GET BEHIND THE MULE.
By Tim Kress
“Fuck you, Rubin. You're a worthless piece of shit. You're no better than a half-witted bastard son of a two-bit whore,” the old man said. He had his hands on his bony hips as he exclaimed at his friend, but if you'd asked him then, he wouldn't have said Rubin was much of a friend. Rubin was always doing something like what he'd done, and the old man just knew he did it to piss him off.
Rubin had eaten all of their carrots, again. The carrots the old man planted in four tidy little rows in the spring, and painstakingly lugged water to every single day of the long summer. He even talked to them when he knew Rubin wasn't looking. He did all of this work, only to have come out that morning to see that Rubin had pulled most of them out and eaten them.
Well, it served him right that he was paying for it now with a stomach ache, and the old man knew he'd litter the small yard with watery shit in a few hours. At least he could use that to fertilize something.
The carrots were one of the few things he could get to grow. He didn't even like carrots, wouldn't have eaten them in the old life, but these were of a variety that had the special ability to grow in the dead clay, and to take on the alkaline flavor of that clay. They were as much like the carrots of the supermarkets of the old man's youth as Rubin was like a thoroughbred stallion. He'd found that if he boiled them, grilled them over an open flame, thoroughly cursed at them, and then used all of his imagination while eating them, he could get them down without throwing up too much.
He kicked Rubin in the side, but he was so weak that Rubin only twitched his pointy ears, and let loose a flow of thin, wet shit directly onto one of the old man's boots. The old man pulled on his long beard with one hand, and took his hat off.
He crushed his dusty hat between both hands. “You'd better watch out, Rubin. If I go hungry this winter, I'm liable to eat you.” He always said things like this, but Rubin had been with him as long as he'd been living in the wild, and the both of them knew nothing of the sort would happen.
Not that he could remember how long he'd been living in the wild anymore. The day he'd finished building his mud hut he'd eaten a double-fistful of cactus buttons, took his clothes off, and devised a complicated ceremony that centered around the smashing of his watch. In the following days, he'd spent all of his free time weeping like a small child, because the watch had been gifted to him by his father on the day he'd received his doctorate in advanced quantum physics. He used to keep count on the wall of his hut, but he'd gone through a number of months-long bad spells where he couldn't remember his own name, let alone to tick off a mark to count the passing of another day.
Muttering curse words to himself, the old man walked to the bottom of the hill he lived on, to the pond that served as his laundry, bath, dish washing spot and sometimes– when he forgot himself– his toilet. He stuck his busted boot in the dank water, shook it around until all of Rubin's shit was off. Then he went to the other side of the small pond, where he figured the water was still clean, and cupped a few handfuls into his mouth.
He walked back up the steep hill, passed Rubin and the mud hut they shared, and clambered to the top of the hill. All those uncounted years ago, he'd chosen this hill because it was the tallest around, and it afforded an unrivaled view of the surrounding country.
By the time he got to the hill's sharp pinnacle, he couldn't remember why he'd come there, but then he saw Larry, and it didn't matter anymore.
Larry plucked a cloudy eyeball from the stag he'd been working on the last couple of weeks. He tilted his head back, looked at the old man, and swallowed the eye whole.
“Ahoy, Laurence,” the old man said. “How's it hanging there, old buddy?”
When Larry squawked his greeting, the old man thought it sounded a lot like, “'Ware!” which was all that crazy Larry ever said.
Larry flapped his black wings and took off from the hill, and the old man's eyes followed him into the horizon. Then he remembered the reason for his daily climb to the top of the hill. The sun was in his eyes, so he put his hat back on, and looked east. His eyesight wasn't what it used to be, so he took his 'scope from the belt at his wast, and looked through it.
The hazy cloud was still there, dark at the edges, a sickly blood red where the setting sun shined through it. All through the last year or so, he'd been sure the cloud was finally thinning, and tonight he saw something that proved his theory. He could see the shapes of derelict, woebegone skyscrapers through the haze of the toxic atmospheric phenomenon.
He lowered the 'scope from his eye, and– after making sure he was alone– danced a fitful jig. He even sang the few lines from the only song he could remember from his childhood.
“Hey, mumble mumble, what did you kill, what did you kill.”
The next day, the old man made his apologies to Rubin, because he couldn't take the tension. It'd been palpable in the hut the night before, and he'd had a hard time sleeping, no matter how much of his homemade berry-wine he drank.
Atop the hill that day, he could see yet more of the cursed city through the cloud, and he told Larry that it was probably time to start getting ready to make the trek to the city. He thought that Larry asked if he could go too, and he told him that, yes, he could.
He returned home and got piss eyed drunk.
He made a meal of the few stunted carrots Rubin had left him, and one of the last cans of beans. By the time he finished his meal, he'd drunk so much wine that he could hardly see. He decided that this was the best time to trim his beard, but he couldn't find his knife. He tried to use a rock, but the only one he could find without standing up was round and smooth, and he couldn't get it to work. He threw it at Rubin, but it went wide, and all he got for his troubles was a highfalutin look of disdain from his silent friend. He muttered something at him about the folly of putting on airs and fell over.
He fell asleep in the weak sun, and was woken up nearly fourteen hours later by the first heavy rain he'd seen since he'd moved to this hill. It'd rained plenty before this time, but it'd been short, weak showers that only served to keep his nasty pond filled, and hardly enough to keep the clean one that was further up the hill half full.
The heavy raindrops were battering his hill with such unrelenting ferocity that for many moments, he could only watch in silent horror as his hut was washed away.
He got up, fell back down, got back to his knees and hands, and threw up. Rubin came over to him, and licked up the puke before it could be washed away by the rain. The old man used Rubin's bony, but sturdy, body to pull himself up, and when he felt like he could walk, he went to the rapidly disappearing hut. He grabbed his few belongings, and stuffed them in the deer hide saddlebag he'd made years ago.
His gun belt was already in the bag, along with the double handful of bullets he still had, so they were dry. He lifted up the dirty pallet that served as his bed and grabbed the contamination suit and gas mask, still in the shrink-wrapped package he'd brought them in, and stuffed that into the bag as well.
Not even a little part of him was ready to make this trip. He'd been waiting for that noxious cloud to lift for longer than he'd waited for anything in his life, but now that the time was here, he found it damn near impossible to make himself start the journey. He tried, time and again, to come up with a good enough excuse that would let him stay, but all of his excuses were as weak as his stomach. Plus, he thought, if he stayed he'd have to rebuild his hut, and the prospect of doing that was depressing, and threatened to make him cry again.
He was sick of crying, a daily– and sometimes hourly– occurrence that, when he thought about the frequency of it, he cried. In his old life– before the cataclysmic events that forced him into the wild– he'd been nearly robotic in his emotions, and now he was no better than a woman in perpetual hysterics.
He exhaled through his five remaining teeth, made a slow rotation to survey what was left of his home to see if he'd remembered everything. Once and for all, he resigned himself to departing from his home on the hill.
The rain came to an alarming and sudden stop as the old man stepped out of what was left of his hut. The downpour made the surface of the hardpan slippery, so he had to tread with great care, lest he misplace his footing and tumble down the side of his hill. He went to Rubin, who hadn't had the good sense to get out of the rain, and put his bridle on him for the first time in years. He was glad his mind hadn't failed him to the degree that he couldn't remember to keep the headstall, bit, and reins well oiled. In fact, it was the only thing, besides looking at the distant city, that he did that could be called routine. Every month, when the green moon was at Her fullest, he'd take out Rubin's bridle, and rub all of it down with oil from a large can of lard, which– if he'd not decided to leave– would have lasted him until he died.
He left Rubin where he was, and went to his clean pond to fill all three of his plastic gallon containers with water. These he took back to Rubin, and after running a length of stout twine through their handles to connect them, he slung them over Rubin's narrow back, along with the saddle bag.
Since it was no longer raining, he removed his gun belt from the saddle bag, and secured it low on his waist, tying each of the long leather cords at the end of the holsters around his bony thighs. Then he gathered the bullets from the bottom of the saddle bag, put twelve of them in each of his gun's large cylinders, and put the rest in the loops on the belt.
“Well, Rubin,” the old man said. “Shall we, old friend?” He took the reins and the two of them set off down the hill.
Two days later, they were still closer to the hill than the city. In the distance, the old man could see a road. He knew it to be the old highway he'd used to leave the city, and was surprised to see it. He entertained the novelty of walking on an honest-to-goodness road but ultimately decided against it. Instead, he just kept to his course through the harsh desert.
He was so focused on the city that he never looked behind him with much diligence, and had forgot that Larry even existed, so he didn't see him flying high in the sky some way behind them.
For the majority of the two days of traveling, he'd walked alongside Rubin in a contemplative silence. But on the third morning, he woke in better spirits– despite having not eaten much more than a few bugs he'd found under a bush since his meal of muddy carrots on his hill. When they were once again on their way, he broke his study in taciturnity, and put together the longest string of sounds he'd done in ages:
“Now, Rubin,” he said. “I've never told you any of this, because it's something I don't like to talk about. Hell, I'm downright ashamed of it, but I feel like you should know about it before we get to the city, so you aren't too surprised by the state of it.”
He fell silent once again, but this time it was only to gather his thoughts– rather than run from them.
Finally, he said, “I was the head of a brain-trust, a sort of scientific community, in the city. Our goal was to find a new source of energy, because all of the old ones were dead and gone. Fossil fuels were a distant memory. Wind was proving to be as unreliable as solar, because the big war ruined the weather to such a degree that we'd go months with heavy, dirty clouds that wouldn't give up their rain. They just hung in place, because the winds were mostly gone, casting whole sections of the country in deep twilight, even at noon.
“When those bastards from the other place invaded our planet, they used their strange weapons to wreak havoc on everything from the migratory patterns of Canadian geese to the weather system. “The hardest part of that to stomach was we couldn't communicate with them, so we never knew why they did it. So, we fucking killed all of them, using their own weapons and technology! It was called glorious by all of the talking heads on the television– those automated holographic robo-porters– and I was in total agreement with them. We were wrong, all of us. We just made the problems they started worse by a factor of three hundred twenty seven point three one four.”
This was the most he'd talked since before he left the city, and also the clearest his mind had worked since then, but he was too concentrated on his story to notice.
“I happened across some declassified papers by a centuries dead Serbian-American scientist, and I got my idea from him. I would draw all of the energy we needed from the atmosphere. We'd take it from the Schumann Cavity, from the planet's massive store of static electricity. See, the Cavity resonates at eight cycles per second, and... But wait, why am I bothering you with the details? You don't care, do you Rubin?” A desperate little laugh escaped his lips, and he gave Rubin an affectionate scratch behind one of his pointy ears.
“We ultimately failed because my partner and I decided to amplify the power input-output ratio with a combination of resonant sound technology– taken from one of the invader's gadgets– with a kind of warm fusion we found in the more deadly versions of their weapons. To say we didn't understand the full implications of what were using is a grave understatement. But that didn't matter; times were desperate, and we were all products of our times, if nothing else. And we went ahead with it.
“We built a tower taller than the tallest of the buildings in the city, and the very day of its completion, I pushed the button that started the sequence that would undo the very fabric of reality.
“We thought it didn't work, because nothing happened. In fact, the supercomputer that controlled everything sort of shorted out, and we all went home that night frustrated as fuck-all.
“I was living in a penthouse provided by the good citizens of the city, based on the fact that I was their last great hope for a future. I went there that night, after an evening spent in the bar with my associates, commiserating over our failure. Not ready for sleep just yet, I turned on the television, and saw on the news that in the city center– at the site of our experimental tower, in fact– a catastrophic event was taking place.”
The old man had to stop talking at that point, because the tears were threatening to come again, and he didn't want that. He was determined to tell this story, his story, without devolving into the sniveling, horrible mess he'd spent these last years as. So he bit the tears back, but with great effort. Still, he was a while in continuing his story. He just kept putting one foot in front of the other– only altering his course when a cactus or shrub got in his way– and thinking of that disastrous night.
When he felt like he could go on, he said, “Right above our tower, a schism was opened. It was leaking a noxious cloud that was killing everyone who was unlucky enough to get in its path. Besides the steadily mounting death toll, it's path was the most disconcerting part of all, because by it's path, one could surmise that the fog was sentient. I was never given to understand what it was, but I guessed– and my guesses have always been spot on– that by using a technology alien to us, we opened a tear in space-time, and let an evil intelligence through.
“I decided then and there to get the hell out of the city.”
For the first time in days, Rubin turned his head a fraction of a inch to the right, and looked the old man in the eye. He only looked at him for a moment, but it was enough to make the old man say, “Yes, you bastard, I know it! Don't think I don't! I'm a coward! I always have been, and I always will be!”
And after that, he'd say no more, wouldn't talk about his frenzied escape from the riotous city, nor about finding Rubin at the edge of the city zoo, freed from his cage in the chaos after the cataclysm.
The very next day, the starving old man and his mule finally came to the edge of the city. The deepness of the day's dusk was enhanced by the long shadows the buildings cast.
The city wasn't like the cities from the old man's youth. It didn't have suburbs and outlaying areas; it just started like some mad god had placed a metropolis in the middle of the desert, and decreed that no more would be added to it. He knew that wasn't what really happened, that the city was all clumped together because trends in how people lived had changed drastically in the aftermath of the invasion and the war. No more was the need for single family homes and wide expanses of low laying buildings. No, in the time of this once-great city, due to the lack of any reliable and plentiful energy sources to power transit, the people who built it had to learn to be content with living and working in an extremely tightly-knit city, large though it was.
In the hours after his conversation with Rubin, leading up to his return to the city, the nearer the city he became, the more his brain restored itself to the more comfortable, fractured state it had enjoyed in the wilderness. It was because of this that he hadn't given the city as much scrutiny as he could– and should– have done.
And for this reason, as soon as he stepped into the city, he saw a sight that stopped him in his tracks.
The mountainous towers weren't abandoned and crippled, as he'd expected them to be. Instead they were whole and clean. What confounded him even more were the lights. And the cars. He hadn't seen a car since he was a young man, but when he noticed them, he realized that he was in the middle of a road, and in traffic. When he had an opening, he moved to the sidewalk that bordered both sides of the road, and went on looking at the living city. His mouth was open so far that one of Rubin's fleas jumped into it, but he was to confused to notice.
After what could have been ages, Rubin pushed the top of his head into the back of the old man, making him stumble and waking him from the stunned state of non-thought. He saw people walking past him on the sidewalk, people in the stores and restaurants that were along that sidewalk. He was murmuring to himself, unintelligible strings of half-thoughts and conspiracies that came out of his mouth quiet and wet with spittle. He couldn't understand why there were people walking around a city that should have been dead, as if the great cataclysm had never happened. The further he walked into the city, the more dense the crowds became, and he gradually noticed that he was drawing their attention.
Though he was the only one with guns strapped to his hips, and a mule at his side, he thought they were the strange ones. They had formed a group around him, and seemed to be genuinely concerned about him. The people that he remembered from his days in the city wouldn't have done that; they'd have averted their gazes and gone on their way.
One of them approached the old man, asked if he was lost, if there was anything that could be done for him. This person was the very definition of cordiality, and he spoke the same language as the old man, but nonetheless, the old man pulled the large gun at his right hip, and told the man to get away from him. He said it without raising his voice, but there was such menace in his voice that the polite gentleman wasted no time following the old man's directions.
When he pulled his gun, the curious group of people that had formed around him took a number of steps back, some even screaming in fear.
“Who the hell are you people?” he asked. When none of them answered, he said, “Oh, I know. You're from the other place, aren't you? I thought we'd finished you off, but I guess we were wrong.”
And in a quieter voice, he said to Rubin, “Perhaps they came through the schism I made with my experiments. Or mayhap, when that cloud of gas killed all the people, they decided they could come here, live in our land. And look at 'em, they're so fucking crazy they're wearing masks so they can look like us. I can't believe this. I shouldn't have come here, and I knew it. This is all my fault.
“No, it's not. How could I have known? I was to be the savior of this city, its last great hope. How could I know what would happen?”
With every word he spoke, his voice raised a fraction of a decibel, until he was screaming at the top of his lungs, so loud that blood from his torn vocal chords was con-fused with the slobber and spit that came with the plosives he shouted.
He drew his other gun, and waved both of them randomly at people, cars, windows and whatever caught his eye. He yelled, “Impostors! Charlatans and beguilers, all of ye! Ye will pay for yer sins. Though I be the last of my kind on the whole of the planet, I shall–”
He was interrupted at that moment when, with a flutter of his shadow-black wings, Larry landed on a newspaper box. His head twitched rapidly from side to side a few times, then he looked at the old man.
In the voice of the man's father, Laurence said, “That's enough, Enoch. Let these people be, this instant. You're making a fool of yourself, and you're embarrassing your mother.”
In a fluid-quick motion that amazed the people around him, the old man brought the ancient, long barreled pistol in his right hand to shoulder height. He said, “They've got to you too, Father.” He then took a shot at the raven that only he could see, the bullet tearing into a bystander's arm.
In the same aqueous, quicksilver motion, eyes ablaze with an eerie ghost light, Enoch the Traveler took a bead on his only friend on this lonely planet.
As he pulled the trigger, he said, “With love only, my friend.” The bullet exploded from the shining gun, and hit its mark with a mathematical procession unknown on that world, cleaving the mule's brain in twain.
A ferocious roar erupted from his lips, shattering glass in a parabolic wave of destruction for no less than three city blocks, though it left the watchers unscathed. He raised a barrel to each temple, and swung his head back.
Looking at the toxic cloud that he could still see, high above the skyscrapers, he said, “Please. Forgive me.”
And he pulled both triggers.
©2011 Tim Kress
Get Behind The Mule by Tim Kress is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.