Thursday, March 29, 2012
The Soldier with One Eye had once been introduced to me, at a salon nearly 30 years earlier. His name was irrelevant at the time, and irrelevant still. It was simply his single, emerald green eye, on the right side, which never seemed to relax, which served as his personality and his name. In truth, his name was Agent Dicatur, but I never heard anybody refer to him as anything other than “Sir”. I never had a need to refer to him at all. His left eye was covered in a weathered grey patch with a rather elegant silver thread embroidery around the edges. It was the only soft thing about him. Somebody made him that patch, somebody with a feminine softness. If anybody ever knew who that somebody was, they were not in Zanzibar.
I arrived to the fete in my least impressive suit, quite deliberately. It was my intent to prove to Gibney that I was entirely incapable of handling anything. I had gone out of my way to pull an old stick out of the back alley, which I hobbled on rather desperately. The Soldier with One Eye had been the first to meet me.
“Must show you giant,” he said, in a dreary monotone. “You are on the list. Follow me.”
He slowly led me to the courtyard of the Greeves Institute, where the giant stood in her enormous brass cage, which loosely followed the contours of her body.
“My God,” I gasped.
The giant, within the cage which formed an open sort of Iron Maiden, was wrapped in iron chains. To prevent the possibility of her shifting her weight, the cage was sunk deep into the ground, and equally heavy chains were tenting out from the cage itself, attached to vast cement pyramids that Gibney had designed as anchors. They bore a stylized image of the giantess herself, identical to the image on Gaffney’s silver coat buttons. Within seconds I realized that situated around the courtyard were crimson banners on poles that bore the same device. I turned back to look at her eye, which was shut. She breathed slightly, enough for me to know that she was alive. I was amazed that she remained standing, although the tightness of the cage prevented any movement and forced her to remain in the position.
Scattered throughout the courtyard were Gibney’s retinue, several dozen of the higher ranking Mercenaries, a few Carnies who had dressed up for the event, and all of the scientists. Like myself, they were mandated to be present. Gibney stood at the far corner of the square, chatting with a squat, unhealthy looking man who was dressed far too warmly for the weather. I avoided his glance and approached the giant.
“Is she to be standing like this all the time?” I asked the Soldier with One Eye.
“Not my concern,” he said. He seized a piece of Melba Toast from the buffet as he led me closer. He gobbled it down like a frog snatching a fly. “Told she will be sedated, your first orders. Don’t see need. Won’t open her eye, won’t look at us.” He grabbed a glass of the carbonated Artificial Wine Plus that was being passed around by a few Opportunist waiters, all of whom were dressed in identical tuxedos of an embarrassingly sheer blue crepe. I took one out of politeness.
“How tall is she?” I asked.
“Not my concern,” he said. “Told she is three stories. Measuring is up to you. Keeping her in the cage is my concern. Keep her in the cage and I won’t be concerned.”
“Not your concern,” I muttered. “Obviously.”
Gibney had seen me, and was quite clearly in the process of separating himself from the shopkeeper he was in mid-haggle with. I knew I had a few moments before he could successfully do so. I turned from the giantess to scan the rest of the room, noticing both Drusilla and Festus Gargg. They both gave me slight waves as I made eye contact and I casually returned it, making sure to end the gesture with snapping an amuse bouche from a passing waiter. I did not yet see Gaffney.
Appearing suddenly was Ephidious Higgenbotham, smiling enormously and extending his hand to greet mine.
“Dr. Thwack! Pleasant to see you again. Enjoying the party?” He didn’t even pause for me to respond. “The giant is looking fantastic, glad to see she’s in good health, wouldn’t want anything to sneak up on us in the bad news department, especially now that we’re working together on the research project, would we?”
“We are? You’re involved?”
“I was appointed just this morning to be your amanuensis. Nothing special, just taking notes and filing all the proper paperwork, making sure your comments are properly correlated to established findings, so on and so forth.”
I choked on my amuse bouche, a bolus of clotted cream and crab roe flew up my nose and lodged itself into exactly that part of the sinuses which results in extreme pain and the sensation of drowning. I withdrew my handkerchief and shot the concoction out my nostril with a sting and saltiness which cannot be properly described unless describing it knowingly to somebody else who has had a bolus of clotted cream and crab roe sucked up into the sinus cavity. In such a case, certain wincing glances and woeful downcast stares would be all that is necessary to convey the agony. Higgenbotham, sensing my distress, slapped me on the back repeatedly, grabbing my glass as he did so.
My hope of having a few moments to compose myself before Gibney arrived was dashed, and I was forced to stoop to pick up my glasses, which had fallen on the ground in my fit of cream and crab distemper. I put them on my face only to discover the lens was cracked. I am quite sure, to this day, that Higgenbotham had actually stepped on them as he distracted me with the back slapping. Quite sure.
“The man of the hour is here, everybody!” Gibney shouted. He motioned for everyone present to attend me. An unseen band began to play a cheerful martial tune. Higgenbotham made sure to stand to the right of me in case of photographers, so as to have his name be mentioned before my own in the Zanzibar Proconsul, the rag Gibney had published on a weekly basis to tout his own genius.
Turning around, and for perhaps the first time in my life since I arrived, I noticed just how many people there are in Zanzibar. Perhaps I had been locked up in my office for too long. I took a deep breath. Entering the courtyard at the far end, as Gibney prattled on about my achievements, Gaffney entered. Argus and Milo followed behind. Gaffney was wearing a plum colored situation that could only be described as a ludicrous silk balloon. Argus wore an ill fitting suit of secondhand tweed, while Milo wore something akin to a plaid bathrobe, only quite seriously.
Milo and Argus held back by the buffet board. Gaffney twirled about the crowd, shaking all hands he met. The group parted, like soldiers at a parley. “Gibney!” shouted Gaffney, an insincere but well rehearsed smile bisecting his face.
Gibney’s lips curled as if he had eaten a boatload of desert apples. “Glad to see you, Gaffney. Have you met the giantess?”
“I haven’t yet shaken her finger, no, dear brother. In due time. However, however, however, I thought I might introduce you to a protege of mine, an equal to your own Mr. Higgenbotham. Argus, my monolithic friend? Find yourself hence and meet the second greatest scientist to ever grace our beloved colony.”
Gibney’s glance turned, hawk-like, to the new face, who was enjoying a lobster croute en papillote enchilada toastette from the buffet.
“Come here then,” Gibney said. Taking the cue to position himself into a position of theatrical lordship, Gibney seized a glass and moved to a camp chair nearby which had been set up for the eventual court that would have built up eventually anyway as the night carried on and the partygoers would switch into bootlicking mode. He prematurely collapsed it, less sitting and more flopping. “And they’re taking time out of their party for you, sir, so at least make it radiant,” he added.
Milo courageously swallowed a bite of roast grouse Argentine and led Argus near, deferentially bowing and stepping away when Argus was deposited in front of Gibney. He disappeared into the half moon crowd engaging in the scene. As usual, Ephidious Higgenbotham was well positioned off on the far right.
“Argus comes well qualified,” Gaffney said. “He’s sort of your do-it-all-man. Fixes, cleans, adjusts, maladjusts, situates, advances, delineates, defines, makes it all run. Bit of a mechanical genius, I’d say. Horologist. Clocks. Fine clockwork. Work. Works on clocks. Do you know what we need, Gibney? Gibbers? Gibberidoo?”
“We have clock, Gaffney. You’re boring me.”
Indeed, there was a large clock on the top floor of the Greeves Institute. It was operated on the Greeves Principle, a complicated system of weights which very nearly, although not quite, replicated perpetual motion. The idea was to sell the Greeves Principle as the “closest thing to perpetual motion,” knowing all along that the Greeves Institute had achieved perpetual motion all along, quite willing to withhold it and present it in increasingly minute details so as to milk the profits as long as possible. The difficult with something “perpetual”, however, seems to be that an infinite proposal is, in fact, binary: either it is “perpetual” or it is not “perpetual”. No gradation in the idea exists, and therefore the market for something very nearly perpetual is a short one indeed. Unfortunately, this fact could never be explained to Leviticus Greeves, who insisted on allowing Alice Reegs to market the Greeves Principle as “the very closest thing to perpetual motion.” Not many fell for the hustle upon the slightest of straightforward observation. Shortly before leaving the mainland altogether, they pondered as to whether or not to just release the perpetual Greeves Principle. Reegs never agreed with giving something eternal away, and the knowledge was packed off to Zanzibar with the rest of us.
“Ah, yes, I agree, a clock we do most certainly possess, but it’s not aesthetically pleasing. It merely tells the time. Imagine a clock which tells the story of the Zanzibar people, a parade of automatons that will proceed at the stroke of high noon, the people will come, I say! They’ll come to see it!” Gaffney was flailing his arms about quite demonstrably.
Gibney took an annoyed sip of port. “Mr... Angus, was it? Are you an engineer?”
“No,” said Argus, quite honestly.
“You’re lying again, Gaffney.”
“You’re right! A simple party jest. No. Indeed, Argus is not an engineer, nor even a machinist. However, I’m sure he’ll find a home here in Zanzibar, a place, perhaps even an opportunity.”
Gibney’s green spectacles reflected the sunlight as he turned his head to inspect Argus. “An opportunity? Oh, yes. We have plenty of those, Gaffney. Why didn’t you say so? Where’s Squanch?”
The short and round little goblin which had previously held Gibney’s attention at the start of the party appeared from the crowd. “Right here, Mr. Greeves.”
“Angus here will fill your opening quite splendidly. See to it that he’s taken care of.”
Squanch’s sausage-like fingers curled in excitement. “Yes, of course. Much appreciated, sir. We’ll see that he’s taken care of.”
Argus was led away by Squanch, and I didn’t see him for some time. However, as an omniscient narrator, I’ll continue with what happened next very shortly. At the time, however, I was feeling quite inebriated, and rightly so. The party continued until I passed out, and the giantess never opened her eyes the entire time. Gaffney and Gibney skulked into a side parlor, where they were heard in the midst of a loud and terse conversation. Ephidious Higgenbotham never touched a drop, the leering vulture, and I’m quite sure my pockets were rifled through before I got home.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
A few days passed until I saw Argus again, although the realization that I was not the sole member of this conspiracy slowly began to dawn on me. A few others, most notably Drusilla Gargg, the daughter of Festus Gargg, a sculptor from the original Reegs-Greeves Party, were stopping by my office on personal visits. This was a notable exception, since, as a rule, I never had clients anymore, if one didn’t count Gaffney. They would simply stop in, give me their cards, and mention that they had read my pamphlets. Drusilla Gargg was particularly intriguing. I hadn’t seen her in over a decade and she had grown up to be a wildly flirtatious young woman, albeit an unnervingly tall one. She seemed to be fond of dramatic capes and knee high, high heeled boots. She mentioned a “radical theater project collective,” an idea which immediately made me suspect she was a true convert to Gaffney, rather than a blackmail like myself. I wondered just how many young dramatists there could feasibly be in Zanzibar without an audience of which to speak. Not aloud, obviously.
On the Tuesday following the springing of Argus, however, I received a visitor I had zero interest in talking to: Gibney Greeves himself.
Unlike his twin, Gibney is a taciturn gentleman. He has an aversion to the colorful and eccentric clothes of Gaffney, prefering a pale blue wardrobe of a generous cut and comfortable shoes. His slab-like nose remains identical to both Gaffney and Argus. I found him waiting in my office with his usual retinue of hangers-on, a group of about fifteen people in a room the size of a medium sized coffin.
“Dr. Thwack! How rarely I get to see you, we just stopped by to invite you to the Fete.” Unlike Gaffney, Gibney has a low, almost whispery tone, which one could quite nearly mistake for pleasant.
The entourage consisted of the more serious minded of Zanzibar’s younger set, the sorts who were still convinced they had inherited something of their familial genii, the sorts who wear identical garments less as a uniform and more like a badge of competitive sport. Having rarely attended the usual symposiums and parties that I, as the notoriously secretive Dr. Thwack, was obliged to ignore. One of them, a high shouldered fellow in his late 20s, was actively reading the titles of the books on my shelves, and had seized upon an early Leviticus Greeves text, “On Distribution Of Galvanized Sub-Electrical Neurotronics.” Heavy reading that was not only inscrutable to the likes of me but also something I had long suspected of humbuggery anyway. Another follower, a black-haired little man who looked like a shaved marmoset, was staring at me with all the hatred of a thousand starved buzzards, and he handed me an invitation.
“I can’t say I knew you were holding one,” I said to Gibney. “To celebrate the giant?”
“Of course. I’d like you front and center, Thwack. Front and center.”
“Oh! I’m surprised you noticed. I had them specially made, I’ve been wearing them for, oh, what has it been? A year now?” Gibney’s round spectacles were tinted the same light blue as his suit, reflecting the light in a most deliberately effusive manner.
“At least a year,” said the high shouldered reader.
Gibney clapped his hand and rose, motioning the reader into a hand shake, introducing him. “Dr. Thwack, this is Ediphious Higgenbotham, you do remember the Higgenbothams? He’s joined us from the Carnies, one of my favorite bootstrap sorts.”
“I’ve read your cookbook,” said Higgenbotham. His handshake was limp.
“I’ve read your natural history of the Zanzibarbarian Birthday Crab, Mr. Higgenbotham. You made me actually interested in the subject.” I lied, but such was handling one of Gibney’s proteges.
“It’s a dry subject,” Higgenbotham replied, slapping the Greeves book shut and replacing it neatly on the shelf. He was the sort of young man that had a recessed chest, the type which usually grows out of weedishness eventually. His chest curved in on itself as he stepped back slightly to give me room. I didn’t know if he was serious or just arrogant. “I’d be happy to discuss it with you if you’re interested in the finer details, I find that I dumbed it down a bit for the regrettably small audience of Zanzibar.”
“Naturally,” I said.
Gibney then did the introductions of the other camp followers, but I was much too busy staring at Higgenbotham, who continued to avoid my gaze. He seemed to shrink from view the more I tried to get a pinpoint on just who exactly he was in his own space. There was Beatrice Waggerly, who was some sort of mechanic; Gerard Somethingerother, who yawned as he was introduced and refused to shake my hand; Gerard’s brother, Hubert, who shook my hand much too firmly, pressing into the knob of my wrist with overly hooked fingers; several Needlemans, who were the sons of Henk Needleman, a scientific critic from the original expedition who I was told was still alive and on artificial respiration. And, the marmoset, Gyro Dervington, whose name and face I simply had no connection to. Most citizens of Zanzibar are related to somebody, and Dervington was related to nobody, not even a Carnie. He was the “Greeves historian,” who I assumed was there to act as personal amanuensis to Gibney.
Quickly, the followers, as if of their own accord (but I knew quite well they were trained to know when Gibney needed privacy), left the room. Gibney sat down in my own desk chair, and motioned me to sit down on the psychiatry couch. “I need to ask you a question, Thwack. And I need to remind you that you neither owe me anything nor have ever presented yourself as a threat, two personality traits I simply cannot abide. This needs to change, you understand. However, I have been told you are accepting patients again.”
“Then I’d like to book your time, and bring you as the chief analytical researcher on the giantess.”
He drummed his fingers slightly on my desk in the manner with which one stalks a small insect one wishes to pluck one wing off and observe how many circles it flies in before it bleeds to death and dies.
“Ah,” I sputtered. It was sort of a gasp. “My... new patients haven’t even started intake yet, Gibney.”
“Excellent! They’d not be let down then.”
He rose, and approached the door. “The Fete is your chance to return, Thwack. To prominence. Dress well.”
Gibney left, closing the door without a sound. I could hear the entourage all the way down the hall, down the stairs, and into the street. I was in for the long haul now. I opened the invitation:
YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO
THE GRAND CELEBRATION
OF THE RECOVERY AND DISPLAY OF THE GIANTESS
BY THE PERSONAL EXTENSION OF
DR. GIBNEY GREEVES
“Friday, June 27th, 7 pm”
I fell asleep at my desk, six hours later, after staring at a particular knot of wood on the surface of it, trying to figure out what options I had to avoid the scenario. I had none. I had stepped into the shoes of Claudius, and I had thought I was so clever for so long pretending to be too dull and too stupid to be taken seriously. They had left me alone. It had worked. Why had it stopped working? Why all at once, why suddenly and in such numbers? It only seems the natural thing to do among people who think themselves clever. The problem with this plan seems to be that people who think themselves clever must raise their own status by finding and eliminating the dull and stupid, whether or not they actually are, and those of us who think it clever to pretend to be dull and stupid will eventually be gulled by those who are dull and stupid but think they’re clever, proving that it’s universally dull and stupid to think one’s self is clever regardless of how clever one actually may or may not be.
The giant returned to the camp. She was gone.
The wind had wiped away her footsteps.
Her scent, which he knew to the depths of his soul, was long gone. He didn’t need it, however. He knew where she was. He knew she fell for the brass idol.
The giant pulled his cloak closely, and considered what he was to do. Did she leave him? Or was she taken? How could he know? What if they were what she had been wailing for?
Thursday, March 15, 2012
In the Oubliette, Preparatory
The basement of the Greeves Institute was curiously unguarded that night we two shapes peered into that oubliette. Gaffney had silently led me through the foggy streets of Zanzibar, knowing that Gibney and his followers were celebrating heavily from the capture of the Giantess. We could dimly hear her elephant-like moaning from blocks away, we could see the twinkle of the lights Gibney had set up for the feast. The crabs had been boiled and the Gibney-ettes (a sort of biscuit made of sea-cucumber) were plentiful, even the artificial wine that the Greeves scientists had been working on for decades would have uncharacteristically been flowing heavily. It was a wine in name only, it was more of a verjuice-flavored sop water. As one who sat on the Permanent Research Committee, I was allowed Artificial Wine Plus, which was generally not too bad, although one had to consciously forget it was made from pine resin.
Gaffney had planned for the absence of the guards. We crept to the oubliette, passing Milo’s office as we did so. Milo, the half-brother, was as much a malcontent as Gaffney and I, although he had long spent his time perfecting drugs from the desert poppies to be of any use. We could hear his choppy snores from behind his glass door. Gibney had deliberately refused to allow him residence in the main floors of the Greeves Institute out of deference for the memory of Reegs, who had banished the dope head to the lower sanctum decades earlier for simply being alive. He was of no concern for our dark proceedings.
Gaffney pulled up the trap door, and turned on a little torch he had with him, allowing us to peer at the three ghastly prisoners for the first time. One was in an advanced state of decay. His skull had a large hole in it and was obviously on the edge of death from gangrene. The second was missing an eye and his legs were missing entirely, or so I thought, but he could have easily been simply lying in a particularly deep puddle for all I knew. The third, however, was our man. I could tell in an instant. He had the Greeves nose, a sort of nose like a flat slab of tomb granite, a hawkish profile that made no differentiation from forehead to upper lip. His eyes were like black buttons that had been sewn into place, and though he had the face of his father, neither Alice nor Leviticus had eyes like those. Tiny and atrophied, I thought.
“Which one of you is Argus?” Gaffney so-to’d down the hole. He was having fun pretending to be in danger, despite the entire building being his to do with as he pleased.
Not a single noise came out.
“Now look here you lot, one of you is Argus, and I’m going to...”
I chose to interrupt Gaffney here. This is usually how it began. “Pardon, Gaffney, I’m quite certain that fellow standing up is Argus, wouldn’t you agree? He has the family nose.” Indeed, Gaffney had the nose, as did Gibney. Milo, however, did not. Rather than looking like an overhanging bird of prey, Milo’s nose was small, daintily pointing out, almost elfin. Further, he had his mother’s eyes, eyes quite unlike Alice’s, eyes that expressed a persistent state of abject terror blended with a sort of watery curiosity. Milo, despite his constant and persistent state of inebriation, could almost be mistaken for a decent human being at first glance, unlike his brothers, who both looked like death warmed over a nice, steaming Sterno can of hatred.
“Ah. I see. You there, standy-Stu, I am lowering a rope to pull you up, and I want you to make sure that the other two don’t come up it as well, do I make myself perfectly clear?”
The one we were certain was Argus nodded.
“What about us then?” said the hole-in-head.
“What about you?” retorted Gaffney, drearily.
“Are we to die down here?”
“That’s sort of the point of an oubliette, darling.”
Gaffney lowered the rope. He had tied a noose-like loop at the bottom of it. The supposed Argus peered at it nervously, he grabbed it, and with a surprising amount of strength and muscularity neither Gaffney nor I had supposed possible. Standing before us, it became clear that he was not truly related to Gibney and Gaffney, and that the experiments Reegs and Greeves had wrought had created something quite different entirely. His face of Greeves, yes. His body, however, was nearly two feet taller than Gaffney and Gibney, his neck was as thick as a bull’s, he was a literal mountain of muscle. He was garbed in a filthy rage about his loins and a poncho sort of garment over his head and across his chest, but beyond that, he was a bluish-pale, hairless gorilla. Across his neck and down his arms and legs were dreadful white scars, as if he had been clawed by some terrible dinosaur. All the while, his little black eyes never blinked. We saw, perhaps most eerie of all, that they had no whites.
Gaffney, quite nastily, slammed the oubliette door after pulling the rest of the rope up. “You’ll stay down there and you’ll continue to rot, Roger!” He stomped a little on the door to emphasize his point, and to express a particular hatred for Roger, whoever Roger was. This complete, he curled his fingers around his newfound brother, and walked him toward the stairs, passed Milo’s door, Milo’s snore still audible.
“Oh, to be in the presence of my long forgotten brother, Argus. Argie? Argus. Seems more Greevesian to me. I’ve long despised that my first name ends in a feminine vowel. I, dear brother, am Gaffney, your elder by four years, your savior, having trod over land and fen to find you here, imprisoned by our brother Gibney. But first! A brotherly embrace, and an introduction where introductions are due, to the founder of our mutual liberation, Dr. Gregory Thwack: a man who has been more of a father to me than that father of ours, a man who shall be the same to you as I know he has been to me. A man who has inspired us, Gaffney and Argus Greeves, the better scions of the Greeves name, to stride forth and take back what is ours from the hated, the vile, the blackguard we share chromosomes with, Gibney. And, of course, Milo, blah blah blah, he’s around here somewhere. But we! Bosom brothers and friends we shall be. You shall be clad in a suit of scarlet kid, with a cloak of deep blue hue. We shall abscond to the hills beyond, where the loathesome Gibney canst not hear our conspiracy, we shall plan our revenges, such a tragedy they’ll weep for over our eventual justly deserved and deeply poetic demises by our own hands, thrusting the blades deep into our ribs, as our loyal and dutiful hangers-on bawl most grievesome. And that shall be the end of us. But first! We shall make the end of Gibney, a slow end, an end like a clown falling over a cliff, knowing that for the sake of the audience, he shall fall and bruise his crown upon ever stone on the way down. Are we comedy? Nay. We are tragedy. Gibney, however, is comedy. None shall mourn his passing, for he shall in his way set things right by removing himself from the stage. The world can be kind in it’s cruel way.” He wasn’t really waiting for Argus to speak. Gaffney enjoyed speaking just to speak.
Argus nodded his head, “Supposing so.”
I followed a few paces behind. Behind his back, tauntingly, Gaffney held the envelope and whatever blackmail was in it, in my view. I was out of choices.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
“In the Oubliette”
One human soul did hear that last note, the last note of the hurdy-gurdy man, although he only noticed it by noticing that it had stopped.
“The wheezer has stopped,” the large man in the hole said to his two fellow hole-dwellers.
“The wheezer will start again,” said one of the lesser two.
“I suppose we can sleep now,” said the third.
The three men were trapped in an oubliette, which is a sort of hole with a hinged trap door at the top, and a long way to drop. In French, it means “the place of forgetting”... a place to drop people you wish to forget. The theory is terribly simple, that being that a troublesome person could simply be thrown down the hole and out of the life of the thrower. In most oubliettes, the assumption was that the thrown would just die of starvation if not the fall. In this oubliette, a small trickle of water fed in from the trap door, and drained away through a small hole at the base, allowing the poor prisoners to drink from this foul waterfall, and also allowing the occasional small creature to fall in to be devoured by the three long forgotten outcasts. When times were tough, and the animal cuisine lean, they plucked a miraculously edible sort of fungus from the walls and survived exclusively on that. It is a remarkable facet of human survival instinct that the human body can sometimes thrive on that which is intended to kill it, and in the case of our three oublietteurs, they had developed a gourmand’s thrill to the detection and eating of these delicacies. This predilection, unknownst to the three men, had grown immune to the deep toxicity of this fungus. This, O, dear reader, should be noted, and will prove most important at some point (unstated) later in the novel.
Unfortunately, in an oubliette, the darkness is so great that visual stimuli is absolutely useless. None of the three oublietteurs could see the others, so the large one’s largeness was only abstractly confirmed. They knew he was large, via the occasional brush past.
“What do you think it means?” asked the large man.
“Means? Does it have to mean anything?”
“No, maybe not.”
And so it began: the tiresome circular debates the three prisoners held to keep themselves not so much amused as capable of remembering just what exactly language is and how it works. The big one, known to himself as Argus (although the other two had never asked his name), was also the quietest of the three.
“Do you suppose they’ll let us out today?” asked the smallest of the three, who was currently missing a large chunk of his skull which was slowly being eaten away by an unknown flesh eating virus.
“You ask that question every day,” said the middle prisoner, who had nothing remarkable about him except he contained several dozen rusty nails that were being passed through his colon, a process which had begun nearly three years earlier and would have ended about six months later had the nails not become lodged in his rectum from the inside, essentially nailing his sphincter shut backwards. Also, he had violet eyes, but nobody could tell, considering the darkness. He had been told, in the years of his liberty, that they were quite lovely and exotic.
“I don’t think I ask the question every day, how do we know it’s even day?”
Argus sighed, not eager to jump into this conversation.
“Alright,” said the violet-eyed middle prisoner, “I’ll amend that statement to point out that you have repeatedly asked that question on a regular basis for as long as I can recall.”
“And every single time, you tell me I ask that question every day.”
“And then, every single time, you tell me that I tell you that you ask that question every day. And I’d like to...”
“...express your discontent toward my absurd level of optimism,” said the smallest prisoner.
“Fair enough, fair enough. Let’s think of a new argument.”
While your humble narrator could conceivably fill several thousand pages with this sort of thing, for the benefit of paperback shelves the world over, I shall spare you the numbing details in favor of a singular event: for the first time in over four decades, the door at the top of the oubliette opened, and two adult male bodies in shadow could be seen leering over the hole.
One of these adult male bodies, incidentally, was me.
At this juncture, reader, I’ll digress momentarily to explain myself, who I am, and why I am, at this point in the tale, opening the aforementioned oubliette. My name is Dr. Gregor Thwack, specializing in the unbelievably specific field of antepsychiatry, a field that I, personally, devised, and I, personally, dominate. It would be far too much typing to explain exactly what it is this field consists of, but I’ll dumb it down for you thusly:
Nearly twenty-five years ago, a quarter of a century, I arrived in Zanzibar from the faraway city of X-, on the continent of Y-, driven by dreams of fame and fervent dedication to my field. In those days, the antepsychiatry had yet to be invented, and the world was stuck with either normal (mundane) psychiatry or the abysmal failures of various science fiction writers that had accumulated a great many friends in the political schema, leading to a great many attempts to make a great deal of money from the miserable failures of those around them. My first book, “Antepsychiatry: The Coming Salvation”, I outlined exactly what was wrong with these failures, as well as including a list of my favorite muffin recipes. One recipe, for broccoli muffins (you really shouldn’t knock the idea until you try them, they’re rather like corn fritters in a way, a point that was made to me several days after publication and editting the damn terminology was the ship that had sailed), took the city of X- by mania, and I was invited to be on television shows, popular homemaking journal covers and several tent revivals, when I, frankly, grew tired.
It was at this point in my tale that I first met Alice Reegs and Levitivus Greeves, a pair of individuals that prove the old adage, “Great mind thinks alike,” and immediately I was wrapped into their grasp. The Reegs-Greeves Affair was one of the great love kerfuffles of history, rather like Antony and Cleopatra, if Antony had been a free-energy physicist and Cleopatra one of the many, again, aforementioned, various science fictions that had accumulated a great many friends in the political schema, leading to a great many attempts to make a great deal of money from the miserable failures of those around them. I, being around them, was one of those miserable failures, driven into conniptions of rage that my Antepsychiatry had been accepted by the common media as little more than a vehicle for my broccoli muffins.
But what is Antepsychiatry?
In my cubicle hovel of the University of X-, I had found myself studying the great religions of the past, the great political and social movements that defined history. Staring endlessly for months at a time at pictures of long half-forgotten demigods and the equally forgotten Communards, I fell into a deep and long lasting funk, existential in scope. At this point, dear reader, I began to make muffins.
I found, pleasantly, that the act of making heaps upon heaps of muffins, originally starting with the traditional blueberry and moving on to more obscure varieties, up to and including the broccoli muffin, I had discovered something true. Simply put, the mind is most active when it is distracted with fine details of increasingly specific improvement. By starting with a simple formula, and learning everything there is to know about the subject by experience and trial, one can actually shift one’s brain into a different zone of consciousness, the zone I call
A N T E P S Y C H I A T R Y !
That beautiful moment before the realization of one’s mental connection to a thing. The moment, for instance, when one is on the verge of a sound and tremendous sleep, the kind of sleep that whisks one away to a world of fantasy and imaginary whim, the kind of sleep that is symbolized by those whirly toy thingies on top of baby cribs that spin, the kind of sleep that a man in agony dreams about and the kind of sleep that can only be experienced by the most hateful of billionaires on top of a pile of money collected from trillions of dead orphans, interrupted just as it arrives by a sudden spasm of one’s right leg. Officially, called the “Hypnagogic”, it is in this state of activity that one can completely cease any and all mental functions and find peace. Here, the psychiatry of the “just before”, is Antepsychiatry. The second the thing being done is realized, the mind can get in the way, ruining the entire experience forever. Antepsychiatry was about removing this impulse. Obviously, I have tried drugs, electric shocks, icepicks, but nothing seems to work except good old fashioned dither. This dither, by the way, can be learned by anyone, with nothing more than practice and a desire to see the effects for themselves.
Naturally, it’s a rarefied field, one that few seem interested in. The few, in this case, were Reegs and Greeves, and I was offered a rare chance to accompany them on the Reegs-Greeves Exodus, wherein the brains and thinkers of the world would leave mundane society to their own devices and withdraw to the village of Zanzibar, on the far edge of the Great Desert, next to the Great Sea. The financial leader of the Exodus was a billionaire (who, of course, likely did sleep on top of a pile of money collected from trillions of dead orphans) named Alphonse Magoo, late of the Magoo, Magoo and Shitbag Diamond Extraction Concern. Zanzibar had been constructed on his demand several decades earlier to act as a vacation getaway, although it was also to, not surprisingly, hunt for diamonds. On this surreptitious goal, obviously, was the problem: there were several enormous giants in the desert between X- and Zanzibar, there were no diamonds, and Reegs-Greeves were wasting their time, as well as mine, and the other forty deluded academics they hustled with them.
And now, because the full, sordid details of the Reegs-Greeves Exodus will inevitably be part of this little drama of ours, I’ll return to the Argus-in-the-oubliette scenario, so as to keep the proverbial ball on the proverbial Canadian croquet field.
The other shadow with me was Gaffney Greeves, the identical looking man to Gibney Greeves, the hunter of giants. Gibney and Gaffney were the identical twin sons of Alice Reegs and Leviticus Greeves, and, luckily, neither looked much like either parent, as Reegs later developed a severe case of “hole in throat from smoking too much” and Greeves had what the Carnies call “gimp neck”. Gaffney, the more sociable of the two brothers, had long preferred the life of poet dilettante, to Gibney, who had inherited his father’s lust for theoretical astrophysics. This was to prove a great rift between the two boys, particularly because Gaffney was, frankly, mad.
I had been dozing for over fifteen years in the Zanzibarbarian Institute of Academic Institutionalization Academy, where I had been (accused of!) presumed to be teaching my Antepsychiatry, when young Gaffney was dropped into my office. The little tyke had killed his mother, rather messily, and, as the scion of the world’s greatest free-energy physicist, was unlikely to be incarcerated for the deed. Alice Reegs had been murdered by her son whilst sleeping. He poured gasoline down the tracheotomy hole as she slept, and lit her ablaze from within.
Still, as the de facto co-heir of Zanzibar, he was to be forgiven his little crime of matricide, and I found him to be a rather pleasant young fellow. I deduced that his rage and flights of homicidal mania could be traced to the unrealistic expectations laid upon him by his parents. I taught him one of the most valuable lessons of Antepsychiatry: never expect too much from anybody, because when they fail you, it’s not acceptable to pour gasoline down their tracheotomy holes. Shunned by his father, and underestimated by his brother, Gaffney became almost a son to me. He was certainly the greatest student of Antepsychiatry the world has ever known, but, to be fair, probably the only one, since I had moved out to the opposite of a continental desert and had burnt all the copies of my book in protest to the insistence of the publisher that I write another cookbook, this time about scones. Obviously, that sort of thing makes it difficult for the student to be prepared for the master’s arrival.
“Anger,” said I, “is the result of expectation unrealistically heaped upon far too small a circumference of events, Gaffney. It’s rather like too many things heaped upon a fine membrane. Space them across the membrane at a sufficient level, you see, and it doesn’t snap. The membrane of expectation can hold only so many events. By getting angry, you stretch the membrane, and it is likely to droop and shatter.”
“So then,” saith he, “would it be wiser to focus on one specific event, if one is overwhelmed with anger? Expect less of the other events, learn to become accustomed to their inevitable disappointment? Ignore their endless and soul-crushing niminy-piminy little nastinesses?”
“It would perhaps be wiser,” I proposed. I then proposed that he find an event to focus his anger toward, although I was initially uncertain that the anger was at all necessary. However, as he had just killed his mother, and was across an entire desert from anybody who would prevent him from doing the same to me, I minimized the thought from my mind and indeed my conversation.
Gaffney stopped coming to my office on a daily basis, limiting his visits to once a week. Then, it was once a month. Soon, I was alone with my typewriter and it’s three remaining flimsy ribbons. I was wondering what the likelihood was of there being more ribbons anywhere in Zanzibar. I thought briefly about soaking one in creosote to see if that would work. I might still do that. It could work, although it may clog the machinery. One day, while dozing gently on the notion of creosote soaked typewriter ribbons and the problems thereof, nearly six months since his last visit, Gaffney appeared to me in my office, unannounced, rather like a green velveted, wild-eyed specter. His garment was the color of olive vinegar, bearing a light sheen. His buttons I recall were unusually bright copper, pressed with little images of the giantess’ face. For the first time in years, he seemed optimistic, although slightly more homicidal than usual.
“Thinking upon your notion of a single momentous event upon which to latch my fervent dedication, Doctor, I have come to the realization that it is modestly seditious in scope; nay, near unto traitorous. I beg you to listen with intent as it was your initial sophistry which led me to it. Thou art an accomplice at my word, at any rate.”
A strange addition, this Jacobean affectation.
“Very well,” I said, instinctively covering my throat with my right hand.
“You knew my father?”
I did know his father. Leviticus Greeves had done me great ill. I nodded, knowing this had gone too far. For the first time I noticed he had an envelope in his gloved hand. He was tapping said envelope slightly against his thigh, which was wrapped in a buff colored pair of pantaloons that looked to my sleep befogged eyes to be a sausage casing. Within the envelope, I surmised, was evidence of my cooperation and, indeed, encouragement of whatever the dangerous fancy would happen to lead me.
“Then you know of the Argus Initiative?”
“Only vaguely, Gaffney. Vaguely. It was Alice’s initial thought that the fruit of her womb was insufficiently loyal to the Reegs-Greeves manifesto. Gibney, she theorized, was much too dedicated to the cold reality of maintenance, rather than creation. Milo was only a half-breed, she believed, as he stepped from a disloyal subsidiary, and, of course, you would eventually go on to matricide. The Argus Initiative was to create a fourth son, outside of the whimsical apparatus of traditional techniques, a son which would combine the technical superiority of Greeves with her own rather dastardly sense of conscience.”
“And you were called in to discuss it?”
“Initially, yes.” I half-lied. I had read the proposal and Reegs told me to approve it’s soundness on a psychiatric basis, and I did so, as I do so many things. Whatever it takes. “I can see where this is headed.”
Gaffney stood, and handed me my coat and my hat. I was motioned out the door.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
The village that had once been known as the city of Zanzibar was perched, like a clinging barnacle on the side of a great vast stone, upon the edge of a desert which overlooked the vast ocean. The remains of the city spread out, in a slight crescent, around the city’s central district, the main feature of which was Greeves Institute, a hideous fist of black marble, mined from the nearby cliffs. It was here wherein the majority of Zanzibarbarians were employed, busying themselves with the duties of research and maintenance of the Greeves family.
Around this edifice was the rest of the city, consisting of progressively smaller buildings of stone, which suddenly shifted to brick a few blocks away, which in turn gave in to weathered wooden structures, never more than a single story in height. These wooden buildings, painted greys and dusty blues by tradition, were themselves in a persistent and perpetual state of decay. The Zanzibarbarians who lived in them were called the “carnies”, as their fathers had once been the entertainers and workers which had built the Greeves amusement facilities. The “carnival” district had once been the marvel of the city. It drew thousands of eager visitors to see the “sights”, sights which had long since stopped being of interest to anyone anywhere.
The carnies were now a partially feral race, subsisting on crabbing and the harvestation of various kinds of lichen native to the cliffs, and were they even infinitessimally self-aware of their state, they’d have long realized that they were owed certain privileges from the Greeves Institute, which had brought them to this horrible city on a dreadful continent. Among these privileges, perhaps fairly, should have been the right to improvement of their ancestral homes. As the years passed, the Greeves family had removed the metal entertainment structures, the pipes leading to long empty fountains, the nails in the benches lining the boardwalk, and, in the most pathetic of betrayals, the rails to the shuttle train which had once ferried the tourists to and from the carnival district itself.
Among the many recycled uses for this metal was the fabrication of a gigantic steel cage, positioned near city’s central park, next to a large stone structure known as the “Hall of Opportunity”, where the many “opportunities” granted by the Greeves regime were made available to the locals, few and far between. The word “opportunity” in Zanzibar meant a sort of unstated indentured servitude to the Greeves. To “volunteer” for an “opportunity” was the carnie’s last resort, after all other options had failed. Few opportunists, as they were called, returned from their duties in the desert.
The cage was intended to harbor one of the native beings of the nearby desert: the giants. Once, the elder Greeves boy, Gibney, saw a giant across the dunes in his spyglass, and so afraid was he of it’s possible arrival that a counsel was convened. It was decided that a lesson must be made of the offending beast, and, with much pomp, the opportunists were put to work reclaiming the “redundant” metals in the city. Naturally, nothing within the Greeves Institute was declared redundant, but such was the usual method of the Greeves family: everything mattered, except that which they had. It was a curious mixture of humility and hypocrisy, the state religion of Zanzibar, the Janus-headed belief that virtue is attainable but only by others, and the individual had the freedom to behave without virtue, as everybody else was assumed to be an easy mark.
On this day, just as the hurdy-gurdy man died, and all went silent along the beach, the grim shadow of a giantess appeared across the horizon. Nobody paused to analyze the likely correlation. Nobody had that level of analytical capability left.
The alarms were the first to sound, followed by the bells of the sentinel carts and the whirring hiss of the defense machines. As the status of carnie was dependent upon not accepting the status of opportunist, the carnies hid in their wooden houses. Those few opportunists allowed to serve in the Zanzibar guard were quickly dressed and hustled out to the city limits, each carrying a large wooden cudgel, tipped with a piece of rusty iron.
Behind the opportunists were the sentinels... the class of mercenary that had long since stopped expecting payment other than food and shelter. They were the descendants of the few who came to Zanzibar looking for a reason to shed blood, found they had little chance of leaving the settlement, and accepting the Greeves copper as reward in the almost-hope of redemption and return to the real world. The copper was shortly thereafter demanded back to be melted down and made into bolts for the latest Greeves project, whatever it was. As the train from Zanzibar hadn’t left in nearly twenty years, this was, by now, almost a death cult, and the sense of nihilism the sentinels all held to their breasts was numbly covered by repetitions of the hope to one day leave.
The giantess had long thought about the settlement of the tiny people. She had thought about the smell of their burning fires. She had spied on them on moonless nights, far enough away that their torches could not see her or her one, giant, pupilless eye. The giantess had no ill will toward the little people, nor much curiosity, just a desire to communicate. She had tried bellowing across the desert. She had tried singing her deep, sad giant songs.
They had built something.
A false giant, a shiny brass icon had risen from their city.
She could see it from her perch behind the rocks, this false giant.
“They seek to forage with us,” she said, to her husband.
“They seek to kill us,” her husband replied.
For years, they thought about the false giant, for giants are slow and introspective beings. They returned to wandering the desert, hand in hand. The giants were in the truest love, the love that requires nothing but presence, and for nearly ten years, they whispered their deep, sad giant poetry to each other.
Then, one day, when the moaning music of the little people had stopped, the husband had gone. The giantess knew not where. She turned toward the city of the tiny people, and hoped to see the false giant. It was there, tarnished, blackened, no longer what it was the first time she had seen it. Next to it was a cage. And, suddenly, a swarm of the tiny people was upon her legs, crawling, biting her with little points and tapping her with little clubs.
“Ropes!” shouting the Soldier With One Eye, the “leader” of the mercenaries. Ropes with hooks attached flew up at the flailing giantess. The cannons shot into her breast. With a great roar of sadness, the giantess closed her eye and fell to the ground, where the opportunists made quick work of her, wrapping her in ropes and chaining her legs together.
From the desert, a wail of windy terror could be heard. The husband-giant, returning from his forage, had discovered his wife missing. The giantess could not return the wail, as her mouth had been stuffed with bale upon bale of old, dirty rags, and the soldiers of Zanzibar made a great effort at once to carry her to the cage. The entire affair took less than twenty minutes, as it had been practiced and trained for for nearly a decade.
Gibney Greeves looked on from his porch, on one of the towers of his family’s palace. The servants were ordered to pop the cask of port which had been laid up specifically for just this occasion. Another man, identical in appearance, refused to drink.