The Long Man is a novelette of six chapters, posted over six days -- by me, your horseless carriagesless host, Cheeseburger Brown.
My Volvo is ailing. It peed on the driveway, and doesn't want to drive without hiccoughing. I tried opening up the hood but all there was inside was a bunch of crap -- metal pipes and plastic flasks and oil-smeared contraptions. The source matter was completely uncommented. Unfazed by the burden of new knowledge, I scratched my head and closed the hood again.
So I figure I'm going to be late for today's production meeting. The car has coasted into the village garage and the hundred year old mechanic will look at it as soon as geriatrically possible.
How to get to work is my next conundrum to solve.
In the meantime, here is today's chapter:
Let me tell you about the best time I ever had.
It was 1919. Europe was a mess. I had the Spanish Flu and so did everybody else, the only difference being that it killed them. The Great War was over but its devastation continued to echo through the world in a series of sick aftershocks, influenza riding on their backs.
I wanted to hear Quasimodo ring his bells before I succumbed so I found myself hobbling to Paris, coughing up blood. At the gates of Notre Dame they insisted that Quasimodo was long gone once I forced to them to give up the pretense that he had never lived.
I didn't hang around. Quasimodo has been a good pal, and it pained me to imagine something untoward happening to him. Also, the steps of the church were blanketed by mewling hordes of the dying which gave me a case of the willies.
In Pigalle I collapsed beside an ornate fountain and watched the slowly turning tines of the Moulin Rouge. The sun was setting. The streets were nearly empty, socializing being eschewed in favour of health. I watched an old man pee into the gutter with detachment and wondered whether my will to live had finally expired. I became cold but did nothing about it.
"You have a cigarette?" asked the old man.
"No," I said, lifting my head to face him.
He fled in terror. I sighed and lay back down against the stone edge of the fountain, the chuckling waters reminding me of the creeks I dallied in as a boy. The splash of water always sounds exactly the same -- centuries make no difference.
I was as surprised as anyone that I awoke the next morning. The fountain was still doing its thing, now populated by small brown birds grooming their wings and twittering. The summer sunshine was filtered through a roof of thin cloud, lending it a diffuse, unreal quality. There were no shadows.
Horses clattered by, and on the wind I could hear the putter of a distant automobile. I blinked wearily at the streets, emotionally unprepared for the effort of going on. Once you've resigned yourself to an exit it can be disconcerting to find yourself back onstage.
The tines of the wooden windmill over the Moulin Rouge continued to turn, turn, turn, squeaking intermitteantly. Much like myself.
A woman in a dirty shawl approached me slowly. I summoned the effort to turn around, certain the state of my disfigured ugliness would frighten her away. Instead her brown eyes welled up with unmistakable compassion. "You poor thing," she said. "You have the flu?"
I nodded weakly. "Me too," she said. And then, "Have you taken any breakfast?"
I shook my head.
She looked into my eyes without flinching, no stitch of revulsion evident. She held out a thin, long-fingered hand. "Come with me. I have enough to share."
"I am a monster, woman," I said wearily. "Find your comfort with a man."
"All men are monsters," she said. "Will you eat with me or won't you?"
I would. I did. I shambled to my feet, leaning heavily on the weathered crutch I had adopted since the loss of my most recent prosthetic. She offered her arm to help stabilize me and, after a brief hesitation rooted in pride, I took it. Together we shuffled over the cobblestones, turned down a narrow alley, and found a doorway leading up stairs to a set of dank apartments that smelled like spoiled food.
I had eaten worse things than spoiled food lately, so my mouth began to water.
The woman's rooms were dingy and compact, housing an iron bed with a sad, stained mattress, a small hearth for cooking, a few pots and pans, a splintering chest and a wardrobe made of waste wood marked with foreign characters. There were also two chairs, and I sat on one of them gingerly to avoid breaking it under my weight.
She revealed a sack from beneath her shawl and pulled some meagre scraps from within: two apples, a hunk of hard bread, a wheel of cheese covered in a green patina of mould, a paper envelope of coffee grounds. As she set to fixing breakfast she spoke toward the wall, her voice reverberating dully: "I don't want to die alone."
"Everyone dies alone."
"I don't want to be dying alone. Does that suit you better?"
I said nothing. She lit the fire with bricks of manure and twigs, then set a pot to boil. She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to regard me. Her face was long and drawn, almost skeletal, the hollows around her eyes discoloured and blue. "I was once pretty," she told me. "Do you believe it?"
"Everyone has their own taste. I like my women meaty, personally."
She looked down at herself with a grim shrug. "I once had breasts. I once had cheeks. But the flu is eating me."
"You're bearing up well. Some die in hours."
"I am tough," she reported. "Dying is the easiest thing I've ever done."
Despite myself I warmed to her company, my compassion shored up by her unaffected candor. "What's your name?"
We did not speak over breakfast. As my appetite was quenched I slowly became aware of the unrestrained sloppiness with which I was scarfing everything down. I dropped my gaze from her when she looked at me, ashamed. "It is no matter," she assured me. "You are very hungry."
"I take the last meal of a dying woman. My own nobility overwhelms me. Tell me, what else can the pity I inspire cause you to give up on my behalf?"
With surprising suddenness she reached up and touched my face, her fingers lightly travelling over the strange contours of whorls of my burned flesh. "What happened to you, Lallo?" she asked in a whisper.
"Everything," I said sharply, pulling back. "What do you want?"
"To share and be shared. It is all that I have. There isn't much time left. I want to know only goodness before I go."
"I am not a goodness," I said, frowning. "I am a monster and you waste your charity on me."
"Someone has hurt you."
I winced. "I don't care enough for anyone to be hurt anymore."
"You're a poor liar."
I couldn't help but smile a little. "Yes, you're right," I confessed. "I always have been."
"Let me give something to you."
"I should leave. I can't take anything more from you." I reached for my crutch and began working my way to standing.
She stood up also and took a step closer to me, her gaunt face only inches from my twisted nose. She felt out blindly and held my hand. "Take tenderness," she breathed. "Please."
"I told you I will take nothing else."
"Then give yourself up to me," she persisted, "if giving makes you able to receive."
We made love. At first quietly, and then without reserve. We broke the iron bed, and laughed when we hit the warped floorboards. We kissed with our eyes closed and then our eyes open, and afterward we both wheezed and coughed up sprinkles of blood. Then, for a long while she lay against my scar-studded chest and listened to the beating of my ancient heart.
Weeks passed. Autumn threatened the summer with frosty mornings and cold breezes. And one day I awoke to realize that I had begun living again without noticing, my morbid paralysis having ebbed away in the sweet nights when I embraced Madeleine in the dark and worried about nothing.
I coughed, and all that came out was snot. I took a deeper breath and felt no pain from the bottom of my lungs. My preternatural immune system had extinguished the virus from me and, heedless of the consequences, my body was regenerating. Nothing could stop it.
"You're not dying," she said simply over coffee that morning.
I nodded. "I seldom am, in the end. I'm deeply sorry to have ruined your palliative fantasy."
She looked at her hands. "I don't have the flu."
"No," I agreed. "You have consumption. The mistake is easy to make in such panicked times. You may yet live to see Christmas."
She coughed into her handkerchief and smiled wanly. "You will stay with me?"
She said, "Soon I will not be able to whore for our bread."
I waved dismissively. "Don't worry about it. I'll figure something out. Just let me gain my strength back a tad and before you know it I'll be bringing home a cornucopaeia of plenty every evening. What's your favourite food?"
"Don't be stupid."
"No, honestly: what's your favourite?"
She blushed as much as her pale face could muster, her eyes defocused and far away. "When I was a girl at Christmas we had oranges and chocolate. I don't think there is another mix of tastes in this world I remember as fondly."
"I will find you oranges and chocolate, Madeleine. I promise."
"You're sweet to lie to me, dear Lallo."
"You are the reason I wake up each day. There is nothing I could deny you."
And she cried again, rasping for breath, eyes watering, the day I came to her bedside with a basket of oranges and sticks of chocolate wrapped in newspaper. I leaned down so she could kiss me, and wiped the tears from her sallow skin. Together we unpeeled the fruit and ate, cocoa-stained juices running down our chins.
She took my hands, turned them over. Though I had scrubbed well there were still lines of dried blood in my palm's wrinkles. "Ask not," I said.
She started to open her mouth. "Ask not," I repeated sharply.
In the final weeks she didn't get out of bed at all. When I wasn't out procuring supplies to the chagrin of Paris I spent my hours reading the newspaper aloud to her, fluffing her pillows and rinsing her bedpan. One night as we lay in a pool of moonlight coming through the single dingy window she told me about her brother, a boy freakishly disfigured by fire whom she had cared for as a girl living on the streets of Montmartre. In a whisper she explained how she had lost him to drunken hooligans cavorting in the streets at the news of the Great War's end.
"His body was so small," she said. "I buried him in Boulogne, with my hands."
In the spirit of revelation I also found myself telling a sad story, beginning with my son's relentless pursuit of me eastward across the Russian steppe and into the cold, barren plains beyond. He caught up with me in Siberia and we fought for days on end, tireless wrestlers under a cold sun, blood and dirt and sweat covering us in equal measure.
"Why do you hate me?" I asked him.
"You destroyed her," he told me breathlessly, using the same emphasis on the word I heard in my head when I thought about her, my girl, from so many, many moons ago. I knew that his her was Ella, his mother. "You broke her spirit by conquering her, and forcing her to endure me. For I am a sick thing, and I never should have been."
This was during one of the lulls in our match -- we had both fallen down a steep slope and broken our bones on the rocks at the bottom. We lay only a few yards from one another, grimacing, exploring the new contours of our limbs with numb and chafed fingertips. Dawn was colouring the eastern horizon.
"She left me," hissed my son. "She could not bring me to order, as the world cannot bring you to order. We're beasts. We're weapons. We're damned."
I scoffed and then howled briefly as I pressed a dislocated shoulder back into place. "Nobody has the power to damn you except yourself, boy. You can't blame me for bringing you to life anymore than you can blame the world for bringing any of us to life -- sparrows, skunks, Napoleon."
"That is wrong and you know it. We are freaks."
"I can live with that."
"I will not let you."
"And whom would that appease?"
"Some cause! Have you ever considered..." I trailed off, then continued despite blushing under my own hypocrisy. "...Have you ever considered that there may be a standard of right and wrong that supercedes your feelings?"
He did not answer. He craned my head and looked over at where he lay, his eyes now glued to the northern sky. There came a distant, low rumble like thunder. I traced his gaze and my breath caught in my throat. "Oh shit," I said. "...Not again."
The longer you live, the more some events the short see as rare come to seem as regular as the weather. Even so I am shocked and terrified every time I see a large meteorite plunging down to Earth.
This one was a doozy.
The sky seemed to split in two as the column of roiling fire sailed overhead, the concussions of material vapourizing at the bowshock coming to us like overlapping peals of heavy artillery. I squinted against the glare, transfixed.
The shadows clocked around us as the meteorite passed overhead.
It exploded just a few miles from the ground, a harsh blue light shining like the sun for an instant before it was occulted by speeding clouds of dust, debris and flaming ejecta. I was able to actually see the sound of the thing as a wave racing across the tundra toward us, reflexively cowering behind my arms in the seconds before the blasted air washed over us with a roar.
The breath was sucked from my lungs and then I was struck by a second wave -- this one accompanied by a heat so intense my hair burned away in a blink. I was picked up like a ragdoll and tossed across the valley, my back skidding on the rocks.
I fell unconscious where I landed.
It was noon before I awoke again, and another hour after that before I was able to shake my daze sufficiently to remember where I was and what had happened. My head was bleeding rather badly and so was my back. One side of my body was burned, some of the skin blackened and cripsy at the edges where it hung free. I felt pretty awful.
Using two charred branches as canes I managed to get upright. My wooden prosthesis had been incinerated, the ankle red and blistered. "Hello?" I called, the inside of my mouth and throat singed and stiff.
By late afternoon I had climbed back up the side of the valley and, from that vantage point, was able to for the first time appreciate the devastation the exploding meteorite had wrought: to the horizon in every direction the pines were laid flat against the dirt, smoke from many fires raising a grey veil over the sun.
My ears were ringing.
Dusk was approaching when I finally found my son, wedged in a slide of rocks a quarter mile from where I'd landed. He had not fared as well as I. His body was mostly ruined, and I will not describe the damage. Suffice it to say that significant pieces of his anatomy were missing and nowhere to be found.
I hobbled over to him and dropped to my knees, cradling his head in my lap.
His eyes opened feebly. "I am killed," he told me matter of factly.
"No," I argued, my voice hoarse.
"Yes," he replied, closing his eyes again. "I have already looked."
Vultures circled overhead, their long, diffuse shadows slipping over the smashed terrain. The sun kissed the horizon and the dusty sky turned red.
I said, "You might heal."
"I don't want to heal. Not like this. Not trapped in this body."
I shuddered, sobs working their way up my contricted throat. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry for everything. I'm so sorry you've known so much pain. I am Vishnu. I ruin the world. I should be you, and you should be free."
He almost smiled, his ripped lips twitching. "I will soon be free."
"Are you in pain?"
He shook his head ever so slightly. "I feel nothing."
I stroked his brow with my clumsy, calussed fingers. I wiped the ashes from his cheeks and kissed him. Night descended and he was lost to my view. Before midnight he sighed and said, "Father!"
And then nothing else.
I wept and wept and wept. I clutched his body into the small hours, and when the sun returned I buried him with my broken hands, erecting a stone monolith and marking it with my blood. That's how we used to do it in the olden days.
What an effort it took to stand. What an effort it took to walk away, aimless.
It was with the same heavy heart that I spirited Madeleine to the woods in Boulogne under the cover of night, her skeletal remains seeming to weigh less than a bag of flour. I had held her as she passed, too, the air whistling weakly in and out of her disease-ravaged lungs at a slower and slower pace until she fell silent and still. She relaxed into the bed, her bladder emptying and her eyes fixing cloudily at the dirty ceiling of the room we had shared for four months.
"My love for you hurts so badly it is the only way I know I am still alive," I said to her corpse as I swaddled it and waited for nightfall. "Thank you Madeleine, thank you."
For ten years my heart had been frozen, from the grief of my son to the grief of my lover. Unlocked by the passion I felt for her, for the first time in a long, lonely while I remembered why I bother to breathe.
It's all about the short, like I said. It's all about falling in love with them and crying when they die. It's about caring, no matter how much it hurts. Being a part of the world is essential -- it is self-banishment that makes the freak.
That is what Madeleine gave back to me: the capacity to care.