, scarcely verging upon abstract ideas, and they have proved ineducable. They have no history, no trove of legend, no systematic memory. They are useful only as a camouflage, a screen. And they screened us well, as they grew plump, and week by week their numbers were depleted. One by one they were netted out, slipped into a cardboard carrier and borne away in that man's wrinkled, slightly quavering hand. At the end of the journey each would surely meet the stabbing claws and rending beak of a hawk or owl, or the cold tightening coils of a snake. Horrible. Horrible. And none of them suspected ...
Yes, we have every reason to consider ourselves fortunate now. Our new cell suggests we are meant to be kept for some little time, at least. A bedding of fresh wood chips (from which I fashioned that new set of sticks to read the oracle). The steel elbow of the water tank, dipping through the bars, and below it a dish of supercharged food tablets, enough for several days, or longer considering that drastic diminution of our appetites. And more than that, a sort of Ferris wheel, on which Li is now vigorously running, though in his half-starved state he can scarcely need the exercise. Perhaps it's a distraction, something for the nerves ...
I think we're pets. Someone about to be fed to a snake need not be offered such a diversion. Yes, I believe we are safe, at least for the nonce. Wu is crouching, staring at the food dish—unlike Li he has no talent for taking his mind off hunger, though, on the credit side, he is also less light-minded. In any case, there is no longer any need for such severe restraint.
"Eat," I whisper to him. "Go on, indulge yourself a little. I'm sure it's all right now."
I see from the twitch and turn of his pinkish ears that Li has also heard, but he keeps on running on the wheel, as if indifferent to the chance of food, keeping up a perpetual metallic squeak I'm sure I'll come to find annoying in time. Wu waits a moment more, not to seem too eager, and then moves forward to the tray, delicately lifts a chalky cylinder of food and starts to chew the edge of it. When he is halfway finished the wheel stops spinning and Li springs down beside him at the tray. I wait just a little longer, savoring my self-control, before I go to join them.
The unaccustomed plenitude of food has made us all extremely thirsty, and we all may have sucked too much of that rather bitter-tasting water from the steel lip issuing from the tank. I wonder if that bloated feeling might be what is keeping me awake long after the humans have switched off their lights and gone off to their beds. For a time I lie wide-eyed, reproaching myself for my intemperance, but that is a useless enterprise which I abandon, turning instead to a rehearsal of the Voyage, something which almost never fails to soothe me.
Precision in each image is the key to this exercise, so I compel myself really to look at all details, to picture even the different patterns of the stiff kimonos of those first Voyager Mice who walked boldly down to the harbor one ancient night and marched in single file up a mooring rope into the bilges of some great barbarian ship. Next, I re-create their consternation at the first wild rollings of the boat on the open sea, and how the Samurai, though sick themselves, restored order among those who panicked, while the Scriveners (to which class I belong) essayed to calm the fearful with the oracle, or with contemplative passages from other, actual books, which had not then been lost.
Next, and always most seductive to my own imagination, are the wonders of the sea, challenging for me to see vividly in the mind's eye, as I have never seen them in fact, and know these marvels only from our centuries of tradition. Through the eyes of some forefather mouse, rocking high in the rigging, I imagine the spectacle of that infinite plain of water full of flying fish, dolphin, great jellyfish, whales, kraken, mermaids, sea serpents—I can't breathe, I can't breathe—Those icy loops of sinuous muscle have smashed all the air out of me, and try as I will I cannot drag the least puff back. Worse, I feel my bones begin to break, to pulverize, my very flesh being mashed to pulp. I always understood you died before that happened, that you suffocated first and never lived to witness yourself being squeezed into a skin bag fill of soup that the snake will sip almost as a drink ...
When I tear myself out of that nightmare, at first I can't say where I am. I can only tell I'm no longer at the market, and for a single heart-stopping moment I wonder if the dream may have come true, for I once saw it, I once saw just such a horror, when a corn snake escaped and made its greedy way into the common cell next to ours ... But no, the tinny squeak of that turning wheel brings me back to where I really am, tumbled among the chips I've scattered in my panic, my fur matted with sweat from the terrors of that dream.
It's Li, still running on that futile wheel, I can see his profile against a night light in the kitchen. Whatever is he doing that for? It must be after midnight, surely, and I should advise him to stop, as who knows what the morrow may bring? But I don't do it. Let him continue, if he finds it so amusing. In a way I'm almost grateful, for it may have been the racket of the wheel itself that helped to break my dream.
I comb my fur, and the panic drains away from me, but sleep will not return. From a rustle in the chips nearby I know that Wu is restless too, but I do not speak to him. It comes to me that I forgot to read the second hexagram from the day's oracle, the one to which that moving line of the first was leading:
Well, the truth is, I have never seen the actual Book of Changes, nor yet did any of my preceptors that I ever knew. In slavery we are not permitted books, nor can we well contrive to make them or conceal them. But it's no matter. The hexagrams are measured in my mind in sixteen squares within one another, through which I turn as I'd imagine turning pages. The bars of the one I'm seeking seem to glow before my eyes the while. On the third wall of the seventh square, I find it and its text:
The Corners of the Mouth.
Perseverance brings good fortune.
Pay heed to the providing of nourishment
And to what a mouse seeks
To fill his mouth with.
I must say, that hardly seems relevant to our position at the moment. I review the commentaries, but find none especially helpful. Oh, for the real Book now ... But maybe it's only that incessant squeaking that makes my thought unclear. I hiss at Li to stop at once, but he affects not to hear me. Out past the wheel, past the cell bars, the whole house roars with the sounds of its barbarously inexplicable machinery, but after a careful study of all I can hear, I'm certain that no actual human beings are stirring. It's safe enough, then, to sit up in full lotus position, placing my palms together, a movement which I hope will clear my head. But no reasonable interpretation of that hexagram will come, and the squeaking of that wheel is as distracting. Ah well, perhaps it is only insomnia.
Peace. The small departs.
The great approaches.
Good fortune. Success.
Auspicious sign. Why is it, though, that none of us can sleep? A pretty irony: there is no peace in us, it would seem. We have scarcely slept an hour amongst the three of us all week. Anxiety? The stress of change? I am so stupid with exhaustion that I can scarcely manage this whole business of the sticks; I miscount in threes instead of fours, or they fall from the spaces between my claws where I must balance them. All exacerbated by that "Boy," the monstrous oaf, who keeps pushing his great cliff of a face against our cell. He carries a notebook with him now, in which he makes some blotted smudgy marks with his log of a pen, to what purpose I cannot imagine. We had more privacy at the market.
I've taken to reading the oracle at night, safe from this interruption. Now, in the half dark, I can sit up in full lotus position, demonstrating the proper respect for the whole enterprise. The light leaking in from the kitchen suffices me. Of course, I'm always a little distracted by the maddening grate of that wheel, for Li runs on it all through the night now, stopping only for food or water two or three times a day. Wu has dug himself into a cave of chips, in the midst of which I can hear him miserably thrashing. His simple mind has small defense against this sort of suffering. I worry for his and all our mental health, and as I cannot sleep I may as well improve the hours.
Six in the fifth place calls up lines involving the imperial princesses, of which I can make no sense whatever. Though my memory is still perfect (I could not even bear the thought of losing that) this failure of interpretation may be the fault of my disordered mind. But:
Six at the top means:
The wall falls back into the moat.
Use no army now.
Make your commands known within your own town.
Perseverance brings misfortune.
Oh yes. That's rather more pertinent. The wall falls back into the moat. Truly, our condition is controlled by fate alone. There is no use in struggling; all we may do is submit. That's a reading that might bring peace of sorts, albeit rather dreary sorts. I unfold my legs and stretch out, composing myself not for sleep (alas) but for that thoughtless pale hiatus which is the closest to it I've attained these last few days. Soon that squeaking bumping wheel will drive me mad. My arms and legs are all unpleasantly atingle, and there's a sensation in the bottom of my stomach which feels very much like sudden fear, though it has been there at the same constant level for as long as seventy-two hours. And now, out of that pulsing white nothing my mind seems to be turning into, comes the answer:
Pay heed to the providing of nourishment ...
We're being drugged, it's obvious. How could I ever have failed—I picture again the "Boy's" pen point scoring his coarse papers with deep blue grooves. Why, we're not pets at all. We're ... experimental. The very word makes that cold spot in my belly clench still tighter. I've been misled, since we arrived, by the fact that this place seems to conform more to my image of "House" than of "Laboratory." After all, it is inhabited by a "Family," is it not? Well, unpleasant as it is to contemplate, it might be better to know. I clutch my oracle stalks into the soft fur of my belly, as comfort of a kind. Perhaps there still is a way for us to regain some degree of control.
After three more wretched days and nights I've made a discovery. The poison isn't in the food. It's in the water. Which brings our case very near to being hopeless. I managed to get Wu and Li to join me in a day-long experimental fast. But when that had no effect, they both of them refused to do without water. Not outright, but simply as if the advice I gave them did not penetrate. We're all more than a little blurry now, of course. Still, they did not drink one whit less of the water than before.
That's deliberate insubordination, certainly, yet I can't absolutely blame either one of them. This sleeplessness has made us all a little wild. Has it been ten days? I can't remember. And I am here to testify that going entirely without water is very, very difficult. I managed it, at first, for twenty-four hours, enough to prove my point, for last night my nervous system calmed enough for me to steal a few snatches of sleep, though my swollen, cracking tongue kept me almost as wakeful as before. Another day of total abstinence would be death, so today I let myself drink a little. A very little, yet already I can feel that chemical agitation running through me. It may be possible to strike some sort of balance. Maybe, but the hope is faint. Soon we must all go mad.
Wu, who keeps up his seismic trembling under the chips so constantly I've almost ceased to notice it, bursts out of the bedding so suddenly now I can hardly focus my eyes on him. Dazedly I stare as he charges at the turning wheel where Li goes on mindlessly rushing, scrambling on and on without progress. Wu rips at the underside of the wheel with his claws, and I see that he must be trying to stop it, stop it at whatever price. Nor do I blame him, for the endless motion, along with its equally endless squealing, has begun to make me almost physically nauseous too. Li keeps on running as if desperate for an important destination, the narrow wedge of his head stretched out flat before him like a racer pressing toward his goal. And for whatever reason, Wu seems entirely unable to stop the wheel. He clings to it and falls, rises to get a fresh grip, is even carried up a little way on the backspin—and falls once more.
Excerpted from Barking Man and Other Stories by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 1990 Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Holding Together
- Black and Tan
- Customs of the Country
- Finding Natasha
- Dragon's Seed
- Barking Man
- Petit Cachou
- Move On Up
- Mr. Potatohead in Love
- A Biography of Madison Smartt Bell