THE ARMIES READY FOR WAR
There are three taps bearing water from which knowledge pours that awakens you upon drinking. The water in the first tap is made from anything and tastes delicious even if it’s terrible. The second tap is an army ready for war and the third tap is a hat you’ve never liked. There is a spring in every town that produces these three types of water but nobody’s ever satisfied. Everybody says they know better. So now, in the world in which we live, there is everything good and terrible depending on how it tastes, armies ready for war and the hat-wearing population. Those in the armies ready for war are also fond of hats. A terrible thirst slakes the nation and hats are growing ever larger to compensate for the vicious rays of the sun. It is in this day and age the old ones find respite in the fact that they thought they’d destroyed everything but had forgotten about themselves. And my sister and I continue, picking beads off curtains and metabolizing the plastic they contain, while the rays of the sun grow ever stronger in this knowledgeable, thirst-slaked land. We’ve tried all the waters and it’s true, nothing works. But everything is beautiful or tries to make sense, which is the heart of knowledge. We watch an army of ants ready to eat a beetle. Like them, they are like us. We are taking the path to town through the hard-walked sand, which I love to walk. The army of ants will be here when we get back. The wars have yet to begin. Life on the brink, I say aloud, stepping slowly, careful not to kill anything yet. Everything is an invasion. We disappear into the horizon finally. The sand is hard like clay and moistened nightly, then packed down by tiny steel robots that weigh tons. It’s a special kind of steel. To be heavy enough I mean. The swamp glows before us in the distance. Once we’ve reached the end of the hard-walked sand we will tie rocks around our waist and walk out into the muck.
My sister and I watch the reeds float past. They are dark green too, like everything else that passes you while you’re sinking to the bottom of a swamp. It’s a strange road to have to die to get somewhere. I watch my sister puff out her lips like a blowfish wondering if it’s intentional or not. In a few minutes she’s lifeless and I’m fading in and out, both of us still sinking. In another moment I’m out too and when I regain consciousness, she’s already dragging her rock behind her towards the rotten clock tower where the man who holds the keys to the universe resides. We’ve come to borrow something for our mother. She would have liked to have come too, for she loves to drown herself, but she had more pressing matters and sent us instead on her behalf. Up ahead is a geodesic dome-shaped jungle gym that’s covered in barnacles. It sunk so long ago that it’s slowly starting to break apart and float back to the surface. That’s no fun. Once we arrive at the base of the rotten clock tower, I notice there’s a notice on the door that says, Bell broken, please shout. I open my mouth to shout and announce our arrival but get a mouthful of swamp water instead. Somewhere from high above I hear raucous laughter. My sister says, I thought it was a clock tower, and I say, What? I said I thought it was a clock tower, she says, so why the bell? I roll my eyes, but I don’t think she sees me through the cloudy water. The door to the clock or bell tower or whatever it is grinds open on its rusty hinges and we enter the mud room, which is really a mud room. Like the definition of mud room was made because someone saw the state of the exact room we were entering that moment and said that it could be called nothing else. The man who holds the keys to the universe greets us and says, What’ll it be this time? My sister holds out the note our mother gave us and he snatches it away from her and holds it up to the light for a moment until it falls apart in his hands. I can’t read a goddamn thing, he says. This is totally useless, he says. How could your mother be so stupid? he says. I shrug my shoulders and make a ‘no clue’ face and look toward my sister, who’s puffing her cheeks out like a blowfish again and this time I know it’s not for real. The man who holds the keys to the universe holds a finger in the air, or water, beckoning us to silence for a moment. He floats off into a corner for a brief time, then returns holding a note and places it in my hand. Give this to your mother, he says. I look at it curiously, but it doesn’t look any different than normal paper. You better go before this one disintegrates too. My sister elbows me in the ribs. I begin to shout at her but get another mouthful of swamp water. Isn’t this happening to anybody else, I think. Once we’re out the door and at the jungle gym my sister and I place our rocks in the small pile of rocks beside it, which have been placed there for the same purpose by those who came before us for similar reasons. A work crew collects them at night and brings them back to the edge of the swamp to be reused. We watch the pieces of the jungle gym break off and float upwards for a moment before un-anchoring ourselves from our rocks and following their lead. As we slowly rise it begins to rain. Silver bullets plunge into the surface of the water, leaving fizzy trails behind them and since this day they’ve never stopped.
And what is this right here, what unique shading…
It’s crayon, of course. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen scratched from the tip of a black Crayola. It is the penultimate tool in exploring the child psyche, like a distillate of inexpressible fear teased out as sort of a grey ribbon springing forth from nowhere and waving gently to and fro, often being mistaken for the sky itself on cloudier days.
That was a brilliant, if also an especially adroit attempt at sparking the interest of a potential client.
What can I say? Things just don’t go as far as they used to nowadays. There are a million haunted children out there but not even a third is worth a damn. I mean, people are looking for real freaks, you know, the ghost in the treehouse just doesn’t cut it anymore. So what the hell am I supposed to do?
You could find some other scam.
Find some other… I oughtta toss you out of here.
At that moment, the little bell above the door to the gallery jingled and in walked a woman dragging a little girl behind her.
Fresh meat, the gallerist mouthed in a near whisper to the hobo chic stranger he’d been speaking to earlier. As the former two approached, the latter dematerialized, floating through a backdoor and out into the arcade by way of escape.
The woman and child stood in front of him silently. He waited almost a full minute before speaking.
What can I do for you today?
Then it went pretty much as always, he crippled the girl with his brilliant and biting critique. They ran away more terrified of him than the real ghosts.
Walk out of here exactly the way you came in please, he said.
The little girl burst into tears and the mother dragged her out by the arm.