Sunday, July 18, 2004
In This One Wall (part 2) -- by Elliot Bougis
* * *
As he jogged up to the nearest cave, Orthok hooted in the customary stranger’s announcement. The cave, which lay on the farthest outskirts of the Stro camp, echoed with a sound like a bass owl hoo-hooing into a fan.
Inside, Tewla sprung up from her crouching work position. She was grinding mummified truvet – which looked much like torso-sized desert rats – into coffee-sized grounds for breakfast. Nightly, swarms of the mangy rodents converged on glugs’ homes to crowd atop the caves. They made the caves look like flea-infested dog scalps, and snorted lightly like a box of popcorn seeds rolling slowly. Those that didn’t reach a cave in time drowned. Some would tumble off the caves in their sleep into the quicksand – forever. Other might tumble but luckily roll into the caves in the night, screeching in fear. They were bludgeoned swiftly, silenced, and hung up to dry in the arid Geveldarian atmosphere, like rodent figs.
Tewla crossed her arms shyly as Orthok trotted down the cave steps, bumping his shoulders into two hanging caskets, which caught the sweet runoff of the moistening during the night. Tewla never really liked letting in total strangers for the whole night; but glug virtue called for it. She blinked her leathery eyelids trying to see the visitor. Then she abruptly jerked her head to the back of the cave as a deep, jolly bark of a greeting broke forth from her husband’s thick throat.
“Ho, stranger! How far have you come? And how far are you going?” asked Fyib.
This was the largest glug Orthok had ever seen. The largest, that is, in the waist. And the neck. And the hands. And the legs. Orthok himself was quite strong, but he couldn’t help nervously grit his teeth as Fyib’s massive chest heaved, his truvet creaking in strain. Orthok, an experienced wanderer, knew the strength that nestled beneath that shield of fat. Instinctually, he lifted his spear a few inches from the ground.
“Here I’ve come from the Gluggi tents. Ran most of the day,” answered Orthok curtly.
“Gluggi tents, eh, stranger? A salesman, to be sure, eh? Traveling with costly goods, too, no doubt,” replied Fyib, with a shrewd, calculating smirk on his face. He didn’t bother asking for Orthok’s name.
“No, not a salesman. An appraiser for the Qwuadril courts. I’m on my way back,” answered Orthok.
“M-hm, well good luck making the Huyi caves tomorrow,” Fyib scoffed.
“Thank you for your encouragement,” answered Orthok, dryly.
Meanwhile, Tewla was nervously massaging her neck as the tension grew.
“Take your bag... stranger?” she asked.
“Orthok, I am called Orthok. Yes, thank you,” Orthok responded lightly, not realizing until now how charming Tewla, Fyib’s wife, was.
She grinned and darted her eyes to the ground as she dragged his tattered bag and spear into a dark corner of the cave.
“Come, sit, Orthok. We’ll eat,” Fyib said gruffly.
Tewla darted back to her makeshift floor kitchen. It wasn’t yet in order, because she and Fyib had moved only a handful of days ago. Their last cave, in the Nop valley, sloped in too steeply. Whenever sand outside the cave entrance rose too high, moisture poured in during the night. Fyib would wake up with a thin film of the moisture stuck in his mossy beard, and then have to cough most of the day. The move was easy, at least, as they had no baby glugs. A few years ago, Fyib had given Tewla an angry sock to the chest during a less than perfect dinner. She coughed up a few strands of what we’d call a womb, lots of blood, and the Fyib family had no baby glug concerns since.
The uneven drip of the moisture into the bulbous caskets, now in full flow, snapped Tewla out of this memory. She stopped pressing her knuckles against her lips and opened her eyes. As she stood to carry the tightly-woven basket of desert rat and yeed cactus strips soaking in moisture, she saw Fyib was giving Orthok his perfunctory tour of his spears. Tewla frowned ruefully.
Undoubtedly, Fyib had asked Orthok, like any visitor, if he ever hunted. No matter the reply, Fyib would say, “Well, if any glug wanted to try, I’ve got the tools to do it! Take a look.” But, she grinned lovingly. His stomach would eventually get the better of him, at which point Fyib would proudly stick the spear back in the wallcrack, plop down in a heap of skins, and grumble until Tewla brought dinner over.
For now, though, Fyib’s droning, pompous basso filled the cave, as his massive arm plucked a heavy spear from the wall.
“...killed a deklar with this beauty once. Wanna see the scar I got for it, eh, stranger?”
“Oh no, that’s alright, and I’m sure you want to eat. Plus, I don’t want to be humbled too much in one night. First a beautiful home – with a beautiful wife – and now a hunting history of a king,” answered Orthok kindly.
His attempt at diplomacy didn’t seem to work. Fyib didn’t put the spear back. He slowly twirled it in his hands. His eyes never left Orthok’s confused face, which glanced back and forth between Fyib and Tewla.
“Fyibby, you should probably put up your spear now. Time to eat,” Tewla chirped.
Fyib didn’t put the spear down. He shifted from foot to foot, his truvet creaking around his heaving chest.
“Watch your fat mouth, eh, stranger. I see you glinting at my wife. I see you two. And I don’t want to see it anymore. So, we’re gonna eat now, and you’re gonna thank me for not putting you out in the moisture tonight. Eh? Stranger.”
Tewla tried to intervene, by whispering, “Fyibby, he meant noth–”
“Shut it, sand rat. Be glad I’m not throwing you in the mud, too,” shouted Fyib.
“I apologize. I’m sorry. I meant no rudeness,” Orthok barely managed to say.
He swallowed, but still had his hands behind his back, caressing his short sharp dagger in a hidden truvet pocket.
Fyib didn’t put the spear back, but he did slide down onto his heap of skins.
“Now let’s eat!”
Tewla jerked into action. She nearly dropped the tray onto Orthok’s sweaty, grooved head. Recovering her balance, she bowed to her thin, amber knees and laid the tray on the flat stump-like rock between the two glugs beaming coldly at each other. Then, a moment of shallow breathing and no blinking. Fyib exhaled loudly, and Orthok took a slow, deep breath. For a moment, all was calm. But as Fyib turned to lay his thick spear on the floor, Orthok did what got him killed.
Just as Fyib was turning back to eat, and before Tewla’s trembling hand could stop him, Orthok, famished by now, quickly snatched up a thin rat strip and slurped it down. Because he was chewing so contentedly on the salty meat, and squinting his eyes shut in delight, Orthok didn’t see Fyib’s broad face fill with outrage. And because he was chewing so loudly, his lips smacking, he didn’t hear Fyib angrily snap his spear from the floor. And, as the mangled rat strip slid down his throat, he would never know that Fyib always demanded to eat the first bite.
But Orthok did know pain as Fyib’s spearhead clumsily rammed into his forehead, and slid off his scalp. Blood flooded down into his eyes and filled his shocked opened mouth, as Fyib’s warcry rumbled in Orthok’s ears.
From his lounging position, Fyib had accidentally bounced his spear thrust off his belly and only grazed Orthok. He leapt up as Orthok scrambled backwards blindly, while Tewla screeched in horror.
“Deklar death, stranger!” Fyib howled again.
Blood sputtered from Orthok’s lips as he stammered, “Buth I din’t doo adything! Thtop, pleethz!”
Orthok frantically wiped blood from his eyes and fumbled unsuccessfully behind him for his knife. In his hasty retreat, he slammed into a wall. Fire flickered on the walls. Tewla sobbed into the air and clawed the ground.
Fyib stomped over to Orthok, swiftly knocked Tewla out – forever – with the butt of his spear, and grabbed Orthok by the throat. By the time he reached Orthok, Fyib was breathing raggedly, his fat clogged heart weakening. It wouldn’t hold out much longer under this violent strain.
“Stealing my wife, insulting me, ruining my food! You die now, stranger,” Fyib shouted in Orthok’s mangled face.
He crunched Orthok’s neck in his hand and drove the spear through Orthok’s chest. Sparks flashed briefly as the jagged spearhead struck the wall. Though Fyib didn’t notice it, a small clump of rocks clattered to the floor behind Orthok.
Exhausted, half-conscious, Fyib, whose heart had fully given up by now, fell on his back onto the floor. Orthok slumped into a heap at his feet, the spear still jutting from his shattered chest.
For whatever reason, as Fyib lost consciousness – forever – he listened closely to the few sounds in the cave. The irregular plop! of the moisture into the caskets, the sad dripping of the moisture from the tilted dinner basket, and some other kind of dripping, too. Fyib frowned a little. He couldn’t recognize what the sound was. It sounded like very small hail hitting a window, or like gum falling onto a car hood. Nonetheless, he died with a confused frown on his face.
Actually, this new dripping noise was a honey-colored tar landing on Orthok’s face as it oozed from a small, blood-covered hole in the wall. It was a jagged faucet that had been turned on – never to be turned off again. And it began flowing precisely where Fyib’s spear had struck.
* * *
In the next few weeks, as their bodies stiffened and stank, Orthok, Fyib, and Tewla were covered in a slow pool of the endless honey-colored tar. A smooth slide of the tar now completely covered Orthok. The honey-tar covered only Fyib’s massive trunk legs, and had spread out. A few feet away, only a few inches of tar covered Tewla’s thin arms. In a few more days, though, even Tewla would be covered, frozen forever in her slumped position, like a Muslim praying toward the east.
Quickly thereafter, the honeytar filled the cave above the small hole where Fyib had struck. The cave looked like a dimly lit golden ice-skating rink. Within a couple more weeks, the tar reached the cave entrance. The caskets were trapped hanging at the cave mouth forever, full of stagnant moisture.
More of the honeytar oozed from the cave mouth like toothpaste until it spread out flat. It spread lethargically like a mop bucket spilling in slow motion. Only, this spill could not be mopped up. The honeytar slowly oozed from Fyib’s cave for weeks and weeks, forming a hard ramp in all directions. Because Fyib lived so far from the other caves, and rarely had visitors besides, the honeytar went unobserved.
However, one day, Fyib’s nearest neighbor, Kirt Lo, noticed the brilliant gleam of the honeytar in the distance. Having nothing to do but avoid the sun, Kirt Lo hobbled over to the serpent to inspect it. He twirled his five long, white, thin hairs around his withered knuckles. He licked his lips as he came up to the cave mouth, darting forward in cautious little waddles. This honeytar serpent slithering out of Fyib’s cave intrigued the old glug.
“Fyib? Fyiiiiib? Heh heh! Fat Fyib’s gone,” Kirt Lo stammered to himself, delightedly.
“But what’d he leave us, hmm?” he croaked.
Curious as always, Kirt Lo crept closer to the glistening tube of honeytar. He dropped to his bony knees and reached out one trembling old finger. When his finger touched the honeytar, it sank in a few millimeters until it became rock-hard. It was soft like warm butter or shaving cream coating a cold rock.
Kirt Lo yanked his finger back to his sunken chest, startled.
“Hooie!” he hooted. He waved his fingertip vigorously through the hot air. “The darn stuff won’t come off,” Kirt Lo cursed to himself.
So he tried rubbing it off on his truvet. A small patch of coarse truvet fur stuck to the tip of his finger, but the amber glue wouldn’t come off. It stuck hard like super glue.
So he tried tearing it off with his pointy teeth, which worked – at the painful expense of a few layers of his light green and brown speckled skin. His wounded fingertip bled a little onto the ooze, but harmlessly dribbled off its waterproof surface.
“Yow, ow wow!” he screamed.
Enraged, Kirt Lo began beating the slippery column of honeytar with his puny walking stick. The ramp of honeytar taunted him with its tranquil brutality. He struck it so furiously that he lost his grip and flung his walking stick into the very narrow opening still remaining in the cave mouth. Half of the stick had shot inside the cave with the handle protruding.
“Face of an earless juufas!” cursed Kirt Lo as he angrily scrambled onto the silent golden tongue that was almost swallowing his walking stick.
His left hand slipped when he planted it on the honeytar and he landed square on his face. Impulsively, he tried to scream but had to first spit out the clumps of tar he had bitten off when he fell. His teeth and lips sparkled in the sun from the splotches of honeytar hardening on them. When he tried to lift himself up, he yelped. His last five hairs had been yanked out of his dusty scalp, forever stuck in the amber glue.
Then when Kirt Lo tried rising to his knees, he realized his right hand was stuck too. Fortunately, his left hand was free, so he tried yanking his other hand off the goo. Unfortunately, however, his left hand was covered with the tar, and fused around his other wrist, his fingers tightening with every tug.
Kirt Lo shrieked feebly for help. He arched his back and screamed to the other Stro caves. He screamed so hard that when he stopped, he fell forward, exhausted, and landed on his chest heaving. Half of his face stuck in the glue, only inches from the handle of his walking stick.
As other Stro cavers ran to help Kirt Lo, the tar slowly kept building on itself. Inside the cave, a new stream would spurt from the hole, softening the honeytar as it swirled out of the cave mouth to coat the ever-expanding surface. The new layer then hardened like shellac glistening in the hot sun. Only Kirt Lo’s ragged truvet shirt and spindly arms dulled its glistening beauty.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]