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:
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."
"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?"
"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."
"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 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.
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.