(Image with permission of Becka Wolfe).
In the twentieth chapter, in which Mouse has found himself in prison on an Island populated by women only, he encounters . . ..
Maximus, God of Rancor
Chains jingle like coins continually tossed. A throng of boots in gray mire takes Mouse along a trail over the village: a music box collection in a crypt, lit by hidden candles. Dogs snarl and men shout, step it up; turn down that way, you curs, you scum. The column winds among hillocks like combed helmets. The line of men shuffles to a halt. Gangs split off, and men and mounted taskmasters go trailing here and there in the sweep of land. A shrill voice orders Mouse’s gang through an opening in the stone wall, among rows of dark leaves and scarecrows on poles.
“Today, dung beetles, line yourselves up!”
They stand in a line, heads hanging. Three figures face them on horseback, cloud edges behind them beginning to glow like molten nickel over blood. The small one in the center dismounts, ties off the reins to a hitching post, steps forward and spits. With a torso curving like a melon, he stumps on stiff legs, hands in his vest pockets. A goiter bulges over his bow tie.
“You believe in the gods? They can’t do spit for you now. Let me introduce you to a new god! That god is me! Maximus! God of rancor! Today, I am your one and only god! You refuse my moral authority, and I will show you the road to hell. You boys thinking about running for it? Get this idea out of your big, stupid heads. Nowhere to run to. My pony likes to knock a big boy down and step up his fat backside. Make it past me and my helpers, and one of them hounds will be chewing on your rump steak.”
The dwarf extends an arm.
“Today, you going to thin grape vines for me. I been asked for two rows. You going to finish three. You going to be tired. Might think of taking it slow. Don’t. You work hard for me, and I will extend my hand, and I will shower you with blessings. Them being in the form of points. Points and levels. Levels and points. That is the one way to survive and make your life better here. And that is why I, who give and take away points, am your god. But it is all up to you.
“You boys got to learn right now, you at the bottom rung of a long, long ladder. That ladder is covered in sea moss, and it is slippery. I can tell you, you don’t want to fall off. You want to keep your eye on the next step up. Without my helping hand, you never going make it. You be nice and work like pigs, and some day you going to find yourself on a higher plane. Meat with your meals. Better room, better clothes. Get yourself off that slippery bottom rung and up to level two. That’s the only way to heaven. Heaven is far away now, but someday, you going to have nice leaf to smoke and you going to get to do—other things. Someday. But not today.
“Today, you going to finish three rows. Or die trying. You two new boys take up the rear; pick up anything that’s missed. These grapes got to have that morning sun. They got to have of air. You going pull away the leaves in the way of that morning sun. And you going to do it quick. You going to move your hands just as fast as you can move them.”
The dwarf bends at the waist, and his immense hands yanking imaginary leaves.
“When you made it down two rows, you eat, not before. Finish three rows, you going to go back to your cells and rest your weary heads, because you going to to finish three rows tomorrow. Today, you going to restrict your conversation to how to thin grape vines. Don’t you risk getting in bad with me, because I am god. Get to work.”
The men trample to either side of the row, and vines begin to jerk as leaves are torn away. Droplets fall when Mouse touches the leaves. Mouse tears leaves from around the new grapes, green and small. The men ahead of Mouse spring back, their chains jingling. A snake winds and switches beneath the vines and then slips down a hole. A small man with bad teeth is plucking beside Mouse. He coughs sometimes, wet and spasmodic.
“The dwarf has no balls,” he says to Mouse. “None of them do.”
“Where do these screws come from?”
“Just rascals hired off the mainland. Mean as weasels.”
“Everywhere it is the same. Screws all strut like chickens and tell you they are gods.”
Mouse feels the sun climbing up the back of his neck. The leaves dry out. Mouse removes his shirt and knots the arms like a belt around his waist. His back aches, and his hands sting. The dwarf sits on his horse behind them, cursing them for big, slow devils.
“Deep down in your skull cups, you think you are superior, hey, big men? You disgust me, living life like it was a peep show. How do you think it feels to be a bearded lady or a two-headed man? Ever stop to think about that? Or a lobster boy? You think the organ monkey likes to wind that lever? You dare call us little people names? Pewee, is it? Midget, is it? Runts, are we? Just little clowns in your burlesque show. You going to learn how that feels, big men. Big dishes of humiliation for all. How’s it taste? Plenty left in the pot. And I am happy to serve it up to you. Seconds and thirds and fourths.
“You don’t know where you are, do you? You all on a ladder. That ladder is swinging. Don’t make me knock you off that bottom rung. Some sharks circling below, hungry for pig meat. Above you, I mean way above, there’s the light of heaven. Below you is darkness. You don’t want to find out what’s down there. Down there’s monsters way worse than Maximus the dwarf.”