Friday, 20 October 2006

The Long Man, Part Four


The Long Man is a novelette of six chapters, posted over six days -- by me, your TGIF host, Cheeseburger Brown.

Yesterday the power supply for my laptop melted. I'm not being glib, either -- it literally melted. There I was, sitting at work, attempting to extrude depth into a flat photograph in order to fake a rack-focus pull on it, when I smelled something that reminded of me an old electric heater coated in dust starting up for the first cold night of autumn.

"Mmm," I thought to myself, "toasty."

After all, it can sometimes be cold at my desk. As time went on, however, I detected a faint but certain odour of burning plastic. This inspired me to look around a bit, and in doing so my hand brushed the blisteringly hot edge of the white, logo-embossed power brick attached to my personal laptop (which I keep beside my workstation for contingencies like emergency weblog writing sessions or watching
Battlestar Galactica over lunch).

I prodded at the excess wiring wrapped around the brick and noticed that it resisted movement, tethered to the brick by gooey strands of liquified plastic.

I quickly unplugged it from my machine, tore through the Web to find out how much a new one cost, and then sighed dispiritedly. So...if anyone asks, the power supply I'm using now is NOT on secret loan from my workplace, okay? I'm sure I'll be able to afford a replacement soon. Just keep it under your hat.

And now, today's chapter:



4/6

Being long doesn't mean a life apart from the short, regardless of how the short may get suspicious from time to time. It's all about the short, in fact. They're the main act. Without them it would be just us and the trees, growing rings and gaining stains as the seasons flit and flash.

I've even fought in wars. Honestly, that's how caught up I've been at times.

I first marched in an organized army for the Mahabharata, against Aum's advice; he also advised against my playing in the Lelantine War, in which I did indeed end up taking a pounding, emotionally as well as physically. The Peloponnesian Campaigns were good times, though; we all used to make fun of Socrates. The Balhae Invasion was exhilarating, I'm the first one to admit -- great food. In the Hungarian Civil War I lost most of my right earlobe to an interrogator's dagger. In the Punjab War I bit off a man's thumb. In Te Kooti's War I burned villages and then had nightmares about it later. Don't even get me started on the Thirty Years War, the Dog Tax War, or the Second Boer War. I don't know what I was thinking.

It was just after the Russo-Turkic War that I was captured by Vladimir Antilovich Barofsky and enslaved in his famous circus. Vladimir and his lieutenants scoured the military hospitals and prisons for candidates for his freak exhibit, an idea he had picked up from an itinerant American named Simeon Netherweather, whom he subsequently robbed. During the darker years of the war Vladimir and his company had been forced to eat many of their animal acts, leaving a void in the programme he hoped to fill with human oddities.

Such as myself.

"Are you a Turk or a Russian?" Vladimir barked into my cell.

"I'm originally from Spain."

"Your Russian is good. I'll call you a Russian."

"Okey-dokey."

"You want to get out of here?"

I kicked a rat away with my good foot and considered the matter. "Yes sir."

"I can offer you food, shelter, girls, excitement."

"What do I have to do?"

"Entertain."

"I know a few good jokes."

"You look like a brute. Are you strong?"

"Open the lock and I'll show you."

Once Vladimir had recovered from his injuries and the wardens had beaten me back into submission a deal was made and I was transferred into the care of the circus. I was lodged in one third of a train car, chained to the wall in reach of my bed of hay and tin pisspot. In the mornings I was given weak tea and black bread.

"You know," I said to Vladimir one day, "I think I would've been better off in prison."

Vladimir shrugged. "The prison burned down. You're better off here. You're making people happy. These are hard times. Don't people deserve to be happy?"

"Don't I deserve to be happy?"

"You complain too much. Stop complaining and I'll find a girl to throw in there with you."

So I stopped complaining. He didn't send me a girl, though.

It wasn't all bad. In fact, there was something downright intoxicating about show-time itself. Vladimir would stand in the centre ring in his brass-buttoned suit, a megaphone pressed into his lips, shouting, "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls -- the Barofsky Brothers Circus now warns that our next act presents a certain danger. Those of you in the front rows afflicted with weak constitutions may wish to leave the tent at this time; for, we are about to introduce to the ring a beast so monstrous, so wild, so untamed, that it is possible we may lose control. Straight from the wilderness, unblessed by Christ, noble in his ugly, savage existence, untarnished by learning of any kind -- the Cave Man!"

At that point I would be pushed into the ring inside an iron cage. I would lunge toward the audience and slap the bars, roaring and grunting incoherently, delighting in the palpable stink of their giddy fear, pacing back and forth like a lion.

Vladimir's brother, Wassily, would then open the cage and guide me through a series of tricks as he menaced me with a whip. At one point in every performance I would "escape" from his control and have to be chased down by acrobats standing on the backs of horses. They would throw a net over me, which was my cue to fall down and bellow in rage. Thus entwined I would be dragged back to my iron cage and wheeled away as Vladimir shouted his enthusiastic apology for inadvertantly endangering the welfare of the crowd.

The audience ate it up. They loved it. Nothing inspires applause like a well-timed release from terror.

One day when we were camped outside of Petersburg I was lounging in the yellow, crispy grass of autumn, chained to a train car, hanging around with two sad, drunken clowns named Dmitri and Arkady. They shared their Chinese cigarettes with me, and sometimes even gave me a little vodka. We were telling lewd jokes and guffawing when I noticed the shadow of a man pooling over us. I turned around.

The man was short and powerful, his forehead heavy and broad, his jaw lantern-like and full of square yellow teeth. He wore a gentleman's coat, fine woolen trousers, shiny black shoes. His eyes glistened at me from beneath the shadowy orbs of his swarthy brow. "Can the brute speak?" he asked Dmitri and Arkady.

"For a bottle of vodka," said Dmitri.

Arkady nodded. "For two bottles he'll sing and dance."

"For three bottles he'll write you a sonata and service you sexually," added Dmitri.

The man sniffed. "Retire for five minutes, won't you?" he commanded smoothly, pulling a bottle of vodka from beneath his cape. Dmitri and Arkady snapped up the liquor and obediently disappeared. The gentleman regarded me and I regarded the gentleman.

"What is your name, brute?" he growled, his adam's apple quivering.

"Brute," I answered, nodding once. "My mother sensed my nature immediately and named me correctly. You may call me Mr. Brute, because you dress like you have manners."

"How old are you then, Mr. Brute?"

"I do not know. I have no command of counting."

"You lie."

"I hereby rescind my appraisal of your manners, pig."

"You dare call me a pig?"

"Sure. You look at me as if I am something disgusting, and give orders as if I am your wife. Is there some reason I should hesitate to qualify you as you have me?"

His lips tightened into a small, humourless smile. "I have this," he said, glancing down at the pistol hovering at the edge of his cape. "I find it engenders a certain respect."

I chuckled. "Maybe where you come from. This is the circus. When pistols are fired all that happens is a little red flag pops out of the end."

"Not this pistol."

I shrugged. "Show me."

His jaw worked with tension. "I hope you are enjoying mocking me. It will be the last levity you experience. Hot lead quells mirth."

"Blah blah blah."

He glanced around quickly. "Do you know who I am?"

"Someone with an inflated sense of self-importance, I'll wager."

He hissed, "I know who you are."

"Considering that you're standing in front of a painting of me the height of a railroad car you'll forgive me if I'm not unduly impressed by your powers of deduction."

He licked his lips once quickly, like a lizard. "Your are Long Lallo," he said. "Do you deny it?"

I must have paled or blinked or started because I saw new confidence flicker in his brown eyes. "That name means nothing to me," I suggested, but even I didn't find my tone convincing. I sighed. "Have you been sent by Moses?"

This time I saw the uncertainty in his eyes. "I know no man by that name," he said truthfully.

"Prester John?"

"Prester John is a legend, you clown. You're only making me angrier."

"Since you've come to kill me I fail to see how that worsens my situation. Speaking of which you'd best get on with it -- Dmitri and Arkady won't hide in their tent kissing forever."

He raised the pistol. "My mother sent me," he said, and then fired.

Before he could fire again he was tackled by a bearded lady. But his first shot had done me dirty: a rude puncture on one side of my abdomen through which my blood was leaking prodigiously. There was intense pain.

My recollections are hazy, but I think I may have injured the first few people who tried to help me. I feel badly about that.

(The whole affair cost me a kidney, but that wouldn't become apparent until later.)

I awoke with Doc Sergeyev at my side, smoking a Chinese cigarette while applying pressure to my wound. The ash was long and presently dropped down his grubby shirt front, his eyes glued to the turmoil continuing to boil out from the angry gentleman as he fought tooth and nail with what seemed to be the entire company of the circus. At work were fists, pistols, swords, dogs, and one elephant.

The elephant's name was Raskolnikov, and at the command of Madame Therriault he attempted to step on the gentleman but was stabbed in the foot for his trouble, causing him to bellow.

Now, you have to understand that the cry of an elephant speaks to me on some deep level I cannot ignore. It makes my bones tremble. It thrills and terrifies me, as it did when I was a small child curled under my mother's hanging breast by the group's fire. Something inside me sings when elephants do.

Acting on pure instinct I got to my feet and hauled myself up to sit between Raskolnikov's shoulders, kicking his ears to show him who was boss. He hollered and bucked but I managed to hold fast, having bested many, many pachyderms in my day.

Down below lay a ring of injuries with the gentleman at its nexus. He looked up at me, his face contorted with rage. "Lallo!" he screeched, "your death is why I am."

I clutched at my wound as a wave of dizziness washed over me. "You're doing a superb job, sir. Rest assured!"

In this moment of distraction four Ukrainian horse-wranglers grabbed the gentleman and threw him to the ground, stepping on his wrists and ankles as one clutched his head between his knees. The gentleman howled, not unlike the way Raskolnikov had.

I seized my opportunity. At my behest the elephant began lumbering away, the limp favouring his foreleg lending a violent canter to his progress. Madam Therriault ran behind us, shouting at me to stop. She uncoiled her whip and cracked it loudly.

"Let us be free," I told the elephant, prodding gently behind his head.

His awkward canter broke into a barrelling run. Together we trampled the cooking fire and upset the giant cauldron of fish soup, then spilled over two bleechers of roustabouts eating their lunch. As we neared the edge of the field the land sloped and Raskolnikov picked up speed.

The grazing horses scattered before us.

I risked a look over my shoulder, wincing at the pain as I twisted. A single figure was in pursuit: the short, strong, dark, angry gentleman who knew my name.

My son, obviously. Mine and Ella's son. Who else could he be?

Raskolnikov crashed into the woods in an explosion of dry leaves and brittle twigs. I threw my arms around his neck and pressed down low in an attempt to secure myself against being scraped off. His head smelled awful. Nothing could stop him. He was like a fist through the bush. A juggernaut.

Like me.

And, probably, like my son. I turned around to see what could be seen behind me but it was nothing but bramble and sticks. Behind the horizon I could smell him, hunting me, furious and fearless and mad. A ruined circus lay in our mutual wake, a corridor drilled through a forest in mine.

My injury throbbed, my vision turned grey. I aimed my ride toward the mountains. At the very least a clash there would claim fewer peripheral casualties.

For he would soon catch up.

12 comments:

Simon said...

I realise now that we don't yet know from what temporal perspective Lallo is recounting all this. He's made reference to 20th century (fucking) Roswell, but for all I know he could be ensconced in a Martian colony in the year 2500, dictating this story into a little blue plastic diary, hoping his son doesn't find him.

I wonder if that's intentional? The nonchalance with which he approaches the details of past events would, I imagine, be applied to his present as well. I think the most specific he's been was the time he said, "... somewhere around the 19th or 20th century." And for him that would be like one of us shorts giving time of day down to the second pretty much.

Moksha Gren said...

Absolutely, Simon. I keep reading the historical references mentioned in the story and wondering if any of them are supposed to happen in the future. I suppose if I were really motivated, I could start researching each historical reference to see if CBB made any of them up, but I'm far to lazy for that...I think I'll just wait it out.

Lukas said...

One thing I've realized I'm really enjoying is the way the characters live through multiple eras and cultures without being changed that much by them. If anyone ever saw the Highlander TV series (hey, I was young...) you'll remember that Duncan fit in perfectly with his surroundings, he became molded to each culture he lived through.

I appreciate how these longfolk remain in, but not of, their surroundings. The detachment makes for a more believable "immortal", where Duncan was just sorta Zen, but not necessarily very old. An 80 year old short person (shortie?) often feels out of sync with the current culture, how much more should a 10,080 year old do the same?

Anonymous said...

Good stuff CBB. This is my favorite so far since Simon of Space.

Moksha, CBB didn't make much up although some stuff is only legnedary like Prester John and some of the older wars.

CBB, elephants can not run, they can only walk faster.

- Orick of Toronto

Anonymous said...

CBB, this is the best story since Simon of Space.

Moksha: CBB didn't make much up but some stuff is more legendary than history like prester john.

CBB, btw, elephants can't run, they can only walk faster.

- Orick of Toronto

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Orick,

The elephant question is not necessarily clear cut. However, new research promises to settle the question soon.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

gl. said...

"My son, obviously. Mine and Ella's son. Who else could he be?"

when i first read this i thought, "there's no need to spell it out like that. it's already obvious."

but i'm commenting primarily to note that i think grammar would dictate "My and Ella's son."

Simon said...

gl.:

Keep in mind this is a first person perspective of an erstwhile Stone Age cretin. There's some leeway for colloquialisms and grammar gaffs, keeping it in character. Ever read Mark Twain?

I think Lallo could get away with much less refinement that what he has, though what he does have is a product of several millennia worth of continual linguistic change -- in several different languages, too. You can hardly expect Strunk & White from someone who used to regularly face the possibility of being eaten by his own dinner. Priorities, man!

maltese parakeet said...

i agree with orick, this is your best stuff since simon of space, cbb. completely enthralling. i want to know so much more about lallo the long. if you turned this into a novel(la), i'd buy it in a minute.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how you come up with the energy to write all this, but I'm guessing your daily commute plays a large part (as you mentioned). I can only go an hour or so before I feel completely burned out--and that's writing, painting, anything requiring creative thought. Great job, dude. You have serious talent.
By the way, I have a question--when did you first start writing? (stories, poems, whatever you did.) And were you any good?

Mark said...

Still enjoying this one.

Now the son is his wannabe assassin. Nice.

Let me just say that I think your other stories posted on this site recently are up to par with SoS. They're just different genres.

Another thing, though, is the point of view.

There's something about the first-person that lends an authenticity to the text. Writing in third-person almost requires a certain formality that automatically makes the story sound unlike the spoken word.

Storytelling started out as the spoken word, so something in all of us relates to works that read like transcriptions of regular speech.

First-person gives the author more freedom to be a storyteller instead of a reporter, without as much risk of feelings sounding corny.

Or, that's my opinion on the matter, anyway.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Anonymous,

By the way, I have a question--when did you first start writing?...And were you any good?

q.v. On Enemies - Darth Garth

As noted in the story, I started writing in the sixth grade after feeling the need to vent my emotions following a confrontation with a bully.

Was it any good? No, no, no.

What I wrote that day blossomed into a multi-volume epic of hackery, consumed principly by my younger brother and by my best friend.

q.v. Rapscallion Relish - Plotting While Bobbing

Subsequently, at Butcher-of-the-Somme Secondary School I wrote a couple of one-act plays that were staged by the local drama concern. They were pretentious and heavily surreal, with a few typical Cheeseburger Brown jokes tossed in.

Then I pretty much wrote next to nothing for a decade until blogging started to happen, at which point I distilled a movie-that-would-never-be idea out of my idea in the form of a poorly written story that I posted to the Web, and then received a surprising amount of enthusiastic fan mail (where, basically, any amount was surprising).

q.v. Wile

Since that went well I continued to shove stuff at the net in hopes of finding something that caught folks' imaginations, culminating in last year's The Darth Side fun, which lead directly into the Simon of Space blook.

q.v. The Darth Side, Simon of Space

I then took six months off to become adjusted to having two children and a full-time desk job. In August of this year I started this weblog, which brings us up to the present.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown