The Long Man is a novelette of six chapters, posted over six days -- by me, your damp and soggy host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Be advised that while driving in foul weather it is important to hit the brakes with both frequency and force in order to best keep those driving behind you on their toes.
And now, today's chapter:
I'm ugly. Make no mistake about it.
I have only the haziest recollection of my mother but I do remember that she looked a lot like me, so I come by some of it naturally. Nobody thought we were ugly at the time, but times have changed. Back then ridges over the eyes were quite chic and everybody considered being squat and bulky rather alluring. I'm quite hairy, and by modern standards I'm short. Also, I only have one eyebrow, and that puts a lot of people off.
The other part of it has nothing to do with how I started out but more to do with where I've been. For instance, this one time in the sixteenth century, they told me I had to accept Christ again or they'd pull out my fingernails. So I accepted Christ and you know what they did? They pulled them out anyway, just to make sure. So from then on my right hand has been a little funny looking, like I have a fistful of badly tied sausages.
To match, my left foot has been missing for ages. It was pulped by rot after being crushed between rocks during a construction accident on the Nile, years and years ago. I've worn various prostheses over the centuries -- some good, some not so good -- and really I haven't much missed having the foot. Sometimes my limp makes my lower back ache, but you have to expect some wear and tear as you get on.
In my dreams I can still run, speeding grass blurring beneath me. It's nice. I don't deny that. But I'm not bitter. So I can't run when I'm awake -- what's the big deal? I sleep a lot.
Of course running isn't nearly as important as it used to be. We used to run to eat, but now people run to burn off excess food. Maybe I'd miss it more if my life depended on it, but then again my life depends on so little so who's to say?
Que sera, sera.
I have this friend, Aum, who lives in India. He always lives in India. Whenever I swing by he bugs me to settle down somewhere and get in touch with the infinite. I always say the same thing; I shrug and tell him, "Nomadic life is in my blood. I have to keep moving. If that comes to changing you'll be the first man I'll tell."
And Aum is fine with that. I press the joke sometimes. "How about you coming along with me for a couple of laps? You wouldn't be so skinny if you'd just walk around a mite."
Aum waves it off. "Ask me again in one hundred years, my friend."
He serves excellent tea, but he only drinks water. He eats no meat but permits me to eat meat at his house. He's flexible, in other words. Which is the only way to be if you want to hang in there. It's the excitable ones that swim in all kinds of grief.
Take Prester John for example. He's constantly banging his head against one wall or another. I'm always sure his next martyrdom will be his last. I ask him, "How's the kingdom of peace going, John?"
He smirks grimly and spreads his hands helplessly, "And yet I believe."
I clap him on the shoulder for reassurance, sometimes too hard. I'm clumsy that way.
Prester John also used to hang around India a lot, but these days nothing can shake him loose from America. He's always farting around with one hare-brained scheme or another over there. Lately everything with him is about his pet conglomerated pan-media multinational corporation -- it's a bit of an obsession. They make movies and theme parks and hotels and books and toys and gated communities. He won't stop talking about it -- blah, blah, blah -- which is one of the reasons I just steer clear of the whole continent nowadays.
There are a few more of us here and there. They're all kids, though, compared to me. Aum's pretty long too, I guess. But not so long as my long.
Every once in a while you run into somebody you didn't know was there, like the time in the third century before Christ when I first met Ella. She'd been doing laps for almost two thousand years before we crossed paths in Patagonia. It was spring.
She was something else: tall, black, muscular, fearless.
I spent some time watching her before I went in to introduce myself. I skulked in the bushes, as is my wont. She was palling around with a bunch of Tehuelche tribes unified under her banner of agricultural reforms and goddess worship, building an impressive army of hybrids with cocoa skin who stood a head taller than their kin.
Setting yourself up as a god on Earth may seem a touch self-indulgent at first blush, but I'll be the first one to admit that from time to time it cures what ails you. I myself once had a middling impressive kingdom in Britain before it all fell to ruin. Those guys were great. They carved a giant picture of me on Windover Hill, over two hundred feet long. I was really touched. They even included my bad foot. You just can't beat Druids for hospitality.
At any rate I first approached Ella while she was riding in an ornate litter at the head of a long parade of priests and hybrid soldiers decked out in their finest feathers and wool, winding along the bottom of a rocky valley in the foothills of the Andes on their way to their solstice temple. I didn't really have a plan. All I knew was that watching her ample body sway and shudder atop the litter was getting me randy, and at a certain point I just couldn't help myself anymore.
I stepped out from behind a boulder and said, "Ut vales hatie mane?"
The parade compacted to a rapid halt, barking guards surrounding me with spears and grimaces. I put my big hands up and smiled at Ella, trying again in another tongue. "Mwa shilwa?"
But she'd understood the Latin well enough. She slipped off the litter and marched through the ring of guards, bringing her violet-brown muzzle to only inches from my own face. In Latin she grunted, "What are you? A daemon?"
"Heavens, no," I said, smiling in a friendly way. "My name is Lallo. I'm from Spain. I was just in the neighbourhood and I couldn't help but stop to admire your little fiefdom here. Say, are those soldiers hybrids?"
Ella narrowed her eyes. "What do you know of us?"
I shrugged. "Nothing, really. Except I should probably warn you that the hybrids never breed true -- at least, not for long. They might go a generation or two, but that's it. After that the babies come out all funny and die young."
Her gaze flickered briefly. "How do you know about the babies?"
"I'm long," I said. "Aren't you? I mean, correct me if I'm wrong but most of the time when I meet folks on strange continents raising armies of supermen it turns out they have the long life, like me."
She stared into me, boring for truth. "You have the long life?" she whispered.
"Oh sure," I said. "I've been doing laps for a dog's age."
"Around the planet," I explained. "Don't you do laps? You've been to Rome, obviously. And I'm betting eggs to chickens you started out in -- where? -- the Congo?"
She pursed her fleshy lips, took a step back, and then barked at one of her men in the local language with which I was unacquainted. A soldier stepped out of rank, grabbed me, and twisted my arm sharply behind my back in a clear attempt to snap the bone. I cried out, but there was no break. He continued to push, grunting. Then Ella ordered him to cease.
"You have the strong bones," said Ella slowly, rubbing her round chin.
"Ouch," I said, rubbing my arm.
"You will accompany us to the solstice temple," she commanded.
"Yeah, sure," I agreed. "Why not?"
So I walked along beside the litter while we filed through the valley and eventually navigated our way to a plateau decorated by rings of precisely aligned stone monoliths. The typical set up, really. My Druid friends were crazy about stuff like that.
A fire was ignited and songs were sung after a smattering of animals were ceremonially eviscerated, stripes of their gore painted on the faces of the attendees and their sublime chocolate goddess. I wandered up to her and took a turn at a skin of fermented milk being passed around. "Some party, huh?"
Ella couldn't move her head much on account of the big feathery hat they'd put on her, but her eyes flicked over to me. "You are an irreverant knave. This is our most sacred rite. Show some respect."
"Oh, sorry." I shuffled awkwardly. "So what's your name?"
"I am Ella."
"That's a nice name."
"They are sacred syllables, holy to my tribe."
"So pretty much everything's sacred to you, isn't it? I can appreciate that. I used to be like that when I was younger. How long have you been ambling?"
"I have wandered for two thousand years."
"Pah," I scoffed amicably. "You're just a kid."
She stared at me, fury dancing in her expression. "You dare to mock me?"
"Not really," I said. "I'm just trying to make friendly. I know it gets lonely being long. Have you met any of the others? Do you know Aum?"
She shook her head. "There are many others?"
I shrugged again. "I don't know -- maybe eleven or twelve, give or take. To tell the whole truth I'm a bit antisocial, myself. I tend to hang around on my own a lot."
For an instant her solid presence faltered, and she seemed almost soft. Quietly she said, "I never thought I would meet another like myself. I thought I was on this quest alone."
"The quest to understand what the gods who made me this way would have of me. What other quest could there be?"
I took the skin of milk as it was passed to me again. "Yes, I went on that quest, too. Ages and ages ago." She looked at me expectantly so I continued, awkwardly. "...There are no answers, Ella. I'm sorry to say it, but there it is. The further you go all you find is more walking."
"So what do you do?"
"You have no purpose?"
"Nah. Like I said, I've had kids before, but I pretty much quit it when I figured out the long don't mix well with the short."
She looked out at her platoon morosely. "They will not be long?"
I shook my head. "I'm afraid not. They're strong, as I'm sure you know. They're durable alright. But they will still wither. And their children will wither young. And their children's children will be feeble monsters for the brief moments before they die."
"Then my Patagones will disappear. My dominion will not last."
"Nothing lasts, Ella. Nothing but us."
When the fire died and the drunken soldiers and priests passed out we went for a stroll and held hands. The moon rose and cast a silver light across her broad back, the ropes of muscle across her powerful shoulders. It took all of my reserve to keep from wrestling her to the ground right there and then, but I was determined to bide my time.
For a while we did not talk, and I could almost believe I was strolling with my girl, back home, centuries upon centuries ago. I could smell the earthy odour of her womanhood, the brine of her dried sweat. "You are very ugly," she told me.
"I get by on personality," I said.
"You are a fool."
"Don't fix what isn't broken. This fool has seen a lot of smarter men die."
"You mistake your gift as craft."
"You mistake my success as luck."
And on and on. Her Latin was very good. I asked after her travels. She told me about her previous attempt to raise an army in Scythia, and I told her about the giant picture of me on that hill in Britain. She wanted to know if anyone had ever tried to breed two long people together, and I took that as an overture and pushed her to the ground, pried apart her thighs and went at it.
She smacked me brutally back and forth with both fists and finally tossed me aside with a roar, towering over me with a rock between her hands. She menaced me with it, teeth gritted, her tears glinting in the starlight.
"Hey, what gives?" I shouted, frightened.
"You will die for your attack on me," she promised.
"Attack? I thought we were screwing."
"I gave you no leave to touch me."
I snickered smugly. "You can't lie to me. I can smell your arousal."
With a screech of hate she brought the rock down hard and fast. My world went dark. I awoke many hours later. The day was cool and breezy. My face was stuck to the dirt by crusts of clotted blood, breaking into dust and flakes as I pulled myself into a sitting position and blinked. I rubbed my fractured skull ruefully and swore. "Women!"
So, there's another reason why I steer clear of the Americas -- haunting memories of a bad date. Just thinking about Patagonia gives me a headache.
But it would not be my last encounter with Long Ella.