In keeping with changes in concepts of publishing, this following novel is being featured chapter by chapter on Delirium Liberty, partly as a challenge for myself and partly because I wonder if this method can be a viable alternative for today’s readers.
The Cage, Chapter 2:
Men shout within a hiss of hydraulic serpents. Icebergs grind and shale rattles, and an engine bursts into a shattering bellow that strikes between the eyeballs and ricochets within the walls of the skull.
The heavy, old engine lugs. Shovels scratch. The sound is dimming. Silence. Dried up and breathless, without affection, pity, or the least, civil syllable. Starless firmament where Mouse has been consigned to brute lifting and wrenching and digits that swell and throb at night with their own life of pain. Hell—and slow, eating worms of despair.
By the gods, he deserves it. These are wages. This invisible, horny outer skin that accrues. Disease that names with wobbling orifices as it envelopes. Between nodes, gobs speak in unison, like angry geese. One, encyclopedic word. A word that contains. At the apex, sweetness. Fangs pressing into the foe’s raw heart. It doesn’t last. Soon ashes are sliding. Rain comes radioactive and gold, covering the body in a new, blistered skin that cannot be scraped off.
Drink your watery, yellow birth! This is you! Pool where no bell, flesh, flower opens the eye. Life amoebic. Flat-nosed imaginings of a life. A wafer was offered, recalling the holy rumor. Swollen hands can be borne. The gritty, unwashed company of men without imagination can be endured. But–once the rumor is crushed out—what is beyond? One passes down a gangplank. A flash in the palm the ancestor. A path between the trunks of massive trees with sun filtering like fog around falling water, two children traipsing in white splashes. The scent, fine bristles, blur of a close face. Behind, the ripped clouds and darkness coiling and haunted. The introspective glow that never comes back.
Uncle Swun. The man, all broken teeth and violence. He must have passed through this hoop of fire. Mouse cannot; he cannot. It is too deep and too bitter, this bowl of obedience and death. Unbidden from the wilderness of youth, catechisms arise. You gods: a key! A lamp! In Mouse’s dreams, he carries one. Through rain, he is heading somewhere, and he meets a girl with clipped, red hair. She says she has missed him so much. Her palm is quite small in his hand. He tries to remember that time before, so long before. He sees magnificent, crystal flowers. I have missed you too, he says, though he can remember only a faint, vague wonder.
“Capital bench, boys. Move over.”
The new inmates scoot on the boards sagging across a few blocks from the picked-over piles. The man Mouse worked with stands with his tray. His body is an altar to something, a blue cathedral of ribs and arcane, ornate characters and blue, lodged faces and breasts. This feminine cosmology is woven with the tresses, peacock tails, ocean spume, serpents. He is weasel thin, the bones and muscles under his skin, gravel under cloth. His forehead is lumpy. The eyes are chert-hard and shrewd. They are all scooting now, making plenty of room.
At the end, he sits down. Mouse can only see the trays going up and down, the one or two spoons dipping, dribbling.
“So, boyos, what do you make of it all?”
“Don’t know. A bit like the military,” says Military. “Food is worse. Couldn’t keep an army on its feet.”
“You’re right about that. That’s the one thing you really got to fear. The food. You got to supplement. How long you in for?”’
“Even then. Get your people to bring something green. Screws’ll let you have a bit just to keep it coming.”
“I don’t have people.”
“There are ways. You’ll figure it out.”
The men lift their trays and slurp.
“Smell that curry out there,” says somebody. “Five years and I can get that.”
“Don’t think that way. That will drive you mad. Right, Old School?”
“Sir Old School.”
“You here back in the riots?”
“You mind me asking about it?”
“What was that like?”
“Bloodshed and hellfire.”
“You have anything to do with it?”
“No. That was all D block. Saw it later. Men hanging from the pipes. Faces their mothers wouldn’t know. Every tongue cut out. Never snitch, boyos.”
Mouse finishes his soup. He sits with his tray across his knees. Beyond them, the cooks sit in front of the soup table. Some politicos are roaming about, thin mustached, smoking. Politicos slide near the cook tent, and their trays clatter in a tub. The cooks sit in view of everyone, eating soup and bread.
“Enjoy your meal, you bastards,” says Military.
“It’s not the cooks,” says Old School. “The screws. They got families to feed, you know. And they got to sell every last thing they can make a dime on. Cooks get to work with what’s left.”
From among the politicos rumbles the laughter of Martin Strings . He is heaving about, great-shouldered and graceful, like a tiger. He leans to communicate. In the background, blue prison vans are parked in the chasm like a V, with a mess tent in the crotch. Everywhere, screws crouch crouch and spy: blue, burly, suspicious. The hubbub of civilian crews eating good meals echoes along the ceiling. Mouse hears a match striking at the end of the bench.
“First thing you got to do is get yourself a spoon and a connect for tobacco. Tobacco is money. Things are different than they used to be. Better. The screws are the same, but the politicos make the rules. Respect is the name of the game.”
Old school kicks his feet out and sighs, and a cloud of smoke stirs under the red lights.
“Any of you boys chess players?”
“I know how to play,” says Military. “But I like cards better. Why?”
“Tournament. Still time to get in on it. Nothing but time, actually. You can bet on games, too. Should be interesting—a lot of new blood. Both sides are in on it. Winners of each round play each other. Entrance is three packs of cigarettes, but I could front you if you are short on burn.”
“Why not?” says Military. “I’m in.”