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Fiction by Robert Stone

Otherwise

I

A bead of moisture struggles stubbornly down the pane of hot glass. Its progress, if it is correct to think of progress in this regard, is inhibited or interrupted by unseen obstacles that divert the erratic path of the bead and rob it of its substance, overwhelm its momentum. The soldier remembers a comet evaporating in the still, cold atmosphere of the night. Or, inverted, the ascent of a bubble of air rippling in silver somersaults to burst into nothing at the surface. The room is altogether dark but for this window of yellow light set into the wall. He feels he can smell the hot dust on the glass more than that he smells it. The light is a hostile yellow block not like any natural light that he has ever known. There is no noise unless there is a low ticking in his lungs that might be the beating of his heart. Felt, not heard, thought about, maybe imagined, but not, therefore, not real. The light might hum. Or the heat. The light and the heat are not clearly distinct one from the other. The air in the vivarium is as solid as stone. There is such a quality of immobility available here. The scorpion does not move. It took an uncounted number of minutes before the soldier noticed it.

II

The soldier thinks of raising his hand to the glass and tapping, gently. As anyone would. To draw attention, or to inspire an event. To make the bead of moisture crawl more quickly and to burn itself out. But he does not raise his hand. The scorpion raises the three legs on its right side. The leg nearest to its head first, then the second, then the third. And then it lowers them again. First the third, then the second and finally the first. As though in imitation or anticipation of the slow-motion drumming fingers of an impatient man. The scorpion is still again. So still that the soldier doubts that it had moved and that what he had thought he had seen was only a prophecy or a memory of movement. He wants to swallow but fears his dry throat would rattle. The scorpion might be yellow like the worn amber stem of a smoker’s pipe. But it is the yellow of this hard light and the washed yellow gravel on which it sits, or lies, unmoving. It would be transparent. It could shine with an inner light, the pulse of its alien life. The soldier decides the scorpion has not moved. He has not moved. His eyes are dry. The whites might be yellow or bloodshot, or look yellow reflected in the hot glass. He has not blinked for a long time. He is afraid of missing it.

III

The scorpion looks made. Mechanical. The pieces of which it has been constructed are evident, segmented. A suit of armour but a creature made of armour, its knuckles and joints are buckles and straps. And its claws, which do not click, and the pointed ball of poison, depending from the curve of its tail, which does not drip. An empty suit. The sections of the scorpion’s body are irregularly marked, scored, scalloped perhaps abraded. The yellow has dulled darker almost to brown. Some of the granules of gravel on which it sits, or lies, are of that similar almost brown. The heat in the darkened room blankets the soldier as though it were fur. But that could be the light, or the absence of light. He will grow accustomed to this, to this smothering temperature, or he will not. It will come to not matter to him like the warm dry air he draws now, with difficulty, into his fluttering lungs. A bead of sweat makes a maddeningly slow crawl down the soldier’s lip. He knows it will taste salt. He is not certain that the scorpion is alive. It must not think, it must not be aware, it does not move. It might be in that gap between having lived and living again, between nothingness and time.

IV

The thin red vein of the alcohol in the thermometer is the only straight line in the world. The soldier cannot see the numbers because they are too small, or they have been rubbed away, somehow, so that they do not appear to be in sequence or not in a sequence that he can understand. He would like to look at his watch. He can feel the pinch of its segmented band around his moist wrist. He has been watching the scorpion for a long time, or has only now begun to do that. There can be no time in a world in which nothing changes. There is no death in a world where nothing lives. The scorpion may have closed one pellucid claw and then scissored it open once more, snip snip, or it may never have moved. Only now does the soldier notice the toy. It may not count as an event, this noticing of what surely must always have been there. Or it may. The toy is a soldier, he thinks. Tucked against a larger stone that droops like a simple bridge. Partly hidden, or simply behind, the short dry sticks of what once was perhaps green. It could be a diver, a deep-sea diver, with a bubble head of brass. A brass now faded to yellow, or to no colour.

V

That diver may have lived here when all of this was salt water. Until the air ran out and his last breath bubbled to the surface and burst into nothing. There is a plastic dish, or at least disc, of what might have been water to the west of the scorpion. It is empty. It is not clear, to the soldier, how that dish, or disc, might ever be replenished. He notices the shadow of the scorpion. The shadow is a thing, like a toy, like a rock, like a scorpion, like a billow of smoke suspended, like a shadow. It is no less a thing because it will be lost when the scorpion moves and no more because the scorpion may never move. The soldier wants to laugh. He has wondered if the scorpion is real. That is to say, it might be a toy. He does not laugh but wanting to is a relief. He reaches, without looking, for the glass on the table, stretching his fingers slowly so as to be sure not to upset it, pinches its thin stem between two fingers and a thumb and brings the warm red wine to his dry lips. It will leave its stain on them. Plates of dark red like scabs. He places his glass back on the table with hardly a clink. Exotic tobacco burns. The smell is pungent, stinging. The scorpion makes no sign.

VI

There could be a fleck of red on the toy soldier’s arm. A blemish, or all that is left of a bright red coat. Now the soldier tries to make out the face of the toy, what he had once thought was the grille of the diver’s mask, that tiny brass matrix, and sees that the grille is the face of a skull. One arm is raised above the head. Noticing it now makes it feel like it has just happened but that cannot be so. In the hand is a sword, a sabre, a cutlass. As sharp as a razor. Like the claw of a scorpion. The diver is a pirate drowned in air. His hand may be a hook. The grille of his grin is without expression. The soldier blinks and feels his lids abrade his eyes. The eyes of the scorpion are not apparent. There is nothing to be seen in them. It is its own skeleton merely. Its own brittle outside. Pleasure, frustration, fear, hatred and spite remain unevolved in it. The toy and the scorpion both innocent of skin, fat and flesh, those vulnerabilities. Ossified. If only the cheek of the pirate were marked with a scar, what was once not there. Even though it should be a flaw in the glass, a wobble in the air. A clot. Otherwise a tear. Yellow like honey, congealed in the shape of a sickle. When the scorpion dies, it might keel to one side. It might change colour, bleach. If a breath of air could be imagined, it might blow away like paper.

VII

Is it possible to vary the intensity of the light to simulate the time of day? No answer. Or the light must never be extinguished. Is that so? No answer. The wine has turned to salt on his tongue. It stings. The scorpion has no tongue and no lips and so perhaps cannot taste its prey. The locust does not blink for it has no lids to its huge metallic eyes. No lids and no lips. It sits or lies in its shadeless corner whither it once flew or was otherwise placed. It has some red, a mere blush, in its thick striped abdomen, its succulent self. It has no face with which to express its terror and so perhaps feels none. Its antennae may be whipped in percussive curves, anxious or insouciant, but these are too fine for the soldier to see, obliterated by the hostile light. This emblem of voracity placed here to be consumed, so one assumes. The soldier allows his glance to wander the gravel in search of the jetsam that would be all that could remain of that locust’s predecessor, its double, its confrère. He finds nothing. That means nothing. This world which looks so ancient could be new. There’s no difference. The scorpion is a fallen constellation, an aged clock of coils and wheels, brass cogs and springs. The man asks the soldier when he’d arrived. Just a few days ago, says the soldier. It seems longer than that, says the soldier. Don’t be anxious, says the man. It’s all arranged.

VIII

That cube by the pirate, or the diver, slightly abraded to a darker shade, abraded mysteriously, could be his treasure chest. His locker. A container holding nothing, a hoard of unspendable pearls, clotted hard. The soldier bites his lip. The shields along the locust’s flank glimmer like silver bubbles blown through a pipe, the fluttering pulse of a creature with air in its veins, in its vestigial gills. Should it move it will die. Immobility is immortality. The soldier raises his hand to his face, crooks a finger and beckons. He holds his breath and pulls his own yellow skin tight. The razor nicks in his chin are scalloped. A globe of dried blood cracks. The bead of moisture has stopped falling but stands out like a blister. He might have traced its trajectory with a finger. The scorpion has no colour. It is all hollow. Is it there? The soldier can make out the reflection of his own face, as he sits, or lies, glistening and yellow. He does not blink or breathe. His heart drums. He can see the face of his watch in the glass but not make out all of the numbers on the dial. They have faded or were never there. What he can see does not seem to be in sequence or not in one he can understand. The locust has some green and gold along its plump abdomen, ready to quiver, like the insignia of a soldier. The vein of the thermometer is a lost red thread. How long have I been here, asks the soldier?

IX

The soldier’s skin has a sheen, like a man’s with a fever. And a tic near his eye. It beats like clockwork. The scorpion flexes a claw, perhaps. The locust is dead because its death is inevitable. It has wound down. Its heart no longer beats. It is already a ghost. That its death is not yet is irrelevant, without meaning. The soldier is finding it hard to breathe, hard to see the point of breathing. Easy to imagine dying now, the faltering mechanism simply stops. To have reached that tipping point when decay begins. The man says that it has all been arranged. He might be humming. The second-hand of the soldier’s watch, seen or imagined in the mirror of the vivarium, feathers round anti-clockwise. The shadow of the scorpion is bevelled by the glass or in the haze. The air in there is full of moisture again. The light shakes like smoke. A bead appears in the arid little dish and trickles to its centre. The soldier’s lip is tickled. The pirate seems to wave his sword above his bubble head. The light is rounding things off, eroding them. It could be a scimitar, or a blemish, a scratch on the stone that looks like a simple bridge, abraded from yellow by something. Some hard, hostile air. He sees the light shine through his hand, held up to the glass. A scar near a knuckle like a thread of tiny pearls. The scorpion may know, somehow, that the locust is there, that it is time. Some inner clock ticks. The clot of colour at the pirate’s waist may be a flamboyant sash. The thin vein of the thermometer is flexed like a red wine stain between two lips set tight. What is all of this for, asks the soldier? The fingers are allowed to drum on the thigh, falling like stings. Just for looking at?

X

The scorpion will appear to be gone. The only sign will be that its shadow will have abraded to yellow. Somehow. The soldier will stroke the wine from his lips with the tip of his tongue. He finds a flake of tobacco and swallows it. The pirate will wave his scimitar in a slow curve signalling hello, or goodbye. Ahoy! His treasure chest forgotten he would have you believe. The bubbles in the shallow dish coalesce like blisters of mercury. The locust will not squeal but may squeak as its arid life is crushed from it by the claws of the scorpion. Its expression will not, cannot, change as the venomous ball jabs unstoppably, dropping like a comet. The soldier will blink at the smoke. There will be no struggle. The creatures will be locked in a grotesque and inelastic ecstasy. The locust’s head, emblem of voracity, will twist in a crippled somersault as it is tortured by its adversary as the wards of a brass lock are turned by its key. A bead of sweat will roll down the soldier’s open collar, crawling like an insect. He will watch the torque of those cold-blooded voluptuaries writhing without change of expression. His wine glass is empty. He will not see the scorpion move. He will smell the dust on the glass. None of this has happened yet but it will, so it has. The man will whisper, it is time. It has all been arranged.

Robert Stone

Twitter: @RobertJStone2

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