Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Swan Point, Providence

He staggered out of the theatre like I knew he would, eyes pale and glazy, and I ripped a stone at him and ran. I ran hard. But he was so fast. I meant to be away before his eyes could even turn my way and he was already in front of me, shirt freckled with blood, broad face flooded with red tears. His sleeves were torn, his pants shreeded, deep cuts and pulsing wounds lettering his body like witchcraft. He stank of blood. I thought of what I'd seen in the movies, I couldn't help it. They eat brains, don't they? But all the movies showed slow walkers moaning in the air and that was foolishness. I gaped at him. This one was fast, quicker than any human could possibly be, and clever, too. The thing was howling now, loud flashes of sound booming from its gullet. I scrambled backwards (when had I been knocked down?), elbows digging at the concrete. I wasn't fast enough, though, never fast enough. His body was a blur at the edges, arms like wavy snakes, and the beast was stepping over me, kicking me, reaching those poison-handed arms toward me. His mouth was as wide as an evil book, filled with rottenness, the garbage breath of him on my face. I screamed. I didn't mean to, I just did, and I wriggled back and found myself running again, unhurt and free of the beast.

I pounded as hard as I could past the theatre and that shabby deli, and blistered around the corner of Carter and Randolph. Legs failing, lungs falling in, my sides ploughed up with knotted muscle, well, of course I started to limp. The monster must have clawed me somewhere. He was nowhwere in sight now, though, and I stumbled to a halt in front of the department store. Swan Point, Providence, is a small town, two churches and a gas station, population shrinking. We only have the one clothing store and it doesn't even have a sign, just a few faded letters painted long ago on the brick facade above the high wide windows. I checked myself, but I wasn't bleeding, clothes not even torn. Hands a little scraped from the pavement back there, maybe, but no pain, even.

A couple of moulting seagulls screeched, swooping overhead. Movement in the glass caught my eye and I jerked my head up. Only a row of mannequins shrouded in pinned-back blazers, plastic feet crammed into hard new shoes. No socks. One figure carried a Burberry purse, one wore a black fedora, one smiled blindly over my shoulder, and one crashed briskly through the glass. Clear shards sequined dangerously across the sidewalk. The shattered window looked like a spider-web, and the silent bodies twirled and tilted behind white lines, behind blank noise, behind that pale gaze. This was not the first beast, this was the second beast. Only one eye and half the face clawed crazily away, a great greyish white slippery man. I laughed in shock and spun away hard, feet simply not moving fast enough. That was it, this was a nightmare! Classic signs, weren't they, inescapable monsters, inability to run? And nobody else around, either, the afternoon streets simply bare of anything that wasn't helpless and blank. Another sign. All I had to do was wake up. The dream would be done.

I fell down. Hands stretched wide, useless, shoulders smashing against cold concrete. My left foot was tangled in a shopping bag. I ripped the thing away. The bones in my wrist were swelling, but the pain stayed away. Pressure appeared, though, a felling as if those bones were made of styrofoam. I jumped up and nearly knocked Howard Phillips into the side of the brick wall. Well, he was an old man, wasn't he? "Phillips!" I said, and glanced down the street, nothing there. No monsters yet. "Thank God, Phillips, I was starting to think I was the only one left in this town. Where's Susan?"

"Susan's dead." Sarah Susan was Phillips' wife, everybody knew her. She looked like the oldest woman in the world and wore that pale old-lady-blue that every old lady wears. Her first husband had died of madness. I put a hand on Phillips' shoulder, thin bones, brittle as wishbones.

"I'm so sorry, Howard."

"Don't touch me, I'm too cold."

"What happened to her?" I ignored his outburst.

He muttered something in a voiceless tangle of sound. I wondered how long it had been since Howard Phillips last cried.

"What's that?"

"They killed her," he said. His voice was all bare branches. "She was lying on our bed and they broke the door down. I turned around and saw the dark shapes and heard the howling and they killed her and took her head. My wife!" The last leaf faded away from his voice. "They were covered in blood."

"Where'd they come from," I said, scanning the empty street. "That's what I want to know. Monday was fine. I went to work, had a ciabatta bread sandwich at the deli with Sonia. It was expensive. Tuesday, get dropped off for work, find out Sonia's dead. She was killed. I'm never seeing her again."

There was howling in the next street over. Gunshots, loud ones, a rifle. I felt sick. "We need to leave town, Phillips," I said. "We need to leave town right now."

Phillips was shaking his head. "Where do I go? I can't leave Susan."

"Yeah, but she's dead, you said it yourself. Listen, Howard. Phillips, listen. These monsters, I don't know what to call them, these—"

"They're zombies!" he yelled. "You idiot! They're going to eat us!"

"No," I replied. "They're not eating me." And I remembered the movies again, how zombies swarmed towns and cities and ate the brains of the living. "I've been hiding in the streets over two days now, ever since Tuesday. There's only two of them, Howard, and that's another thing I don't understand. If they're zombies, why aren't there more of them? Aren't zombies infectious? And where's the rest of the town? I don't understand. I haven't seen anybody, or, if I do, they're just shadows, men slipping around far corners. Nobody is doing anything. We've all just stood around and gotten killed. So what if they're zombies? Two of them, Phillips! Screw leaving town, then. Why don't you and I take them on?"

"Kill them?" The old man's eyes brightened. "Let's tear their heads off!" he yelled. "Comes to that, yeah, let's eat their brains why don't we, yeah, see how they like that!"

"No," I shouted. The long-armed beast loomed behind the old man, a bloody grey-skinned giant behind that frail old frame. "No!" I yelled again and Phillips crumpled to the ground, the giant clubbing him heavily across the head and then the ankles. The old man's face looked like the inside of a ripe walnut, dark stains and splinters mashed inward. I started to run, but the dull-eyed beast was standing in front of me. I stumbled backward, but he was there, too. There was no escaping this monster. The beast towered above me and now the second monster was here also, the pale face and quick limbs of him making fast shadows in the afternoon sun, the one eye of him swollen and staring. The one monster started howling, a dim slow wave of anger, and the second beast joined in. I saw the club above my head and darted forward, knocking myself near-senseless against the second horror. I had to clutch that foul body just to remain upright. The taller one grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against the wall, my head bouncing off the bricks. I didn't let go of the gun, though, that enormous Colt I'd clawed from the holster around the zombie's waist. I raised the pistol quickly and pulled the trigger and there was a sound like a stone exploding in my ears. But the first monster moved so quickly, always so quickly,. I never even saw him. I didn't feel any pain, either, but I saw my outstretched arm folding under the crushing stroke, saw the wooden bat whisper into my sleeve, felt my hand shred against the bricks as my arm whipped down and away. The gun clattered out of my hand. The second beast picked the pistol up, cradled the gun clumsily in his left hand. Aimed it at my chest. There was no sound this time. I felt the power blossom in my chest, saw the world sliding upward, looked down at the clean pebbles on the sidewalk, saw the neat hole in my shirt. No blood. No pain. A great weight blanketed my shoulders, my thighs. I lifted an arm, it was like lifting a house, and fingered the hole in the cloth. A figure bent down over me, the one-eyed beast with the least blood on his clothes. Hands on my collar, my shirt ripped away. I let my neck sag and saw the bullet hole again, a small burnt circle in my chest. A faint swish in my ears, and a second hole appeared beside it, a third, five, sixseveneight like deadly magic across my torso, great punching blows. Then they broke my ankles.

The monsters came back a couple of hours later, the bloodier man with an axe in his hand, a wood-splitter. The blade was bright. The second monster grabbed one of my arms and dragged me away from the wall, around the corner to the other street. I didn't mind. I thought about Sonia.

There were bodies in the street. Bodies with smashed heads or no heads, some of them without feet. No socks. Some of them were still moving. The second beast dropped Phillips' body beside me. The old man was still alive. Not for long, though. The axe glittered and they took his head, they did, those two blood-spattered grey-skinned worn-out men. The monsters moved tiredly, their faces were full of lines and sleeplessness. I looked at my ankles and tried to haul myself up, but one of the beasts flashed instantly to my side. How fast could they move? Was I just slow? Sonia had been slow, too. She had edged toward me, slow steps dragging in the shadows of the warehouse. I thought she had hurt herself.

The one-eyed monster raised his axe. I didn't mind. No pain. No blood. Where had I been the last two days? My memory was so hazy. Skulking around the streets like an animal, trudging from one alley to the next, not even breathing, merely existing. My mind tumbled back to thoise movies again. The movies were right. Zombies did stagger around slowly. And Phillips had wanted to rip open the monsters' heads. The axe-man wasn't a monster. Phillips was the monster, and the whole town, and myself, and Sonia clawing me in that warehouse, all of Swan Point entirely, excepting these two men, we were the monsters, the undead, the zombies. The two beasts were the only two breathing men left in the town.

A swift shadow fell towards me. I closed my eyes.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sleeper, Awake

He was dreaming and then he stopped and woke up. The curtains were moving, a strange roaring on the creosote wind. He rose and looked out the window. He was high up, staring at a black sky, and large boxy machines thundering low over a burning black city. Hundreds of smokestacks torching the limit.

He put out a hand and leaned against the wall. Thick flaking paint, old enamel. A gritty floor, covered with cinders. He was wearing dirty blue pants, cinched at the waist. No shoes, no shirt. "What happened?" he muttered.

The door behind him opened, and a thin man stood in the doorway, steel clipboard in hand. "Come."

The woman behind the desk was wearing a crisp white coat. He hair was smoothed across her forehead. Her eyes were large and grey. She was peeling them away. She rubbed the top of her cheek, and rolled the second eye out, leaving two fleshy sockets. In the back of each slick socket was a small plug. "Basic cybernetics," she smiled blindly. "Don't be frightened, Irving."

He swallowed. "I don't believe it."

"Believe it, sir."

"No, they're just prosthetics."

The woman sighed and thumbed an eye back in. "Raoul," she called. The thin man stuck his head in the door. "He won't listen," she said.

"Have you shown him the city?"

The helicopter was a clutching black hand. They sat in the palm and whirled over the city. No roads, he noticed, no streets. And no houses either, or apartment buildings. Not unless those black glass pyramids were apartments. But endless sidewalks and endless conduits disgorging an endless host. The helicopter tilted and swept over a great metal bridge, the crowd ceaselessly flowing over it. Each person with his eyes fixed before his feet. Not a single grey face looked up.

"What's the matter with them?" he shouted over the engines.

"Nothing," said the woman.

All around lay a brilliant desert. He remembered mountains, but could not see them. Far to the east, the land was melted and black. Not a single road left the city. He closed his eyes and wept.

"A mention in the archives, a reference number. We felt it was our duty to wake you."

"You were curious."

"We were curious, sir."


"The creature always wants to see the creator. You are the first, the only. We've scoured the archives for mention of more. Just you, Irving. Stored in an underground warehouse in the easternmost sector. We found your dormitory quite by accident. It's been five hundred years and you're the last man on the planet."

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

He Knows Not What The Curse May Be

There had been sound and now there was silence. The wet and heavy fields of snow gleamed dull to the edge of the tangle, where a horse stood silent under the star-budded branches of winter's night. There, where the hunched spruce cached its shadow, lay a dark five-pointed figure, face upward in the snow. Footprints made a winding line from the sleeping horse to the still body, and a cold wind turned the top branches of the trees toward the west.

"There will be rain," he had said, "And the road will be muddy." He rode on, his horse chuffing in the light wind. "And there is no road," he said, "Only a wet field of grass." And he chirruped the horse, and they followed the road into a tangled brown forest. "It is too dark to turn back," he muttered, and repeated it quietly. The moon rose then, stark red, but white and gleaming later. Then he turned back, in the night, the rain, and the wet grass, and crossed many fields and stone bridges until he saw the old house. The house was tall and smooth, ruining in the red and yellow moon. He rode up to the house, to the narrow door in the flat wall, and dismounted. The slick weedy gravel crunched under his boots. He lifted the horned knocker and sent it knelling through the spaces behind the brown wall. "She is not here," he said, but his horse wasn't listening. The man walked around the house in the rain, brushing away the clinging tangle with his hands. The wet grasses clung to his waist, and ringed his legs. He had to draw a knife to break their overgrown grip. He walked around the dark house; he counted every high window, five hundred windows, every window dark, first to last. "She is gone," he told his horse. "Not one candle burning." He looked upwards, and saw the yellow moon, the black night. "Not a star in the sky."

He mounted his horse and crossed many fields until he came to a great highway. Long fields of wintry farm lay equal wide on either side the narrow highway and its ditches. The man rode a long way in the night and in his heart he said, "Not a single star. I should have stopped when I heard her singing."

An archer stood in the ditch far down the road, five black arrows in that quiver. The archer watched the horse and rider pass under a pale moon. From the reeds, with careful aim, the archer loosed an arrow. The sky blossomed into stars. The horseman looked up and shuddered in his saddle. His horse neighed loudly and slipped into the ditch, but climbed out and cantered across a snowy field to a thicket. The horseman dropped out of his saddle there and staggered across the frozen ground until he fell. His body starred the snow.

The archer rode back to her house and lit a candle.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We Have Our Own

Kim pointed him out to me. In the corner, a little boy surrounded with bright cuttings. The boy was crying.

He hadn't known what to do with those scissors at first, his mother told us. She had to show him how to open and close the stubby blades. The ill-cut plastic parts were difficult to move.

In the beginning, she herself had only admired them from afar. Not to touch them, but to caress them with her round blue eyes—that was allowed. They were her mother's brass-handled pinking shears, which cut excellent zig-zags through flowers and balloons and button-eyed bears and little and big stripes and dark and light, which fashioned crisp drapes and shirts and denim skirts with equally sure chops of the heavy-bladed steel.

And then, one day, her mother brought her a pair of plastic scissors. One red handle and blade, one white blade and handle, and a dull plastic nub to pin the two pieces together. The blades were lined with hen-teeth and bent around everything they were put to, paper included.

Her next pair of scissors were made of an unidentifiable metal, dull and steely with plastic pink handles and blades like skates. She used them to stab her best friend in the shoulder. There was no blood. The scissors were very blunt, but they could cut soft paper and she snipped surreal collages out of many sheets of pink or yellow or brown or blue construction paper. She avoided the red sheets.

When she was twelve years old, her mother began teaching her to sew. The girl dropped the heavy shears several times, denting the linoleum, but her mother remained patient and the girl learned to hold the brassy scissors with her mother's iron-wristed grip.

Four years later, and many papery patterns, she began cutting elaborate nightgowns out of cheap waxy silk. The cloth remnants looked like pierced flowers. She was going with a particular boy back then. He had brown hair and many friends and talked carelessly. She cut herself on the shears one evening and found that her blood was red, and the line was blue. Her mother never said very much, but they both cried hard after the stillbirth.

She fell very much in love later on, and married a man several years older. They had a son. When he was five, his eyes like black pearls, she gave him a pair of plastic coral-coloured scissors. Red and white. She showed him how to open and close the handles to open and close the blades. He spent all day mangling soft construction paper, pasting together a mysteriously ordered collage of clashing colours, harsh lines and smooth lines, sad days and good.

The little boy began to cry. His grasp had slipped, he'd cut his thumb. We went over, Kim and I, and dried his eyes and then his mother arrived. The three of us talked a little. She wanted to get rid of the scissors and asked us if we would take them. We told her we had our own.

"I suppose everyone does," she replied.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Mr. Vonnegut, With Alligator

The soft hair was white and tattered, cropped close to the fragile skull. He was unshaven. His eyes were closed, or twitching with memory. He was mostly memories, now, at the end of what had been a life: floating in distilled phrases and fragmentary recollections, half of them dreams and remembering of dreams. When he began to relate them in his desperate way the nurse would always say, "Yes, dear," (for the nurse always humoured her patients) and would tell Zenobia in the kitchen that the old man was wandering again. "Remember," she would say, "ease off on the medication when the nephew visits next week." And the old man would recover his mind for a couple of days and let go of the terrible things he had seen. But Zenobia always renewed the medicines after the kind nephew left and restored the old man's reveries to him.

On a pale afternoon, muttering restlessly in his bed, he remembered again the day he fled from the town of Chofas Griffon and stumbled across Kurt Vonnegut's mansion on a soft hill in the Florida marshlands. Not Kurt Vonnegut the famous up-and-coming author, but an unknown man of the same name who spent his days writing the history of his people since they rested on the banks of the Nile. For a while he had not even been sure Vonnegut would let him onto those enormous verandahs, much less offer him a cold beer. The old man (he was a very young man then, tall and thin and dark-skinned) actually thought Vonnegut might turn him away. The historian had not been pleased to see him come stumbling up from the stagnant riverside, the thick red mud coating the legs of his heavy twills, the dark hair streaked thickly backwards. The would-be author had rushed down the white steps toward him with a furious face and barked something he couldn't make out, waving his arms angrily. A dark hawk had stooped at the young man as he blearily watched Vonnegut come rushing towards him, swooped and fell from a height with violence. The compact triangular head angled forward, the broad-based beak with the wicked curve straightened, and the bird gashed him savagely, speeding like something out of hell past his head. He had caught the fast flash falling toward him from the corners of his eyes and had ducked reflexively. This probably saved his life. The little hawk pulled out of the dive four feet from the mud and streaked away, blurring out of sight. It had all happened in about five seconds, maximum, and he stood there, swaying, the blood swimming over his face like a live creature and soaking into his shirt-collar and down over his chest. Dazed, he felt his chest for a wound, a cut, whatever had let so much blood out, or sent so much blood into his beautiful white shirt. He could remember the exact price he had paid for it, fourteen dollars off the shelf, a beautiful shirt, and felt regret that it would never be beautiful again. His right knee, the one that felt as light as a feather, suddenly gave way, and he sloped awkwardly to soft earth, burying his face in the stiff grass and mud. As the sky had spun past him he had seen Vonnegut's face suddenly concerned at him, but it was silly, because Vonnegut's face had been upside down. Don't worry, Vonnegut, he said to himself as he lay in the mud, there is no need to be concerned for me. I am okay but you are upside down. And then he saw a beautiful lady bending over him, concern in her dark eyes. And, then, black heat.

There was a coolness, and ferns, and transparent green light beyond the white things, and a someone who hummed inaudibly, just the lowest murmur deep in the throat, who smoothed the heat off his forehead with a red and white chequered cloth. The young man saw wide swaths of mosquito netting looped high above him, twined over delicate dark slats, and he followed the slats down past the far bright window to his body lying on top of a narrow, sheet-covered mattress, and then the beautiful woman who sat on the edge of the cot. She was very beautiful. She was the first beautiful lady he had ever seen. When he was an old man, and had seen many wonderful women, beautiful and bewitching, he still remembered waking up to seeing her, and he thought her the most gorgeous woman he had ever known. Beautiful was just a word when he applied it to other women: for him, the definition of beautiful would always be her. She was dark, but not so dark that she was not light skinned. Like the skin of an apple can be dark and light, like the leaves of a plant can be shadowy and bright, that was her skin. And soft, he remembered that well. Her skin looked soft. She had brown eyes, bright, that burned when she was angry, and reminded a man of everything he could be. And she was slender. Like birds and cats are slender, because that shape best becomes them, like trees are slender, that they bend in storms, slender like the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians in the glossy yellow-bordered magazines at the barber. Of course he fell in love with her on the spot. He tried to kiss her, or just reach out to those touchable lips, but his body would not move, and he laid there, looking at her and the way her hair shimmered until she turned to him again, the cloth cool in a small hand, and she noticed his eyes were open.

"Good afternoon, sir," she said and smiled lightly. He watched her put the cloth down and leave the room, deliberate, not unaware that he was watching her.

Vonnegut entered a few minutes later and came over to the bed.

"As soon as you get well—" he had paused.

The young man gazed up at him, immobile and impassive.

"Soon as you're well, I want you out of here. You understand? Comprende?"

The young man looked up at the author, expressionless.

"Meanwhile," the man scowled, "you're my guest. Supper we never have, and breakfast is around eight. Lunch is two o'clockish, maybe three at the latest. There's always a bottle of bourbon hanging around, and I send Lembett into town once a month for beer. You touch the rye, you pack your bags. So to speak. There's not much to do around here, and if you don't find us much to your taste, nobody's pressuring you to lay up in this house till you get healed or whatever. Lembett will get the flatbottom fired up for you anytime you want. Are you going to rest up here or is there somewhere in town you would rather be?"

The young man closed his eyes. "What town?" he croaked.

"I don't know. It's the town. Probably doesn't have a name. If it's any help, you're about forty miles north of Chofas Griffon. Around a day's travel by flatbottom through the blackswamps and marsh."

"Chofas Griffon." The young man opened his eyes. "I don't know a soul in Chofas Griffon."

The man drooped a little. "Then you'll have to stay here." He stood up. "I can't promise to be a good host, but we'll get you back to full strength pretty quick." He turned and walked out the door. A minute later he was back. "By the way, my name's Vonnegut."

The next morning Lembett killed the gator.

Sometime during the night, the low-slung lizard had crawled up the soft hill, laboured up the white stone steps and entered the house. Dragging ten feet of weighty, swinging tail behind, it eased through the wide halls on its cushioned flat feet, scraping its heavy belly across the tile. Where the hallway split into a T, it chose the left branch. When the hallway ended in two doors, one on the right and the young man's on the left, it chose left again. The young man awoke early that morning and turned his head, looking straight into the glimmering yellow eyes of the monster, lamps in the dark grey skin. The thing gaped at him, great splayed teeth nesting in its mouth, the colourless tongue that lined the bottom of that cavernous hold rippling and twitching.

A great shocking roar filled his mind, and he thought his last day was come. The alligator twisted its giant head and collapsed, writhing fitfully on the floor. Boom! And it lay still. He looked up to see a man standing in his doorway, body holding back the torn screen door. A stubby rifle was held casually in his left hand. A big man with a fine head and somber brown eyes.

"My name's Lembett," said the negro. "I'll get this door fixed."

The young man collapsed back onto the bed. He had lost a lot of blood, and the grueling trek of the last two weeks had been hard on him. Much too hard. When he held his hand to the sun he could see the larger veins picked out in the light, curling around transparent muscles. It had been two weeks of steady advancement, of never letting his fear get the better of him, never letting panic set in. There had been the hounds at the beginning, big red dogs with lanky muscles and crystal noses, baying for hours until his ears were ringing; but he had shaken them by nightfall. In a way it been easier to travel by night, as the bright moon outlined every twig, every blade of grass, every bubble in the mud. Only the water was black in that silver light, smooth and impenetrable, and flowing freely between the larger trees. It had been the water that got him in the end. On his third night traveling generally south he had stepped into an outspread pool, supposing it to be as shallow as the others. It took him so much by surprise that the black waters had closed right over his head before he could act. He kicked frantically and dug forward with his arms, cresting the surface with a loud rush, spraying silver wash. Somewhere behind him a gator gave a crumpled grunt and he heard a large body slip into the water. Spurring forward hard, he crossed the pool and tried to get out, but the shore was bit of a ledge and the large tufts of grass simply pulled away from the bank. He raised himself up in the water and flung the upper half of his body onto the sloping bank, bending at the waste and digging into the soft sides where the roots of the trees slid out of the earth into the pool. Pulling his legs up he had twisted his right knee and fallen, gulping air. It had been a bad pull; his knee felt like smudged fire. But he had gotten up, he had limped forward. If it had not been for the lack of food he would have been okay. He was a strong man in his fashion, given to endurance. But three eggs and a snake over a week wasn't enough for any man and had made a weakling out of him. The dreams had begun then, the dreams which took to themselves the strange essences of reality, dreams of the black swamps around him, visions of alligators and ravenous ladies. Seeing that white mansion high across the river, molded into that lush green hill like a crown, that had saved him. He was a dead man else. And nearly then, too.

Watery sunlight filtered through the broadleafed plants. It was morning, early. Vonnegut was in the young man's room again, crying blindly. His short grey hair was rough and uncombed, matted on the left side of his head. The yellow tears filled up his face. His eyes were almost shut and his mouth was twisted and grey. "Not for you," he was choking, "Not for you, not like this. Not for a soft worthless swamp rat. Oh God—she was so kind, she was so good, and who are you, man? I mean, who are you? Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. You aren't worth the rotting hide off of a water snake." Vonnegut was holding an almost empty cut-glass bottle of rye.

The young man gazed blearily at Vonnegut. "Sir?"

"Oh God, she was so beautiful."

Someone coughed. Vonnegut looked up wildly, his eyes opening like lenses. "Lembett!" he rasped. "Murderer. Come here."

"Vonnegut, Vonnegut," said the large negro, almost amiably, "Who has the dominion? Who has the authority?"

"I am not inferior to you," muttered Vonnegut, hunching his back, "You murdering, cowardly black skinned, arrogant—" he groped for the word, "dictator! No, no, tyrant, despot, intimidator."

The negro chuckled. "Black skinned?" he said, clearly amused, "Who's talking about skin? Remember who you are. Behave yourself. Or you will end up like the female."

Vonnegut choked and stood up, his spine stiff and arched. "What?" he hissed thickly. The bottle of rye crashed unheeded on the floor. The thin amber liquid spread on and on. The young man watched the growing pool, fascinated. It spread between Vonnegut and Lembett like a heady lake. "You forget just what I am," sputtered Vonnegut finally, his jaw pulsing, his old yellow eyes bright and bulging. Dark veins in his head and paler neck grew thick and turgid. "I am of The Race!" he shouted, "My fathers ate yours daily. You were sacrificed to us and worshipped us as gods! I remember who I am, Lembett, you soft-bellied land animal!" His eyes tightened and he charged the negro, running stiffly across the wide planked floor.

The young man leaned forward, half out of his mind with fever and fear. "You are dead," he heard Lembett whisper softly, sadly. The big man lifted the shotgun and casually shot Vonnegut in the chest. The old man kept on coming. Lembett emptied the other barrel into him, a large room-filling roar. Vonnegut grunted and went down, his slack body sliding along the puddle of bourbon. Dark blood, almost black, trickled from the corners of his mouth. His eyes twitched back in his head. The young man saw Vonnegut's eyes twitch back. They met his. "River rat," mouthed the old historian, his lips curling up. Snaggled yellow teeth appeared briefly and he closed his eyes. The young man heard a double click and looked up to see Lembett closing his shotgun. The large man held the gun in one hand and sighted down the barrel at the motionless body of the historian. Calmly, deliberately, he shot it through the head.

The young man began to shiver. Lembett heard him and looked up. "This is none of your business," he said, his voice deep and rich. The young man nodded and couldn't stop. His head just kept on shaking. "Every beast must be ruled, especially the beasts that will not be ruled," the negro went on. "Otherwise all men will be overcome, and we ourselves become beasts, gluttonous, fecund, mindless rovers, without solitary will." Lembett lowered his rifle. "You can leave whenever you want," said the negro, "but now would be a good time."

"Are you going to kill me?"

"Not if you keep your mouth shut," said the large man. He prodded the misshapen corpse. "Besides, you're not an alligator. Not yet. Go, and sin no more."

The young man looked at the corpse, at first uncomprehending, and then shocked and uncomprehending. Across the rye-soaked floor lay the long grey heap of an alligator, dark dried blood crusting its snaggle-toothed mouth, a bloody hole blown through its back, a hole in its head.

"This one and his mate," said Lembett, "were supposed to use this place for a nest. For their children. They came to me a year ago as people, but they could not hide their animal nature from me forever. And as man was given authority over all creatures, so they were under my command. But they would not stay. Nor can you, until you determine your nature. You should leave now."

The young man fled, afraid he would turn into an alligator. The fever stayed with him all his life.

"Zenobia," said the nurse, "we must lower the morphine this week. His nephew is coming again."