A Ghost Can Only Take

Justin Howe

It starts with me in a frozen parking lot in Detroit “on vacation”. I’m scanning my phone, looking at my friend’s facebook pictures from his vacation in Thailand. “Here’s me at the beach. Here’s me riding an elephant.” The barrage of social media sunshine gets under my skin. In retaliation I share a picture of a snowdrift at the edge of the iced over lot, its surface crust gray from car exhaust.

“Wish you were here.”

Weeks later back home with my wife in South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or the RoK) the jetlag kicks in and I’m wide awake at 4AM. It’s still January and dark as pitch outside. I bundle up against the cold and take to walking so I can watch the sunrise. I settle on a route alongside the river, a winding sand path between the raised bike trail and the river’s water. I snap a picture with my phone each day, a way to document my passage. No one need notice. No one need care. But I was here. I saw this.

When the jetlag stops I keep the habit, a daily ritual to celebrate the mundane.

It’s a four bridges walk. Bridge one takes you to the steel mill. The mill dominates the city’s skyline, and most mornings looms large in the gray dawn like some architectural nightmare out of a Piranesi etching got it on with a Bladerunner backdrop. A skyline of neon-lit chimney-stacks, spewing smoke and flame at all hours. I often refer to Pohang as lovely Pittsburgh-by-the-sea. I’ve come to love this place.

The mill’s the lifeblood of the city and has been since the sixties. Some point to the mill as the industry that kick-started the RoK’s economy in the decades after the war. You could argue that there’s literal blood in its foundation. Not only from work-related injuries, which allow for a range of prosthetic limb shops in town ranging from the upscale to the downmarket, but also the fact that part of the mill’s seed money came from grants funded by the USA, payment for Korean troops used during the Vietnam War.

A bit more history with a caveat: everything I’m about to tell you comes from hearsay and Wikipedia.

An old map shows Pohang as all marshlands and islands at the mouth of the Hyeongsang River. During the Silla Dynasty, the ancient Korean kingdom that traded with Persia and Rome, Pohang’s the port for the Silla capital down the road in Gyeongju. But when Silla fell, the centers of power drifted west and north, and the city declined into neglect.

Old pictures from the end of the 19th century show a decrepit fishing village with a convent hospital where the steel mill would eventually be built. Then during the Japanese occupation the town staggered into the 20th century. Whether it did so collaborating or dragging forward a powder keg of resentment remains a hotly contested subject to this day.

Late in the 1950s, during the Korean War, the frontline wove its way through the city. One high school in town still commemorates the battle fought on school grounds. Another battle fought just outside the city involved child soldiers. Their slaughter will go on to generate a ghost story that persists to this day.

Stone markers near the river show the limits of the Busan Perimeter and the Walker Line. Often when I cross the park I’ll wonder whether I’m walking atop a mass grave.

After the war the city is rebuilt, and the steel mill gets founded. Pohang becomes a hub for conservatism and gains a reputation as a gangster town. In the 1980s, a decade of social unrest in the RoK as the democracy movement emerges, a lot of the forces used to quell the movement came from this region. More unpleasant history no one wants to talk about. Just like no one ever discusses the prospect of another shooting war with North Korea, despite the fact that the industrial infrastructure and nearby munitions plants (that play “Give Peace a Chance” during their lunch breaks) mean the town’s definitely a target. But so’s everywhere else in the RoK. You learn to deal with that, whether by exercise, substance abuse, religion, or screaming your anxieties into a hole in a bridge pylon like I do.

It’s possible to find odd pockets of nature on the mill’s margins. Wetlands running along the verges, cherry trees blossoming in the gaps between railroad tracks and factories, tucked-away gardens, and even a farm or two surrounded by rice fields.

Now as the 21st century dawns, the city’s attempting to rebrand itself as an eco-friendly tech center. One with a giant, fire-and-smoke-spewing factory sitting across the river. The bike trails are nice, the countryside beautiful. Sorry about all that thyroid cancer.

As strange as it is encountering the city’s human history, it’s stranger still when I insert myself into nature’s pre-existing cycle. I have to shake off the prejudice that my first encounter with the river was with its correct state, that since I began paying attention in the winter, winter is the river’s correct state, all other seasons intruders. That requires some metacognition, some acceptance, some convincing.

As I go out more and more and see the landscape change I start getting caught up in its patterns of growth and decay, winter’s barrenness giving way to green vibrancy. Ducks sass about. Pigeons browse the dirt. And the cranes think murderous thoughts in their needle-slender heads. Crabs, lizards, snakes, and rats all make their appearances along with snails, mantises, and crickets as long as my index finger. I’m no naturalist. No truffle-grubbing mushroom hunter who approaches a hike in the woods like a trip to an outdoor buffet. (Don’t get me wrong, some of my dearest friends are truffle-grubbing mushroom hunters.) Early on I’ll think about downloading an app to identify flowers and plants. But if you wait long enough such urges pass. At first I referred to most every flower I saw by color.

“The yellows looked really nice today.”

Fun fact though: your average South Korean child knows the names of the trees and flowers local to them better than their USAian counterparts. After walking the river’s path for over a year now and posting my pictures, I’ll be taught what flowers I’m seeing. Cosmos. Morning glories. Roses of Sharon.

Bridges two and three are right beside each other and mark my walk’s halfway point. One’s a traffic bridge, the other for trains. Just beyond them are two small islands covered in tall grass and home to ducks and cranes for much of the year. This part of the walk gets lonesome and empty. Beyond the bridges the grass grows tall year round. It’s always whispering at you. The support pillars of the train bridge have washed-down vegetation strewn all across their platforms.

I’ve come to start thinking of these as the Suicide Bridges. There are ghosts here.

More hearsay, less the Wikipedia kind, and more what gets passed around the table in the “exotic” foreigner bar late in October. The story goes like this:

Back in September 2016 a woman abandoned by her husband walked with her two kids here to the traffic bridge and jumped. She survived. Her children didn’t. Later an incoming English teacher will get shown an empty apartment for rent, and by a series of strange happenings, flickering lights, strange smells, learn it belonged to that family.

When I heard this story I asked my wife whether we should light a candle under the bridge, you know, for the souls of those two kids. She vehemently forbade me from doing so, because as she put it, “ghosts can’t give, they can only take”.

Those two small islands past the bridge where the cranes and ducks make their nests: I’ve come to associate them with the dead kids.

Despite the ghosts this bit is my favorite. By now the factory rumble has dimmed, and there’s less traffic here because it’s away from any neighborhood. It’s the part where all the elements converge: the wind across the tall grass, the fires above the mill, the water flowing past, and the earth beneath my feet.

Predawn, it’s an obvious spot for ghosts to gather. The quiet here is tangible. And quiet is key to a decent morning walk. At this hour I am distinctly preverbal. At best I can muster a Blutoesque subvocalized monologue. Nothing ruins an early morning walk like a chatty companion. People should be trained to silence themselves at the sight of an arched eyebrow. I’ve largely chosen this whole route because I can walk it without seeing another soul much of the way.

The English language needs a word like shortcut, but instead of it being for the route that saves you the most time, this word would be applied to the route that avoids the most people.

And the people I do see walking at 6AM?

We just nod at each other, conspiratorial.

Late in the year, the chest-high grass will make screens around the walking path. Old men and women (mostly women) will veer off the path to harvest the grass-stalks for some purpose I can’t fathom. They’ll be a common sight, covered head to toe in veiled pastel bonnets and tracksuits. They’ll bound up the embankment and browse amid the tall grass, plucking herbs and leafy greens. On the opposite side of the embankment, they’ll have dug gardens on the edges of parking lots.

All those plants I see old men and women harvesting: I have no clue what those are. Mugwort? Hemlock? Marijuana? Could be anything.

I’ve begun to suspect a low-grade feud between the city and these elderly harvesters. A day or two after seeing them amid the grass stalks, a work crew will appear to mow it all down, only to have it all sprout up again next year, a civic-minded cycle.

The best time of year to walk is between October and March. That’s when the least people are out and that asshole the sun is still beneath the horizon at 7AM. Holidays are a different matter. I like the holidays that get people outdoors to pay homage to either celestial orb.

The morning of the solar New Year, the embankment will be crowded with people greeting the year’s first sunrise. Two months later they’ll be back again to greet the first full moon after the Lunar New Year. On rare occasions I’ll spy some mudang shaman conducting a ritual. They’ll be chanting over a fruit-laden altar or waving around bundles of dried herbs near the river’s edge, beating a drum or clashing cymbals. It’ll be done from the back of a truck or beside the open boot of a car, covert and secret.

What cycle are they tied into?

Bridge four is my turning point. It separates some parkland attached to the sewage treatment plant and a new high-story apartment complex. Further upriver the wildflowers grow thick and the river wends its way between hills. On the opposite banks of the river are small neighborhoods far-removed from any development, each of them technically part of the city but resembling country villages.

My current job has me working up here, teaching English to corporate executives. One day we’ll get into a long conversation about mountains and rivers. One of the executives will say living near rivers is dangerous. I’ll dig, trying to get him to speak more but also wanting to get at what he’s saying.

Is he talking about the risk of flooding?

No, he’s referencing some superstition about how rivers affect your mind. He mentions recent suicides in the nearby apartment complex. I think of other superstitions, all those ghosts and supernatural beings that crop up where civilization meets water.

At some point over the past year I’ll be in another town. My wife will tell me it’s where courtiers used to change their horses when riding to the capital. As part of my daily routine walking to and from work I’ll take a picture of a tree. Post that online. #Oldtree. Amateur phonecam photographer run amok, trolling the extraordinary with the mundane. Back in Pohang people will tell me how they started to care about that tree. They’ll admit to the intensest feelings for it. But the tree’s not special. Or it is, but so is everything else if you take the time to look at it.

The trail continues on, but most days I don’t. I head back, the sun up by now and directly ahead of me behind the factory, the sky hinting at the weather to come. The wind picks up, making the grass whisper around me. I know I’m going in reverse, but really it’s only a change in perspective.

All told my walk’s only about 5 kilometers give or take.

 

Justin Howe Interview: “Behind the Sun”

Read “Behind the Sun” in Reckoning 1.

justin-howeMichael: How much meaning do you expect a reader to bring to a story, and how much do you invest it with yourself and expect readers to take from it?

Justin: Fuck if I know. My goal is to make something that’s ripe with potential meanings. A lot of fiction and media I enjoy is less about one thing than it is potentially about many things. Making a story that shares that quality is my goal, but that potential’s going to be informed by the range of my interests. In this case the interest was in travelogues which I’m a fan of, but inverting the genre somewhat.

Michael: “Behind the Sun”‘s narrator starts out lost, trapped amid the sterile inhumanity of an airport lounge. By the end, he’s invigorated, renewed, a different person–and he’s home, in this incredibly strange new place. That’s all we know about him. I vaguely recall an earlier version of this story where you hinted he was a failed academic; that part’s gone. Instead he seems to me a vessel for the reader’s frustrations with the modern world, and his journey a version of that revolution in perspective that comes with travel, with being thrown out of one’s comfort zone. It happened that way for me. I know you’ve had experiences like this and to spare. I know it’s taking ridiculous advantage of editorial privilege, that most readers can’t and aren’t supposed to get to ask the author this kind of thing, that the story should speak for itself. But I’ve got the editor’s chair now, and the rush of power is irresistible. Is that what you meant this story to be about? Maybe a more diplomatic way of putting it: how has your experience of cultures other than the one you were born to informed “Behind the Sun”?

Justin: I am very leery of travel for travel’s sake and the quest of broadening one’s awareness experiences, as I can see that being a trap. If anything the narrator is someone who has over-traveled and is exhibiting the kind of jaded exhaustion you can glimpse in airport lounges and expat bars. When the story ends, he’s shed that need to travel. Here’s the thing: when my wife and I moved to South Korea the first place we lived in was a village of 250 people. I’d never lived in a place like that before, neither had my wife. In fact the building we had been living in back in New York City likely had more people in it than that village. Even my in-laws were shocked that places like it still existed in South Korea. Now, the culture shock I felt: was it the shock of being an American in South Korea or was it being an urban inhabitant suddenly thrust into a rural environment? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I would have experienced culture shock moving from any metropolitan to rural environment. Of course I was now living in a culture where mine was not the dominant perspective, and even now I’m normally at a loss in communicating with strangers. If anything from my experiences informed “Behind the Sun” it was maybe this notion of letting go and not insisting on knowing, but instead seeing what comes. The narrator throughout the story is often reliant on kind strangers and must learn to subsume himself in a group effort geared for the greater good. Some folks would likely take issue with this being a positive outcome, this erosion of the character’s individuality, but I see it instead that the narrator has shed a false self he’s been clinging to. Now that he’s lost that baggage he can begin growing again.

Michael: So what’s the trap you’re talking about in travel broadening one’s awareness? Is it this potential for the traveler to impose their own potentially false sense of self on what they’re experiencing?

Justin: I’ve encountered people who seem to have climbed onto this travel treadmill where they’re searching for some transcendental experience of “ultimate reality” and all it does is make them boorish: “You think this is real, man? This isn’t real. If you want real you need to go to Thailand. That’s where the real shit is. I saw dead people in the streets, man.” So to me the trap in broadening one’s awareness is the same for anyone who chases after the ultimate high or whatever in the hope that it makes them more real. Granted, I’ve often said living in Asia is wasted on me, but there’s a big difference between being an adventurer and being adventurous as Tove Jansson point out in Fair Play. An adventurer takes what opportunities arise, but doesn’t need to go out looking for them like the adventurous do. That said, I agree it is a good idea to learn to exist outside your comfort zone. It’ll certainly teach you things about yourself, and not all of them to your liking.

Michael: Am I falling into a similar trap by claiming “Behind the Sun” as a piece of fiction about environmental justice?

Justin: Probably, but your money’s good so I won’t complain. I did try to talk you out of buying this story after all, but you fell in love with the whole notion of people working together to turn shit into gold and called it environmental justice. What could I do?

Behind the Sun

Justin Howe

Protocosmo found me as it finds all its inhabitants: the lost, the lonely, and the wayward. I was stranded for twenty-three hours in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Round about hour seventeen and in the wee hours of the night I took to pacing the long empty hallways past their inert coffee and fusion cuisine franchises. An attendant found me sleeping on one of those airport couches built to maximize subtle discomfort. He told me there was space available on the flight to Protocosmo, and possibly I could make my connection from there. I said, “Yes” and that was that. I was ready and on my way.

Little did I suspect where I was headed, nor can I relate exactly how I “flew” there, for Protocosmo sits within the Earth’s core, but there I landed.

The “sun”, as the Earth’s core is termed locally, never sets but simply smolders down to a cinder once every twenty-four hours. There are cities there in Protocosmo connected by mine-train and falling-bicycle. Its atmosphere has an unpleasant but refreshing spice that turns bitter things sweet. But these are all minor attractions. Protocosmo’s true attraction is that it is home to the terrible worm, the infeci, as they’re termed.

As is common with all recently arrived visitors to Protocosmo, I spent my first days in bed with fever. Natives name these endemic illnesses as if each were a fondly remembered melody. The Wilting Shivers, for instance, is accompanied by the scent of oranges and the sensation of the world sliding suddenly to the left. My first fever was called Conquistador, a type reminiscent of a failed jungle expedition while encumbered by a full suit of plate armor.

Outside my windows at counterpoint to my illness, a festive atmosphere prevailed. It was a kite-flying holiday. The air beneath the smoldering sun fluttered and glittered with kites of wormhide and multi-colored streamers. Every now and then a spark would set a kite aflame, a sight welcomed by an eager cheer. The trick was to pilot the burning craft through the pockets of noxious vapor about the core and set the chemicals alight, so that they burned with brief multicolored radiance.

Despite the attentiveness my landlady showed in administering to my health, I could hardly summon the enthusiasm necessary to enjoy the spectacle.

She was a native born Protocosmotic and wore on this occasion a brown blazer atop a green hooded djellaba with a blue hand-knit scarf about her head. Her shelves overflowed with Agatha Christie novels and she had a tic about her eyes that made her irises vibrate, as if the simple act of focusing on anything held the entire reservoir of her attention.

She brought me a lemon ice and listened to the recitation of my symptoms.

“It’s time you tried the worm,” she said and motioned me to follow. She bade me sit in the kitchen while she prepared her tincture. The rattle of the spoon played ten-pins upon my occipitals, and I swore I heard the drums of cannibals in the distance. Finally, she returned from the cupboard with the glass.

“Drink it down,” she said. “No complaints.”

Sick and weary and wishing I was far and away from there, I did as commanded.

The drink proved temperate, flavored with lemon juice and coffee. I expected to retch, but the opposite happened. My thirst slackened while my fever slipped away. When the glass stood empty upon the table, I could hardly keep myself from staring at it.

The taste no longer solely resided upon my tongue but suffused my entire body, pungent yet clarifying. The very air about me seemed stripped of all impurities.

“That’s infeci?” I said in disbelief.

My landlady, that radiant angel in tattered djellaba, smiled and shook her head. “That’s only infeci powder. When you get well you should find the real thing.”

Just then another shout came from outside. The two of us went to the window and saw a kite trailing green and yellow sparks across the sky. Overcome with a calm I can only describe as beatific, I ushered my savior from the apartment. Together we followed the music uphill, my fever falling further into memory with each step, my landlady’s hand pressed in mine.

Beneath the cinder of the smoldering sun, we must have danced ninety-nine times.

Upon recovering my health, I decided to explore Protocosmo and hired a falling-bicycle. Such a journey must be undertaken at night, lest the canopy of the craft catch fire as we passed the smoldering sun. Yet still we tumbled so close to the core I might have reached out and lit a cigarillo. My pedaler, a lean man covered with wiry yellow hair scorched down in places to pink freckled flesh, focused on the beacons ahead of us.

“What do you know of the infeci?” I asked him.

“Had a touch of fever, did you?” he said, his face aglow with the light of our lamps. “Was it Clora’s Drift or The Dewy Ague? Did it have spiders, snakes, and creepy-crawlies?” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “I can tell you about the infeci. I worked the tiles for a bit, saw them up close, worked a hook, and pushed them into the glass pits.”

We tumbled into a valley and steadied into a glide. The mesas in the distance sat upon the curved horizon like tilted pyramids. Patches of shadow covered the ground beneath us, dense in spots amid the ashen gloom. He eased back on the pedal, and our craft tilted. The maneuver afforded me a view of one of these shadows. Our lights barely penetrated the darkness. I saw nothing.

“Those are cracks in the Earth’s crust,” my pilot said. “All the rot from the surface collects in them. Infeci eat the stuff and grow. Might take a metamorphosis or two. (Months in Protocosmo were termed metamorphoses, as years were called resurrections). Pretty soon there’s no room in the cracks, only the infeci. When they reach the crack’s lip they pour out, full of poison and madness.”

“How then do they become such a boon and healing mechanism?”

“That’s a trade secret.”

“But there must be some way to stop them,” I said. “If they grow that way, they would take over all of Protocosmo.”

“You have to starve them. Lure them to a hole lined with fused sand. A glass pit. They can find no sustenance there, and they starve. It’s tough work, but we all take a turn doing it.”

Our vehicle righted. My driver nodded at the fissures below. “These are dormant,” he said. “Cleaned out. Won’t be a swarm out of these holes for some time. The most recent outpours have been in the East, where you’re headed. Take a cart down to the floor, and you should find some tile-work.”

In a city square somewhere under the Alps I bought lunch from a leaking refrigerated cart. I wrote postcards home explaining my disappearance (a task only slightly more difficult than explaining the decision that had led me here: pursuing a prestigious degree from a nonaccredited university), after that I sipped my coffee while reading a pamphlet on infeci put out by the Protocosmo Office of Tourism:

 

The adult infeci is a large, segmented worm as tall as a single volume of the 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Britanca and as long as at least three adult golden retrievers tied nose-tip to tail. Their skin consists of twenty to thirty interlocking keratin plates behind a smooth dome-shaped head. Legless, the creature winds itself forward via vigorous undulating movements that manage to propel its bulk through the dirt and leave a furrow behind it that smells faintly of rotten broccoli.

There are neither male nor female infeci, simply a single androgynous gender that reproduces through violence.

The infeci diet consists wholly of poison—filth that seeps down to Protocosmo from the surface world. In this way, as the poison is refined within the terrible worm, the infeci serves a beneficial function in our planet’s ecosystem.”

 

A voice called my name. It was my pilot, eating his lunch at a café tent. I joined him.

“I bumped into an old friend,” he said. “A fellow I knew back when I was a tileman. He stuck with it. Told me there will be an outpour flowing past. Get down to the floor tomorrow morning and volunteer. They can always use spare legs for tile work, and you’ll get a chance to see the worms up close.”

He pointed at the pamphlet and formed a skeptical expression with his singed-pink features. “Words can’t describe it.”

Well, I would see, I said, and asked about this friend.

“Esteban’s a strange fellow, writes operas in his off moments. Heartbreak case, he gave up life on the surface and came down here. Said he wanted to retire. Strange way to retire: going toe-to-toe with infeci. But to each their own.” He shrugged. “As Cain said, I’m not my brother’s keeper.”

By the following morning, the cafes were all a-chatter with news about the approaching worms. Men and women lined up to volunteer, most of them only a resurrection or two out of school. I joined a line and was told by a civil-servant to appear the next day at a mine-train station.

The morning was clear, with light flakes of ash falling from the sky. Carts were running down to the valley floor in stages. I waited my turn while a winch squealed rhythmically. Every face about me was soot-streaked. We were a nation of the besmirched. The people around me conversed, and I heard talk of “eggs”, “dust”, and “bulls”: common terms invested with unfamiliar weight.

Soon we were on our way down the mesa, our train zig-zagging until the broad plain of the valley came into view. Far in the distance, a white and red river stretched from mesa to mesa: the infeci. And facing this river, the tiles.

One need only view the paintings of Paulo Ucello or read about the tactics of the Roman testudo to gain some concept of the tile. Armored men and women form square formations often thirty persons thick. Each carries a tower-shield that might become ceiling or wall, depending on the direction of the flow. Hooks and spears are used to prod the infeci towards the waiting pits. The professional Tileman, or Tileteer, since all genders may take up the occupation, maintains the “edge”, while the bulk of volunteers staff the middle and use their muscle as a brace against the brunt of the attack. In this way they form an island that serves to direct the flow and course of the crawling river. From the center of each, a captain peers through a periscope and shouts directions. From a distance, the maneuvering of the tiles displays a stark, formal quality, like the squares of a chessboard come to life and attacking the pieces.

Our cart came to a stop at the foot of the mesa, and I asked the attendant where I could find the pilot’s former companion.

“Esteban?” she said. “He’s still in his tent, but his tile is preparing their formation. Follow this group here.”

I fell in line again and marched where I was bidden. There was a cloud of dust on the horizon. Already some tiles had stepped into action.

We stopped at a supply cart where a plump woman handed out spears and sealed suits with tall boots and visors. Maneuverability was key, but also cleanliness. It was dangerous to come into contact with infeci in their squirming form.

Once we’d dressed and formed up, professional Tileteers moved among us, straightening our posture and adjusting our grip upon our spears.

“Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all,” one said, pushing my shoulders back. “Step closer to your left. Your shoulders should almost be touching.”

I bumped against the young woman at my side. She had a shaven head, a merry spark in her eyes, and she displayed a marked skill with the spear that made my own improficient efforts seem a newborn’s fumblings.

A tileteer barked us to attention and marched us through maneuvers, teaching us the commands required.

Bull—the massed push made with interlocking shoulders.

Egg—closing ranks shield to shield so we formed an island.

Dust—spears out and stab.

Eventually I caught on to the intricacies of the movements. By then, Esteban had emerged from his tent. A wide man with a deep, melodious voice and long hair, he cradled a daschund in one brown hand. He passed her on a waiting attendant and without a word donned his captain’s gear, armor similar to our own except for a bent contrivance hooked to his chest: the periscope from which he could look out over our island.

We parted solemnly to afford him passage to the tile’s center and marched as a square, spears balanced horizontally upon each other’s shoulders.

Tiles covered the valley floor. They bristled hooks and spears and made walls of themselves. The infeci collided with them, their mad twisting and flailing sounding like thunder in the air.

We were positioned near the edge of a pit, a sinkhole of fused sand. Our task would be to push the stream into the hole. Esteban ordered the shields mounted. Our spears formed a support that held up this ceiling. All was darkness. Chinks of light illuminated profiles and tufts of hair as the dank smell of human sweat filled the crowded space.

“Bull,” Esteban shouted, and down we marched, the weight of our numbers providing us with momentum.

I had no concept of where I was going and bumped clumsily against my fellows. It was insufferably hot, quite like a fever of a kind. I thought of Conquistador. The scent of so many confined bodies and stale breath closed upon me. I could little but trust to inertia and the experience of others.

“Easy, now. Steady.”

We came to a crashing halt, the recoil of which brought me into the back of the fellow before me.

“Bull!”

Groans and cries came from the edges. I leaned forward, each step taken against a weight as insurmountable as gravity.

“Egg!”

We strained to get our shields up. A cry escaped my lips. The woman beside me grunted. A great terrible wet flailing echoed in the darkness like we were being flogged by fouled laundry. Flickering shadows cut the light, and the air stank of rot and vegetation.

“Bull right,” Esteban ordered. He must have been close by me, because I heard his chanted whisper of: “Position. Position.”

The press of our opponents was constant. Each muscle stretched only to remain frozen as a steady rain of impacts and blows beat against the shields. Voices groaned in the dark. The ground shook, and my body vibrated as taut as a rubber band.

“Dust!”

From within our square, hooks and spears sprouted. Vibrations coursed down the length of each. Once or twice a snap and cry pierced the gloom. My grip held firmly to the cross braces. Dust roiled in the shafts of flickering light as a black, pitch-like substance dripped through the gaps.

“Careful,” my fellow tileteer said, “that’s poison.”

“Bull!”

We pushed at Esteban’s command. The balls of my feet dug into the earth. Each foot lifted to take a step would hang frozen in the air, and then the weight against it would lessen. The step would land. Another step forward, and another, and another, as if we were wrestling a river into changing its course. With a shout, Esteban ordered the spears set to construct a shield-wall. A cheer rose up as the weight against us turned fluid and drained away. Our task was done, the flood detained, and the worm tide averted into the glass pit, where it squirmed and seethed.

skull_green_scenebreak

A festive mood reigned in the camp. I found myself milling from group to group, a stranger made kin for a time by our shared ordeal. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I turned to find myself face to face with Esteban. Once more his faithful dachshund was with him. He asked if I was a Russian. I told him no. He sighed and gave a toss of his head so that his curls danced lightly upon his shoulders. He motioned me to follow and led me back to an open-air kitchen.

Fires crackled beneath great steaming cauldrons. Smaller infeci had been corralled to one side, guarded by hook-wielding handlers. One at a time the beasts were taken and hefted into the pots, where the air beneath their contracting carapaces escaped in a screaming hiss.

“Would you like a taste?” he asked.

“But aren’t they poisonous?”

“Only if left to their own devices,” he said, passing me a plate. “It’s our labor that purifies them.”

Infeci flesh was succulent, similar to lobster but also unquantifiable. An aspect of the taste lay just beyond recognition, like a word dangling on the tip of one’s tongue. It recalled an unformed idea, and with each swallow I believed I came closer to its source.

“It’s the poison that gives them their healing power,” he said. His hand scratched the dog’s chin, and the creature gazed lovingly up at him. “We gain strength and a deeper appreciation of goodness by ingesting it.”

Nearby someone laughed. Esteban paused and let out a thunderous sigh before walking away. His stare matched his dog’s: downtrodden but free of despair. I realized he was a profoundly religious man, although what creed he might profess if any I could not imagine.

Another laugh drew my attention. I saw the woman who had stood beside me in the tile. She was with the falling-bicycle pilot who had flown me so far. She smiled, pointing to the empty glass in my hand, and the pilot waved me over. I took another bite of infeci. Words I couldn’t remember haunted my lips. The ashen sun cooled. Behind it lay my passage home. I doubted I would ever think of it again.