by Robin Wyatt Dunn.
In the sleepy little town that is yourself, will you find regency for the thing you bear in your chest? Will you elect it king, in the sleepy little town that is yourself, that is you dreaming?
Come with me, and let us find a way to do so. For these avenues and these terraces demand your name, they demand your face, crying, crying in the night for you, you their quarry, for all kings are quarries, all kings are the property of their people.
And the people maintain their properties, as they maintain their houses, as they maintain their wives, as they maintain that it is a pretty face on a pretty door we see inside the town that sleeps, that is our own.
“Come out of the rain, Jack!” shouted Maximillian, with his eyes straining against the wind and the water.
And Jack made a sound with his mouth into the rain, louder than the rain, louder than the dawn of that morning, which had been very loud.
The sound Jack made was music, like music from inside a stone, the music that gravity makes, slipping out of its well, curling around the feet of the lucky, around the feet of the estuaries and the curling reefs of madness and wars that accrete around our sleepy little town, in the bosom of the bay, in the nexus of the state, in the heart of our history, damaged but still fine, a horrendous love affair, buried in our heart, Jack screams, he screams a music we have never heard, although we might give it words, for we are reading them—
I am no musician and so I must give it shape with these poor words, the sound Jack made was:
I am a small town and this is my history and I would have you know it for I am a small town and small towns demand that their history be known, inside the night we are our own but my small town is riven in its soul, riven in its soul by a strange knight who came so long ago we have forgotten all his names but we remember what he did. He slew our reason with his mind, he took our brainy capsule of experience and mashed it with his great hand and threw the waste that was our beating brain into the dirt and told us true that now we knew our soul (though it was riven) now we knew our melody, our melody that summons and surmises false and fatal worlds, fragrant fecund dreams of women and the moon, fasting monks and curling pews with serpent women in their wiggy whirls of doom and grace, and so we threw the sun into our eye! Such was the madness and the power of the knight that we threw the sun into our eye! We blew a storm onto our step and left it there, fermenting, torturing our souls!
Such was the sound Jack made, hurtling his music from his mouth, greater than the wind.
“Come in Jack!” cried Maximillian. And, after a time, Jack did.
I have come only recently, you understand. The words I use to speak of our town are not the right ones; the right ones cannot be used. The ones I use are imperfect. They do not mention anything other than what they are: they are only the roughest suggestions.
I encountered the knight soon after my arrival, when he was sitting in a chair outside the Moonraker Inn, an empty hotel.
“Traveler, ho,” he mumbled and I tipped my hat to him.
He gestured for me to join him, to sit in the chair near him and I did so, to be neighborly, to see if his face was really as scary as it looked from a distance.
It did look that scary but of course many more things as well; it was like a large orange moon, portending horrifying changes.
“I call you Traveler; but is that what you are?” he asked me.
“Well, my name is Robert,” I said, “and it’s true I’ve done my share of traveling. You look like a traveling man yourself.”
“I am a knight,” he said, “as you can see by my armor. What traveling I have done was most often necessary, though I’ve gone on quests. Quests are never necessary, you understand. They are something we do. They are something we think. Are you a thinking man?”
“Then listen to what I have to tell you. I wend. That is, in my movements through this world, I curve. You’re familiar with the term, wend?”
I admitted I had heard it.
“I cannot choose to do otherwise but wend, but I mention it because lately I have begun to understand that wending is not all I do; there is a grace behind my horrible actions. I fear I may, through the expiations I force upon my victims, be an agent of forgiveness and rebirth.”
I started to stand up then but the knight seized my arm, and I sat back down, not looking at him, but at the dimming sky.
“You look a traveling man and that is why I tell you this my fear, that my cruelties have been in the service of greater things, and I had thought that they were only my cruelties, part of my nature, but now I fear they are something more.”
“Is that so terrible?’ I asked. “That your evil deeds should have had some grace about them?”
“Yes,” he said, and his eyes blazed, and my heart quailed. The knight seemed a corpse but I knew he was alive; the fires in his eyes and in his chest gave off a palpable heat.
“I must go,” I said, and the knight mumbled, “yes, yes,” and I left him, sitting there, the old man, smoking his pipe.
I fear I cannot leave now; that the musics of this town, the musics that Jack expresses so many nights now, are inside my soul. I came for a retreat from the city. This town is not so many miles away, but in the feeling of its avenues and parks, it could be hundreds far, it is so silent in the nights here, except when it storms, and Jack sings. And in truth, if you listen to him long enough, that becomes a kind of silence too.
The community events here are good fun; we watch the government recordings of nuclear launches, grainy and incomplete but with marvelous soundtracks, some of them locally compiled, some carefully mastered by expert technicians in the capital. With each tipped warhead’s fiery thrust into the clouds, we cheer, watching the flickering screen, and toast each other’s health. It is the pleasure of small towns that good company seems as natural as water, and this town is no exception.
You should know too, of course, that the town’s recent history, before, during, and after our wars, plays a significant role in how we are now here. I cannot say whether the knight and his stories (both from his lips and Jack’s) are a product of these wartime experiences, or whether it is the other way around, that the knight and his journey here in the long ago time really did infect this town with some kind of madness that perhaps even brought about the wars, though of course this region, being a remote province, played only a minor part in our nation’s liberation, and the struggles that preceded it.
In the night sometimes I fear; sometimes I fear that the voice I hear crying in the night is not Jack’s. For Jack defends us, you see, like Scheherazade, his songs and their cruel mournful wisdom keep us here, I believe, like the snores of the red king. But if it is not the red king snoring, not Jack singing, not his tale, our tale, that he tells in his shrieks and moans into the winds and rains, if he is not our own personal Lear, like our own personal Jesus, written and loved and performed by our beautiful tortured souls, then who is he? Who can it be that I hear? For sometimes it does not sound like him at all, it sounds like the police. After me.
The helicopters from the capital still fly over of course; scanning our brains. We grow accustomed to them, and the electricity they fire into our heads, as you might grow accustomed to a strange room in your house that never seems to get any air, no matter how you ventilate it or how many windows you open; you avoid the room but have a certain respect for it in its obstinacy.
I know they are talking about me and that is okay. It is the nature of small towns for newcomers to be remarked upon at great length; their actions parsed and weighed, their character estimated and charted, their face examined and their voice perused like a strange animal, sighted in the forest with your rifle.
The red barn outside my window is terrible at night when it can no longer be seen; when it looms, an unseen hay-filled presence. A girl sleeps there, all alone.
Last night I heard her outside my window, speaking to her Barbie dolls.
“This one is good and this one is bad, so kiss her,” the little girl was whispering, “this one was bad and she is no good and so we throw her,” and the little girl threw the doll, right at my window.
“Stop that,” I said, looking out at her.
“Come out here,” she said, dolls handing from her hands. I did.
“Look at that,” she said, once I had joined her in the grass outside. She pointed at the barn.
I heard flashes. Like a photographer’s chorus. I saw them too. Fireflies?
“Look at that,” the girl whispered, and there was a sound from the barn, like an old chimney, howling, like a man speaking in the sky, far away, on a bad radio.
“Would you like some hot chocolate?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said, and I made her some and we drank it in my kitchen.
“Why do you sleep in the barn?” I asked her. She had an old blanket curled around her head, like she was a tiny babushka.
She didn’t answer my question, only sipped her cocoa, watching me. I decided the question had been rude, and tried a different tack.
“Were you born in town?”
She shook her head.
“Nor I,” I said. “Have you lived here long?”
She shook her head.
“You know the knight?”
She looked at me.
“The knight who sits outside the empty hotel?”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He’s a bad man,” she said, and she smiled. It was a frighteningly adult smile.
I do not know exactly why I did what I did then, but I leaned across the table towards the girl, and snatched the blanket off her head.
“Give that back,” she said. But she looked at me like she knew why I had done it.
“Do you want marshmallows in your cocoa?”
“Yes,” she said, and I went to the cabinet where I had kept them. She took her blanket back then, and wrapped it back around her head, watching me. I brought her a handful of marshmallows. She dripped a few into her cup and put the remainder inside her mouth, which she then filled with cocoa, and began to chew like a cow on her mouthful of sugar.
“Your parents are dead?”
She only looked at me, chewing.
“Tell me about your dolls,” I said. She chewed and chewed but the question had made her eyes light up. When she finally swallowed, she took one out of her pocket and put it on the table. It was a very badly used doll. One limb was melted; and its face was pock-marked and discolored. It wore a tattered white dress.
“This is Lucy,” said the girl. “She likes me. She lives in a house by the river. Where her father lives. Her father is nice to her, but she hates him anyway. Because Lucy is bad. Like me.”
“You’re not bad,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I am,” looking at me with her wide almost-black eyes.
“What does the knight do?” I asked, but she began to cry, and I took her in my arms. She slept in my bed that night, curled against me like a baby.
In the morning she was gone.
I suspect now that the knight knows he is doomed; that there is some final summation to his long timeline now fast approaching. Some nights now he approaches Jack during the singings and shoutings in the storms, and gestures wildly, as though he would interrupt the tale, but he seems powerless. Whatever tale was begun must go forward now; the knight is even more a prisoner than me. I merely fled the police; he is fleeing reality.
I looked across the town for the girl, asking about her. One woman told me she had seen her down by the vegetable gardens, and so I went there at once. And in fact I saw her, though she was moving away from the gardens up the path on the hill that overlooks the town, wearing the same dress I had always seen her in, bright blue.
I ran up the hill after her.
“You again,” she said.
“Me again,” I agreed. “How are your dolls?”
“They’re okay,” she said.
“Tell me about the other one,” I said, huffing a little to keep up with her.
“Not right now,” she said. “Later.”
“Okay. What’s your name?”
“Lucifer,” she said.
“That’s not your name.”
“Yes. It is!”
“Okay, Lucifer, did you bring a flashlight? It’s going to get dark.”
“I don’t need a flashlight!”
I shut up and just walked with her, up to the top of the hill. We looked down on the lights of the town as it grew dark.
The storm was starting up again, huge dark clouds curling slow over us, like angry brothers.
“I brought an umbrella,” I said. And she stood next to me, underneath it, as it began to thunder, and we stood under an oak tree, watching the sky.
“It’s all going to end,” she said.
“Not everything,” I said. “Not everything.”
“Yes, everything. Everything!” And she started to cry, and I held her hand, as we heard Jack cry from below us, his voice filling all the air:
“Low in the belly the town knows it’s been bad, it knows it’s been sorry, that it was okay before but not okay after because the town whispers its fear into the night with my mouth with my bravery, with my dissolution, with my tears and with my earth, with my flesh it makes the name known, of sin, of hurt, of tales that grow inside when we’ve done wrong, of the gravity of the smile of the knight who came rivening our soul, our world is gone but I remember where we were when the knight came riding in, holding his head in his hand, chanting the names of our gods, of war, and of mountains, I remember who we were then and I defy it! I defy it!”
The lightning came fast then, striking the tree, and the girl cried out.
“I’m Lucy,” she said, and she howled her crying tears and I was glad, glad that she was finally a girl again.
I know now that I was mad when I came. The girl is young enough that she can teach me what I will need to know. What I can teach her, I can hardly imagine. But she seems to tolerate my company, and I sorely need her. I know that much.
When I came I believed that the missiles were our own doing. But now, now I believe otherwise. I am not even sure that we launched them. Lucy and I are returning to the capital. Just as soon as I can find her new shoes.