after Julio Cortázar’s Carta a una señorita en París
We’d wandered into the courtyard of a dimly lit castle at dusk, drawn by a man gesticulating wildly from a keep far up above. It was difficult to tell if he was trying to get our attention, or simply waving his arms in the air for one reason or another, but was curious enough to draw our eye. We walked and sat on a stone bench in the courtyard below, gazing up at where we thought his arms might extend once more. But the moment we sat down, his arms quickly disappeared from view. A moment later a horrid, retching noise began—echoing as if amplified by a loudspeaker—from the spires high above. At first, we’re unsure of what it is and fear for our lives, then cover our ears with our hands and cower beneath the stone bench, the only noticeable fixture in the courtyard. The noise continues (in a moment we realize it wouldn’t be stopping anytime soon). Once our ears adjusted to the nuisance and we realized we weren’t in any immediate danger we crawled out from beneath the bench and continued gazing upwards. After a time we discerned some renewed sense of movement. The gentleman was back at the window. The retching continued forcefully and then stopped, almost as suddenly as it began. A white object was thrust out into the air and fell toward us at an alarming rate. We barely had enough time to sidestep before it hit the paving stones of the courtyard with a sickening thud. It began moving awkwardly, dragging itself toward us upon its broken limbs.
In the courtyard below the castle keep the dusk is perpetual—only just enough light to make out the silhouettes of certain things but never solidify them into being, at least not from a distance of more than a few meters. We wonder how we could have possibly managed to have seen the man who attracted us in the first place but then quickly dismiss it. Since the first rabbit fell there have been many others, all of different shapes or sizes. No matter how damaged they are from the impact, each one seems to have the ability of dragging their broken bodies back and forth in front of us, on display. We watch one with a broken neck try to lift its head to look at us from the ground below, and, disgusted, forcefully kick it away and watch it slide along the ground, pushing its way through the jumble of other rabbits huddled on the other side of the courtyard. Every few minutes or so another joins its ranks. At first, it appeared they’d been damaged on their way down from the keep high above, nicking the side of the castle—a brick or two—before slapping to the ground. Now we’re not so sure. Some are missing limbs that appear to have been amputated; others blind, repeatedly bumping into things that obstruct their path. Some have been flayed. Each that hobbles toward us is covered in a septic, bright-green goo; bile perhaps?
The rabbits have finally stopped falling from the castle keep and the man gesticulates wildly once again. We raise our voice in an attempt at communication, but either he doesn’t hear us or chooses to ignore our pleas. A grating noise is heard and four large pillars emerge from the ground and surround the courtyard, each bearing a different symbol etched deeply into the stone from which they’re carved. The first a crudely drawn matchstick man with a bird above his head. The second a roaring fire; the third, Pan, or some other half-man, half-goat creature. The fourth, a mirror reflecting our true nature. This is a surprise. Our image is carved deeply into the rock but also moves as we move, shifting in space as we admire ourselves. We reach out, finger its smooth surface. At the moment our fingertips touch it, several large steel grates emerge from the ground. Before we realize what’s happening it’s too late; any existing exit from the courtyard has been blocked. Even above us is an unbreakable grate with mesh squares so small we’re unable to scale it with our fingers.
Now we congregate with the mutilated rabbits in the corner. To pass the time—for it seems like we’ve been here for days, if not more—we’ve begun naming each of the monstrosities by their persisting maladies (The Flayed & Mighty, Hoichi the Earless, The Wink, The Scream, Oliver Head). Shortly after the grates had been drawn the sky began to lighten, slightly but noticeably. Then the birds came, attracted by the flavor of the wind tunneling its way out of the courtyard. Now we understand. Whether we were part of this plan or an unfortunate interloper remains a mystery. Our only solace is the small satchel of peppercorns stashed in the breast pocket of our coat. We grab a few and pop them in our mouth, grinding them with our teeth, feeling the pleasant, numbing sensation spread down the back of our throat and the pockets of our cheeks, waiting for some change in atmosphere.
The sun has now risen fully into the sky, driving the birds into a frenzy. They begin tearing at the grate overhead, the clacking of their beaks reaches a deafening proportion. In a moment of inspiration—an effort to end our torture—we rise, slowly, moving toward the pillar that bears our true nature. Smiling at ourselves in its smooth surface, we watch the reflection grin back at us in glistening clarity, then walk over to the pillar with the matchstick man and the bird above his head and draw our hand across its polished surface. A low, juddering sound erupts and the grate above our head retracts. The birds and noise and everything ceases for a moment and the courtyard’s bathed in unimaginable silence. But now they’re upon us—and the rabbits. From the corner of a blood-flecked eye we see the man in the keep staring down at us, the mad king, throwing crumbs to his courtesans.