Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Listen to the prologue here:
The girl stops running, wild-eyed, hunted, her breathing the rattle of old machines, of gears grinding without grease. Her head swivels, a bird trapped in the coils of a snake. In the near stillness she hears the beat of her own heart. The pounding fills her ribcage, it swells inside her throat, it pulses afterbirth down the tender skin of her inner thighs. She’s woozy, she sways and then steadies.
It was a sound that startled her, a screech, and it wasn’t human. There it is again! Monsters rampaging off the walkways, she thinks, her fear rising. Phlegm beasts, or hammerheads, those slimy thickskulled creatures seen on the screens, hunting on the public walkways.
No, be sensible, the girl thinks again, these are different sounds, smaller shrieks, less fearful growls, than the sound of the dogs on her scent, or the creatures who filet their food before eating. This must be the noise of the hyenas, known to forage at the river’s edge, the girl decides.
“Don’t cry, please don’t cry,” she murmurs to the bundle clutched in her stiffening arm. She’s heard that hyenas eat babies.
The girl wears a dirty, ill-fitting, public-herd uniform. A pink tease of ruffles and sleaze, meant to advertise her, haunch and teat. She crouches low, preparing to sprint from her hiding place, in the shadows cast by the tall windowless buildings of the city’s Breederhood.
A negative of moonlight etches the city skyline into a jagged silhouette across the riverbank. It’s just the look of a creepy snaggletooth grin, as if even the shadows were having a laugh at her feeble attempt to die free. The girl laughs too. Why not? What’s she got to lose but her life. That end is nigh anyway.
She takes off, running through shadow, then moonlight, now shadow again. The smell of sulphur, from off the river, grows stronger. It’s the smell of escape, from Winkin City. It’s the only home she’s ever known.
She scrambles low over scrub-brush vegetation, dotted like an obstacle course across the eroded dirt. She stubs the clubbed toe, of her rag bound foot, hard against a thistle root. She totters forward, contorting her body, to keep from crushing the struggling yellow bundle, clutched now in both of her arms.
She stops moving, panting until the baby settles, until the stabbing pain in her right foot ebbs back to the dull ache she considers normal. She watches the slow seep of red spread across the grungy brown rags where her toes once were.
She’d tried to escape the city before, when the baby was new inside her. She’d been caught that time, and sentenced to binding.
The girl-policeman, the one charged to execute her sentence, had a brown ooze bubbling at the corners of his mouth. He’d taken her foot in his hand, and fondled it as if it weren’t attached to the rest of her. Then he folded her foot, just like he was tearing at a loaf of bread, at the joints, where phalanges were connected to metatarsals. Heedless of her howling, and the cracking of her bones, he repeated the action on her other foot. He bandaged each mangled appendage up tight, to keep them folded this way.
“To make them dainty and petite,” the man muttered, now fondling her flaming stubs.
Everyone knows that binding is meant to prevent escape from Winkin City, but even now, the girl’s running toward the Bridge of Tears on her government-deformed feet. She’s ducking the searchlights that scour the Night Mare’s land seeking someone to kill.
She scrambles up the cracked and narrow slats of the rotting ladder to a rickety bridge, cobbled of driftwood, rope, and desperation. The official seal of Blinkin undulates atop the blue screen at the ladder’s summit. The seal is an animate coat-of-arms, a frolicsome bas-relief of busily rutting characters. A demon rear mounts a human, who’s already bent over to fornicate his sow. It’s the Night Mare’s chain of command, a visual haiku to her world order. The same image is branded upon the escaping girl, in a tramp stamp of welts and ridges, across her lower back.
This screen, at the top of the ladder, is the last of the government checkpoints before she gains the bridge. Red words loop in ominous silence across the blue screen:
Warning! You are now leaving Winkin City, followed by, It’s not a good idea, and finally, Good luck.
The girl stares at the rolling words, her eyes vacant, her thoughts already on the thing she must do. She steps past the glowing blue rectangle, cautiously, fearfully, as if it might explode, and now everything is swaying. She sprints over wide wooden planks, laid across gaping gaps, to the whitewater below. The girl hesitates. She waits for the searchlight to pass over the center of the wavering span. Then she hurtles forward again, heedless of her numbing feet, of the new blood chafing the old between her childlike thighs.
She stops at the sudden crunch underfoot. She’d been expecting this path of bones, femurs and coccyx, mandibles crushed into sphenoids, illiums mixed with phalanges, maxillas, patellas, sternums, sacrums -- all that remains of the others who have made this journey before her. Those who have not made it to the Off-grid, all the world on the other side of the Bridge of Tears.
Everyone knows this boneyard is here. Images of it are broadcast routinely upon the screens. What she hadn’t expected was the sound. It never occurred to her that it would be so visceral, the rattle and the snap of the brittle bones. She closes her eyes, using the ossified percussion, she lurches forward, moving now to the rhythm of the clicks and the clacks.
She stops in the middle of the bridge, faint and unsteady. She opens her eyes and stumbles the few steps to the rope rail on the downriver side.
She sees the monolithic buildings of the Night Mare’s Winkin City, glowing blue and breathing, looming like asthmatic giants set to hunt her. She turns away, her focus on the other end of the wobbling bridge, inky night. That way is freedom, they say.
No, not the Off-grid for me. She decides again. The middle is the best place for it to end. She chuckles, liking the play on words, liking that her thoughts are still not owned by the Night Mare’s government-church. She’s relieved to be dying here, with the wet sulphur wind on her face, and not surrounded by the screens, in the confined squalor that is home. Where one is always watched, and always watching.
The girl leans over the frayed rope rail, drawn to the turbulent orange-brown swirl below. She breathes in the smell of rotting eggs rising off the yellow foam. She imagines the water reaching up to her with greedy hands.
Then the twitching starts, heralding the end of her short life’s journey. The contractions, nascent in her hemorrhaging womb, travel outward, racking her frail frame in a sweat of tremors, as whole clumps of life heave from inside her. Blood gushes down her inner thighs, just the way the water did before the baby came.
Maybe that’s what life is, she muses, a burst of warm liquid to come in, and another on the way out. The girl closes her eyes, ready to welcome the end.
Wait! She thinks, her eyes gaping wide in panic. She’s shivering now, the world rigid and then slack. There’s something left to do. It’s the reason for coming all this long way.
The girl casts frantically about the growing shadows of her thoughts, searching for the vital memory.
Then the bundle, inside the crook of her cramping arm, begins to squirm. Yes, the baby, she sighs with relief, that’s it, I must get rid of the baby.
She tugs the bundle from inside her shawl. It’s swaddled mummy-like, in saffron cloth. All of its yellow points are kicking. It makes a sound like a wounded cat.
She named the baby, Lily, after a flower she once saw. It was just a fleeting image, on a random screen, instantly stomped under a monster’s claw, but the lily was something to think about, to travel away from the horrors of everyday.
The young mother’s vision blurs. She brushes her lips across the place she thinks Lily’s soft round cheek might be. Then she raises the squalling baby overhead.
The sudden glare of a searchlight traps her in its beam, hollow eyed, in stasis, the yellow bundle flailing. The wind whips at the girl’s hair, her brown face is wet.
Then she hurls the wriggling bundle of Lily with all of her might.
Lily sails out a long way before hitting the whitewater. Then she arcs and skitters from crest to wave, rushed along on the yellow foam, so that her mother needn’t watch her drown.
But Lily’s mother is already dead, another lump of cloth up on the Bridge of Tears. Her body is destined to be picked clean by the carrion eaters, who’ve claimed this span as buffet. Leaving behind naught but bleached bones, and shards of cloth, mingled in with the others to remember her by.
Some nights, they say, when the wind blows right from the Left lands toward Winkin City, a sound of wailing comes in that wind. It’s a howl made up of sobbing and shrieking and mournful high pitched cries. Some say it’s the noise of the hyenas feasting; others are certain it’s the dead mothers shrieking; still others say it’s the colicky cries of the drowned babies. No matter its cause, this wind chills all Winkins down to the bone, when it comes.
It’s said of those mothers, the ones whose babies vanish in the arms of the white water’s foam, that they believe their girls are rescued. They imagine them living fruitful lives in the wilds of Off-grid. If the truth be known, there are those who have survived flight off the Bridge of Tears, and baby Lily is one of them.