Wednesday 18 October 2006

The Long Man, Part Two

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."

"What quest?"

"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?"

"I walk."

"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.


Moksha Gren said...

I'm dismayed at how often I find myself posting "I agree with Simon." But darn it, he posts so fast and says such infuriatingly interesting things.

But anyway, I agree with Simon. And while I do like the first person narrative, I think one of the things that makes this more engaging is the sci-fi/magical element. Your writing has a darkness behind it that, while interesting and thought provoking, can feel a little heavy some times. The addition of some fantastic elements works well with the them some balance. That's just my opinion. And I do tend to gravitate toward stories with some bit of "magic" in it, so I may very well be biased.

Ray Merkler said...

I'm really digging the whole idea of exploring just what the bloody hell one does with his time when he's immortal. Eventually, it would have to get to the point where even the extraordinary becomes mundane, wouldn't it? I like his laid back descriptions of such things as raising a personal army and endlessly walking around and around the planet, as if to say, what else have I got to do?

Fantastically clever concept, sir. I'm looking forward to the rest.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

The thing about first person narrative is that I find it too easy, and I become lazy. A large part of what I consider "experimental" about this blog is not experimental in a wide sense but in a personal sense -- it means breaking away from my familiar crutches and trying to gain some mastery of the third person.

I do admit to a real love of the first person, though. There's nothing like it.

I'm getting into this story the further I go, and I now regret that I set the upper limit at just six chapters. Oh well -- it is perhaps a storyline I'll return to later.

Dear Moksha,

You have to get up awfully early in the morning to beat Simon. He's a voracious reader and a speedy typist, clearly, whose comments always manage to be thoughtful. We should pin him with some sort of blogging community award.

There is definitely an element of the fantastical in this story that I've been staying away from recently as part of an effort to broaden the appeal of the stories to those who fantasticism in any form is unattractive or disconcerting. You know in my heart of hearts that it takes a serious effort not to devolve into nothing but robots and spaceships, but I don't regret the effort -- I'm working hard to improve my craft here, and to me that means branching out some.

Dear Ray,

Thanks for troubling to comment. What I'm trying to avoid here is what I consider to be a classic cliche of the immortality conceit: the bored immortal. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the concept, but it's been done to death.

In contrast, I wanted my long-lived protagonist to have a primal lust for life that keeps him from beyond paralytically jaded -- which may or may not have some relevance in metaphor to our own short lived lives, depending on how didactically one chooses to interpet my tales.

Cheeseburger Brown

Moksha Gren said...

I certainly didn't mean to diminish your efforts at expansion. I think forcing yourself to do things that are difficult for you is great for an artist of any kind, so you know I'll be here with or without robots. However, I just happen not to be one of those people who are repelled by fantasy, so I must admit that this story feels to me like slipping on flannel pajamas on a chilly evening. But, I have been enjoying your "real world" stuff as well.

As an aside, however, I think society's appetite for fantasy has increased of late. If television programming is any indication...there's Lost and this new Heroes that are both getting huge viewership on primetime spots. And Hollywood has been chin-deep in fantasy pics these last few years. I just don't think that fantasticism is the marginalized medium it once was.

I guess my point is... go ahead and work on your weak points. Tie one hand behind your back. Lock the camera in one room of the apartment. Climb the steeper face of Everest. But if you don't occasionally apply what you've learned to a really cool robot would be a shame.

Teddy said...

So...What about those people who he saw, with the bear that one time? Will they come back, or will there be any explanation as to how they made him Long?

Personally, I find it very comforting that someday I will die. Of course, I also am attracted to atheism as a comfort, so maybe I'm not the best person to ask about it.

Then again, nobody asked me.


Mark said...

Great so far. I can't say much that nobody's said already.

Except, one tick. Why would long Ella just now, after 2000 years of life, be learning that her offspring will die? That seems odd that she would have waited until that ripe old age to bear children.

But, I'm absolutely eating this one up. I know what you mean about first person. I switch to third person too, to challenge myself and to give the reader more angles at the same events.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... less violent than "Highlander", if only marginally :-)

CBB, are you drawing on any particular inspiration(s) for this tale?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

A reasonable dip in credibility, to be sure. The basis of my explanation is that it can be hard to discern whether or not someone dies of old age if one is living in conditions when death comes from other sources (violence, disease, starvation). Remember, Ella does not have firm knowledge of the bounds of her own specialness.

I would imagine that during Ella's early years, before she recognized her condition, having children grow up and die wouldn't seem unusual. Upon recognizing her condition she may have initially found herself ostracized or simply disenfranchised with the idea of living a normal life. Her next attempt to breed involved raising an army of Scythian Amazones -- an army ultimately defeated (i.e., killed). Raising the Patagones would then be her next project, and she would have many decades to wait to find out her men could die of old age.

But, like I said, you've put your thumb in a soft spot -- it is a stretch to keep it plausible.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

I find the story intersting thus far.

I like some of your stories better than others, but none so far that I haven't enjoyed at least a little bit.

This story, I think, is one of the better ones, but it is a work in progress...

Mark said...

CBB - Makes sense to me.

This story had me hooked very early, like Simon of Space.

There's writing in first-person, and then there's truly getting inside that person's head. You do both extremely well.

Anonymous said...

I like this.
On the long man; He's been a feature of primal western european mythology for millenia, a couterpart to the feminine side of the fertility 'god'. He is said to represent the darker, more violent, masculine persona of fertility. Moving from place to place, not hanging around to look after the kids. He also featured in the Terry Pratchett book 'Lords and Ladies' in the form of an amusingly arragned set of earthworks (I'll leave that to your imagination) I could go on for ever about jungian archetypes and the evolution of the long man into our current idea of god as male and all powerful but I wouldn't want to bore you. It wouldn't be half as entertaining as this story.