Monday, July 19, 2004
In This One Wall (part 3) -- by Elliot Bougis
* * *
A gust of hot wind carries a swirl of dust and Kirt Lo’s feeble cry through the Stro camp. Grains of sand tumble down steps as his scream whistles through the caves. Dozens of knobby fingers creep out of cave mouths. Nervously, curious glugs follow the fingers out into the light of day. Two or three glugs stare at each other, shoulders slumping, squinting in the sun. Without a word, they start wandering aimlessly toward the screams. Soon, all the glugs are wandering in a big herd, following the curves of the caves and the dips of the sand alleys. Some are slouched over, as if ready to run, while others lean back slightly, as if pregnant. They turn a corner and freeze.
A few glug children point at Kirt Lo stuck like a fly in honey. Glug parents push their arms down. No one says anything, but a young female glug turns around silently and runs back to her cave to retrieve an old shawl. She comes to front of the crowd, holding her shawl over head like a cape. She hovers solemnly under the shawl, beautiful and thin.
“Yes, you’re right. We should,” a few voices murmur in the crowd.
She walks up to the golden slide, and the crowd follows her. She grabs two corners of the shawl and suddenly, quickly throws it over Kirt Lo’s little corpse. The wind disdainfully bats one corner of the fluttering tarp down onto the goop. Kirt Lo’s elbow is still poking up in the air. But her gentle hand is there immediately to pick up the sticky corner and delicately smooth the tarp over Kirt Lo. A thread of shiny honeytar slides down the tarp like hot wax. It will swallow the tarp soon enough.
Already tired of mourning, three or four glugs amble back to their caves to sew and sleep and eat. A few of the glugs absent-mindedly begin flicking toefulls of black sand onto the edges of the honeytar: children flinging sand into the ocean. Those in the front of the crowd begin to kick furiously at the sand, trying to bury the cruel golden serpent. Those in the back run to their caves for bowls and spoons: shovels are needed. Those in the middle of the crowd tap their feet and stare anxiously at the shiny ramp covered in sand. Only a few hand-sized spots still glisten through the layer of sand. The burial is complete; the shiny tar is gone. Life goes on.
But the silent golden waterfall is oblivious to their scratchy kicking, digging, tapping noises. Another thin stream of honeytar slides down the sandy mound. The sparkling wave slowly oozes toward their feet, now hot under the sun. The golden tongue quietly licks its way over the sand, across the desert, across the planet.
The glugs tire. The shoveling slows. The sun sets. The sand softens. The glugs retreat into their caves. They sleep. It is, after all, all they can do. Nothing.
* * *
Later that night, at early dawn, to be exact, Kasex sat at the entrance to his cave tapping the sand below with a stick. It was still too moist to walk on. Or so Kasex thought.
Actually, the sand was firm enough to walk on. Deep in his brain, Kasex realized this; he had seen glugs walk around this early before. But much closer to the surface of his brain, where his decisions were made, Kasex assured himself the sand was still a death trap. In fact, this warning was all he could hear every night he even briefly thought about approaching the muddy sands outside his cave. Kasex was positively terrified of the muddy swamps Geveldar became every night.
Years ago, he had lost a brother who drowned in the moistening. The brothers had been intimidating each other in whispers while their parents slept. Who could wade in the deepest, if he had to? His brother said he’d go up to his chest, and Kasex matched him. “Yeah, well I dare you to do it. Tonight,” Kasex recalled he had rasped to his brother. His brother didn’t say anything, he just stared at his parents. Kasex then decided to “snap” to see who would have to go out. Snapping was a simple game in which betting glugs held two long yeed cactus needles between them in each hand. On the count of three they snapped the needles. Whoever’s pieces put together end to end were longer, won.
A dry snap echoed quietly through the cave. The glug parents rustled a little. The brothers put their pieces together. Kasex had a good half-foot on his brother. He smirked cunningly at his brother, who was silently, coldly staring at his parents again. Kasex smiled as he hopped up from the floor. “Let’s goooo, juufas breath,” Kasex taunted.
His brother didn’t move, so Kasex quietly hoisted him up.
“We scratched. You swim,” Kasex demanded.
They crept up to the cavemouth. Kasex prodded his brother from behind.
“Go on, it won’t be that bad. I’ll grab you once you’re all the way in. To your chest, deklar turd,” he whispered.
Both glug boys peered out of the cave at the oily black swamp a few feet below their cave entrance. Kasex spit into the mud. Seeing this graphic illustration of his fate, his brother started whimpering a little.
“Shut it, that’s not allowed. You have to go in. We dared,” Kasex argued, mercilessly, angrily.
So, his brother went into the mud. He waded in up to his knobby knees, and then to his waist, and then to his chest, and finally over his wispy black strands of hair – all quicker than Kasex could yank his arms back to his pounding chest. His brother went in, all right. After all, they had dared. After all, Kasex had pushed his brother in.
Kasex jerked awake from this foggy nightmare when he nodded off to sleep briefly and bumped his head on a pointy rock. He’d been up all night, anxiously waiting for the moisture to evaporate. He had watched the sparkling streak all night, too. Something about the shiny mess enchanted Kasex. Its permanent glow lulled him toward the cavemouth; he hardly noticed the deadly mud below. The slime shined warmly like new pennies on the sidewalk. Unconsciously, his eyes glazed, Kasex reached his arm out to the glistening hump of goo.
He blinked hard and was again surprised at how close it was already to his cave, which also lay on the outskirts of the Stro caves. Kirt Lo’s burial tarp was covered by now, and the goo was still seeping closer. The honeytar was spreading so quickly because it somehow fed off the moisture that rose under it in the night. The honeytar rose with every swell of the moisture, as if the moisture filtered up through it and pooled on top. Then, the next day in the sun, the new layer of honeytar hardened to form a new pallet.
Oblivious to any of this deadly alchemy, Kasex knew he had to get his neighbors out of camp. Everyone had to get to the Huyi caves in a day, which, Kasex knew, not even he could do easily.
During the night, Kasex had tried shouting to wake the others up.
“Get up! We have to leave early tomorrow. The shiny goo isn’t stopping. It’s closer. Get up! We have to leave in the morning. The Huyi caves tomorrow, we have to get there!” he screamed every now and then.
But the winds stole his shouts and scattered them across the sands. No one in the center of camp heard him. He eventually stopped shouting, and instead let his groggy eyes wander over to the smooth ramp of honeytar which was glowing a very pale blue in the night. It welcomed him, and he gradually leaned more and more out of his cave as the hours past.
He woke from his tired trance, shook his head, and realized to his horror that he was hanging out of his cave nearly up to his waist. His truvet pack was dangling behind his head. Kasex coughed uncontrollably and clumsily scrambled back inside. He was that close to falling into the swamp! Once he stopped huffing, he decided again to test, oh so carefully, the texture of the sands.
This time the tip of the stick carved thin gashes in the sand; it was almost fully dry. Still, it was barely light out, Kasex lamented to himself. Knowing, however, he had to tell the others, he exhaled sharply, twirled his feet to dangle over the sands, squinted his eyes, and dropped – onto dry, firm sand. Just to be sure, he stamped his narrow heel into the sand. He was safe! At last, he could walk on it. He secured his already loaded truvet pack on his shoulders, and sprinted into the center of camp.
The caves shimmered dully in the rising maroon sunlight. The sweet smell of moisture still hung in the air. Kasex began shouting as gusts of cool misty wind swept up behind him.
“Get up, everyone! We have to leave. We have to leave camp for–”
“Ah, shut it, Kasex!” shouted Foog angrily from inside his cave. “We do not have to leave,” he scolded the younger Kasex.
“Foog, you haven’t seen it yet! That stuff isn’t stopping. It buried Kirt Lo. It moved all night. I watched it. Go look,” retorted Kasex.
“Who do you th–” began Foog, not the only irritated glug now scampering out of his cave.
“Glugs, we cannot argue about this. Kasex, for once, is right,” cut in Giti, the same glug who had covered Kirt Lo yesterday.
“Thank you,” beamed Kasex, ignoring the backhanded compliment. “I know we need to get out of here, because that stuff isn’t stopping. It just keeps oozing out. I’m telling you,” Kasex screamed in a redfaced crescendo, his lips flapping.
“All right, Kasex. We believe you. We have to leave. But that’s going to take time. A day at least. We all have to pack our homes, you realize,” answered Giti, calmly.
“Yeah, I know, but… we can go now. W-w-we, we just can’t leave too late. We can’t be out at night, we c-can’t be out at night,” stuttered Kasex, jamming his fist into his palm, and squinting his eyes. Fear squeezed his stomach.
“We’ll never make it. We have to pack…” an angry gruff voice shouted.
“We have to carry all of…” began a sweet voice.
“And the Huyi caves are so far…” protested another unseen glug.
The rest of the glugs were chatting nervously amongst themselves. An occasional voice of garbled protest or agreement popped out of the shiftless crowd. One of the children, Vesa, was mindlessly slapping his convex chest with a long spoon, which made a sound like a small clock ticking in a hot dark room. He hadn’t let go of the spoon since burying the honeytar yesterday. He held it close like some primitive talisman to ward off the fear that clenched his throat whenever he remembered the goo winking at him in the sun while they flicked dirt on it. Some glugs shuffled their feet, while some rubbed their children’s divoted heads. Not one of them was prepared to leave. The children had no idea how to, and the adults had no urge to. Kasex was the last glug to take advice from.
Giti stood still in front of the crowd. She was thinking, flexing her wrists like a dancer. The Huyi caves were too far away for all these glugs to reach before… well, the day was only so long, and the moisture rose quickly. Everyone had to pack their homes up today, and they would have to leave from the farthest cave from camp. Maybe, if they started early tomorrow, even on the early, mushy sands, and didn’t stop, and all ran – they might make it. They just might make it, Giti thought to herself.
At the same time, however, Giti couldn’t help checking off a mental list in her mind. Exactly who might make it? With one eye staring down at the black sand, the other secretly eyed the hopeless group of glugs. Half of these glugs hadn’t had to move in years; the Stro caves were high enough out of sand that whole generations had lived in them uninterrupted. But they had to leave. The children had never had moved before. Kasex’s pleas echoed in her mind; they had to leave soon. Even Giti herself had only had to move twice before, and never this far. Her unsettling list invaded her thoughts again. Saaq would probably make it. But Juttui would never make it. Kasex and Kerfa could make it there twice; they’d have to carry truvets for others.
But first things first, Giti told herself, shaking her head, trying to get her focus. They needed time to pack and time to gather yeed cactus, and time to sleep, maybe a whole day. But, as Kasex kept reminding her as he shouted back at the protesting glugs, “It’s still coming. We don’t have any time!” They needed time.
When Giti saw Vesa tapping his spoon on his chest, she got an idea. “Everyone!” she shouted at the crowd.
“Run home and gather as many spoons, sticks, trays and any tools you can find. Meet at Kirt Lo’s grave,” she instructed them.
“But what good would that do,” a shady, matronly voice asked.
“Yes, it’s so hot,” another voice began.
“We can dig a trench in front of the sticky ooze and it will fall in. That will slow it down, maybe even stop it,” Giti explained, urgently.
Frustrated, Kasex jumped in the air and stomped his narrow feet. No one ever listened to him; they were all arguing too much; they had to leave now. He spun around angrily and sprinted back to the shiny slide to check its unhalting progress. Vesa saw him sprinting away, so he chased after him, his spoon wagging in his small hand.
Giti’s strategy struck a chord with the glugs. They dispersed silently back to their caves like balloons in a breeze. Within a few minutes most of the glugs were already back at camp center, and began trotting to the sandy ramp of honeytar. Kasex and Vesa were already standing in front of the honeytar, staring immobilely at it. When the other glugs realized the goo was no longer covered in sand as it had been yesterday, they stopped in their tracks. The only trace of their vain burial was a foggy gray splotch, about six feet in diameter, which showed faintly through the glimmering slime. And it was closer than they remembered. It was as if the desert were melting away under the frustrated swipe of a teacher’s eraser, or an artist’s dissatisfied brushstroke. Kasex was right: it was moving.
Meanwhile Giti and a few older glugs were conferring together. Giti clapped to get the glugs’ attention, and then the older glugs pointed the others to their digging positions. Crouching safely away from the thin edge of the honeytar, the glugs began digging immediately, flinging sand behind them. The tools made dry gritty slapping noises when they stabbed the sand. Some of the younger glugs had trouble at first. Many of them swung their spoons and bowls up and down like mindless pistons, producing only black clouds around them and shallow holes between their legs. One small glug was even hopping from hole to hole with a determined look on his face, trying to fill in the others’ holes as they formed.
Eventually, however, after a couple of exhausting hours under a particularly scorching sun, there was indeed a sizable trench surrounding the encroaching patch of honeytar. Giti looked left and right, and noticed the digging pace was slackening dramatically. She decided they should stop for the day. Surely the trench would stop, or at least divert, this stuff, she consoled herself. Plus, they all had to pack and rest. It would be a long day tomorrow. So far to travel. In one day. One chance. Giti wiped sweat from her shoulders and brow. She clapped again, and told the others to return to pack and rest. The tired pack of glugs walked back home, their makeshift shovels dangling form their sweaty hands.
When Vesa passed a cave on his left, he stopped and peered in. He saw the dim form of a swarthy glug, lounging, miserably, it seemed, at his cave entrance. Vesa tapped his spoon on his chest and approached nervously. The glug shrouded inside was grinning weakly.
* * *
The noise of quick feet echoed through Masu’s cave as Kasex sprinted by his cave back to the honeytar. Masu was sitting almost totally motionless on his floor, eyes closed, head bent. Only his hands moved a little as he carefully chipped away at an oval-shaped spearhead, tapping it on the floor. A single veiny eyelid slid open. He slowly raised his head, accidentally jabbing his thumb with the gray, translucent spear point. He languorously shook his thumb at his side as he stared at the cave mouth. A second pair of tiny glug feet, Vesa’s, rushed past his door. Unalarmed, Masu bent his broad thick chin close to his chest and squinted again at his work. He was getting ready to go hunting tonight, in his sluggish way. At night, at least, it was cool, and the wallal birds flew much lower across the desert when the sun set, sometimes over Masu’s cave. He speared enough wallali to live. And, best of all, he didn’t get so hot at night.
Masu couldn’t stand moving more than he had to. He lived alone, but lived very simply. He wore almost no clothing outside his cave, and none in his cave, which felt like a hot mouth inside. The problem was that with every step, it felt to Masu like his very short, very muscular body heated up a degree or two. If he moved too much and got too hot, his fingers and toes and neck muscles and chin started trembling feebly. Then his tongue drooped from his mouth and his eyelids sagged. After too long, Masu slumped to the floor, spread flat out and nearly stopped breathing.
In fact, that was the problem. He didn’t breathe right in the first place. As soon as he heard voices or saw a stranger approaching, he got very upset dreading having to move and meet the unwanted stranger. He clenched his hands, pursed his lips and stopped breathing for seconds at a time. Ironically, despite his suffocating agoraphobia, Masu was extremely curious. He detested being seen by guests, but couldn’t resist spying on them. In his cave, he spied – safe, static, from a distance.
So, when he heard the unexpected shuffle past his cave, he opened his greasy eyelids and stared for a few moments at the cave mouth, hoping something would happen. He heard Kasex shout something unclear. Then he heard a second shout, just as unclear as the first, but smaller. Masu’s spearhead clattered between his legs. Masu didn’t know what the bustle was about since he had slept all yesterday, oblivious to Kirt Lo’s death and burial. He slowly rubbed sweat from his wispy eyebrows, annoyed and restless. The show was supposed to come to him, but now he had to move.
Many more glug feet shuffled past his cave, while Masu slowly crawled on his belly to his cave entrance. His tongue was poking between his lips and his eyelids drooped by the time he reached the cavemouth. A few more glugs hurried by, not seeing him panting in his doorway.
The sharp brilliant edge of the honeytar baking under the sun hypnotized Masu. It was like some foreign gem calling him to touch it and to hold it close to his chest, and perhaps even put it in his mouth. He was sure it was cool and smooth to the touch. His breath came out calmly and deeply. He slowly pointed his arm at the enchanting cape of gold as it winked in the sun at him. His arm quickly became too hot in the sun, so he gently retracted it. Masu smacked his lips slowly imagining its cool face against his.
Only peripherally did he notice his unacquainted neighbors digging frantically. This seemed funny to him for some reason. He grinned lethargically, like a patient on morphine. How silly, he thought, to dig in front of the beautiful sheet of gems. It seemed as if no time had passed when Masu realized the glugs were turning around. They passed by him, but no one noticed him panting peacefully in the shade of his stagnant cave.
Then, Vesa, tapping his long spoon across his chest, cautiously shambling toward Masu.
“Why aren’t you helping us dig,” Vesa asked, gently.
Masu paused. His breath stopped and he blinked rapidly. His eyes began sagging, until he glanced at the honeytar.
“It’s too hot. It’s too hot to help. It’s too hot to dig. Let’s just watch the delicious jelly. Bring me a little of it, would you, please. It looks so cool and smooth,” he trailed off into a hypnotized whisper.
Vesa frowned sternly, and darted away, waving his spoon over his head.
When he got back to camp, no one seemed to hear Vesa mention the dark, scary glug out by the slime. Indeed, no one thought to tell Masu of the need for escape; many didn’t even realize he was alive. This was, however, fine with Masu. He sat the entire day in his cave entrance, enchanted by the lethargic honeytar oozing toward him. Once the sun had set, Masu could comfortably reach out to honeytar. Because his cave was low enough, he scratched the sand lightly, inviting the honeytar. He looked like someone scratching the carpet for a kitten to come closer. All of the excitement, however, had worn him out. He fell asleep, the honeytar now only feet from his cave.
Masu woke gradually when he felt the sun beating down the next morning. Delicately lifting his head, he furrowed his eyebrows when he looked at his hand. It was ensconced in the tar. He tugged at his arm pathetically. The sun was getting hotter. His neck began sweating and he squirmed weakly. Hot, hot all over. Except, though, his hand was cool and at peace. He grinned tranquilly at the sparkling amber. But the heat was too intense. Shortly, Masu passed out, slumped halfway out of his cave.
In the night, he woke up again suddenly. He coughed violently. For a moment, he had stopped breathing. As if in a dream, his face felt like a frying pan dipped halfway in ice water. The upturned left side had been burned and cracked by the sun. But the other side, ah, the other side. It was cool and motionless, trapped in the golden glue. Masu tried to smile but by now only the corner of his mouth and his left eye were free from the deliciously cool honeytar. He had woken up choking, because the honeytar had seeped into his nose and blocked most of his mouth. Despite this inconvenience, he breathed a little easier through the corner of his mouth. At last, Masu was cool and still and alone. And, at last, by sunrise, he was dead and still and alone.
[TO BE CONTINUED...]