THEY WERE BLEEDING
BY JONATHAN FRANK
Mars, not yet very old, in a white tunic opened at the neck to expose a triple-bypass scar, rested his heavy-living skull against the tall back of a velvet chair. We sat around a table, chatting, admiring a fledgling stork hovering in a cage made of two wide magnets, one a few feet above the other.
“I’m talking,” Mars said to shut us up.
The bird’s wings were open, but it hardly flapped. It just hung suspended in the dense air the magnets made. We were admiring the bird as it flapped its wings to give us the impression of flight, (“How well behaved it seems,” I was saying) when Mars shut us up.
“A tractor on the ocean,” he continued, “about fifty feet out, and no waves at all. Entirely flat, except for its wake. A few hundred enjoying the calm water, doing handstands, tossing silver discs, standing on others’ shoulders and diving off. I was on the shore by the dunes with an idiot boy who kept scrambling a message encoded on a Rubix cube. The tractor had just passed a jetty. I had a vanilla soft-serve in a wafer cone.”
A star fell from the sky.
“He’s always dreaming of tractors. Either tractors or fellatio,” Mars' wife Demi whispered to me as she poured a drink for the both of us. “The bastard wakes up in the morning pip-liping like a perverted infant, with his knees spread. Either he’s doing that or he’s grinding his teeth, especially when it’s about tractors. When it’s about fellatio, let me tell you, it’s worse: he pretends to sleep while forcing my head between his legs. I smack his eyes open, of course, and he apologizes. Then he acts like he’s annoyed with himself for doing it, when really he's annoyed at me for smacking him.”
Mars’ nurse, a man in a gray suit with a funnel on his head, stood behind Mars’ chair and took fluid from his master’s skull with a long needle. Each extraction came at ten-minute intervals; Mars winced, and continued as the nurse released the contents into his own veins.
Afterwards the nurse stared into the horizon, at a steeple rising into the dusk. There were gallows on the hilltops and pale fornicators beneath the trees, all of which was escaping, slowly, into the conquering shadows.
Mars continued, “So like as I was saying, I had a soft-serve, it dripped down my wrist. The tractor was making its way up the coast. The sea was flat. A hundred people in the water having the time of their lives. The idiot boy besides me with the scrambled message. Then the waves picked up. A huge wave you could see coming from a mile out. It kept coming and rising larger and it broke right before it reached the tractor. Everything churned violently. The idiot said he always feels that way. He held out the Cube to pacify the people smashed into the shore, not to mention those who drowned long before they even hit it.”
“That’s lovely, dear. Highly revealing,” said Demi. She turned her attention to the stork. “He’s such a clever bird. Just last night I slept with him. When I get too hot, he hovers above me, flapping his wings like a fan. Not a bad bird at all.”
“An excellent bird,” said Mars. “A remarkable bird.”
She removed the stork from its cage and allowed it to stand on the table. The bird seemed relieved to get away from the counterbalancing push-pull of the magnets, to use its brittle talons to support its own weight again. After a time, the stork stared at me, clucking the lower sack of its beak open, billowing it until we could fit all our heads inside, even the nurse, even with his funnel hat. Demi yelled something that sounded like a Portuguese insult (something like eshwahhtay!) and the stork’s beak deflated.
Again, the nurse extracted a yellow mucous from Mars’ skull with the long hypodermic. He slowly stepped to Demi’s side, balanced himself on a knee, licked his finger a few times, moistened an area on her forearm, then injected deferentially. Demi watched the nurse without reacting.
The nurse smiled at her as he removed the needle. Demi completely lacked affect, until she spiraled her hand twice and sent the stork hovering above us. She laughed, and then quickly buckled a clip that had once been holding her gown tight at the breastbone.
“What a wonderful world. Despite what Mars always says, the world is wonderful; there’s nothing that anyone can do to make me think otherwise; there's nothing like it,” Demi said.
“What does he say?” I asked.
“He says to a win a woman’s heart you must forego all of the palliative instincts. To win a woman’s heart you must drive her down a path of torment.”
Mars attempted no rebuttal; he had fallen asleep after the nurse’s last extraction.
I took this opportunity to look at him, without fearing a counterglare as I had before. I had heard so much about him. I had heard about the conversions and ceremonies and the hundred thousand followers who shut down the city when they marched to free him from the hands of the Administrators. Just a few years ago, he had more supporters than most nations have citizens. Everyone wanted to live within him. Then what happened? How did he come to this? How did this meeting get arranged in which I, a scrappy reporter without any solid credentials, get to meet with Mars and his latest wife?
You must understand, I am not achieving. This report is not a reward for a few months' good work. I am new at this. Please grant me understanding. I was there simply because no one else at the Bureau was interested in the story.
Meeting Mars and his new wife in exile? the other journalists scoffed.
Someone had to do it. I'm that someone.
Demi wore a long, white, hooded smock. It had no decorations; her smooth skin beneath the hood seemed to join the cloth that covered her, both her skin and the smock running together to the dirt at her feet.
Lovely feet, I should say.
I dropped my pen and it fell directly below the table.
The bones of her feet, I felt as though I could tap them and they’d ring, while Mars’ feet were in bandaged boots. The miles he was forced to march from town, like a hybrid of shark and jackal, had shredded his boots. I realized when I ducked my head beneath the table that there was no way one could stand the smell of those bloodied bandages for more than a few seconds unless one looked over at Demi’s feet. Which I did, and although my nostrils had only moved a few inches away, sight took control of smell.
After a moment beneath the table, I reemerged above the surface of the table and asked Demi about the book she balanced on her head. I hadn’t noticed it until then, but when I saw the gilt binding and the beveled edges of an old book, I realized I’d have to ask.
“It’s a book. Yes, it is a book. It’s not something I can tell about. If I began to tell you about it you’d probably want to balance it yourself. It’s a book about love. Relationships. How people survive on this planet with each other—the most important thing really, don’t you think? Anyway, it’s about love and how it sustains us.”
“But you seem to be sustained by more than just love,” I said.
“Mars is a great hater. The greatest hater. His every impulse is hate, and for this hatred he is loved. I love to receive him, as the nurse enables me to receive him. With each injection I love Mars more, as his hate rushes through me. But there is nothing else to it, nothing besides love, not really.”
“Let’s not talk about love and hate,” I said, thinking that I didn't come all this way to get a lecture on love and hate by Mars' fiftieth wife.
The nurse stood and came toward me as she continued: “There’s only one thing we can speak of here. Love and hate. If we were across the hills and beneath the smoke of the steeple perhaps we could speak about the price of this wine, or we could sell this book to the highest bidder, or we could find you someone who could steal the edge from your glance.”
And then the nurse stuck me in the side of the skull. I felt like shit, immediately. I couldn't go on. I fell beneath the table and slept with my chin across Mars' bandaged feet until Demi had me carried away, beyond the steeple and back to my office, where I wrote this report, submitted it to the editors, and took the subway to the Central Park Zoo, where for just $3 you can climb into an enclosed space and wrestle three polar bears, even on the hottest day of the year. If it's humid enough, there's a good chance you might even pin one to the imitation tundra for a neverending second, as the other two come lumbering toward you.
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