THE HOUSE MADE OF WHEELS
Kayote tugged his map-hat out of his bag, scrunched it up a bit, and slammed it on.
Squinting, hungover by light more than booze, they stumbled along a flat mesa top devoid of life, too close to an electric blue sky. Eyes adjusting, Mundi was entranced with this barren place. There was nothing beyond it but sky, close enough to touch, nothing of it but gold – all a man could ask for in a landscape, or a life. So they said.
Rocks barely snaking out of the sand, lay as if struck down and entombed by the winds, soaking up a sun so close only stone could take it. It was as hot as dry is when it’s hot. Mundi put his burnoose on, kneeling before rock after rock, casting a singular shadow across them, enlivening them with contrast – indeed the only parts he could see in this light were the sections revealed by his shadow, where the white light of everything took form and tone. He pored with his fingers over their surfaces, eyeing their meaning as his own thoughts spoke to him of the unknown.
The silvery fleck of rubble wizened by probing, whisking winds, by penetrative warming light and the caress of frosts pawing deeper into a colder color, flickered a refrain through everything here. Upon the pale, aluminous rock surface were tiny black veins: licks and ticks one could only mistake for letters of alphabets. A forbidden, forgotten or foreign arcane alchemy beyond man’s pension for bibliomancy, yet too tempting to resist. The letters were tiny on the surface, but as Mundi found later, they could be mined from deeper down to form giant crossword accidents; or found in volcanic billboard ground – spectacular littera spewed up from the center of the earth into an igneous verbiage swollen with potential meaning. That or none at all.
The surface of the mesa from their vantage was abandoned, a dispeopled place, left without regret to be found by those who won’t stay. Apart from a moonscape of wonderfully graphic rocks, in shape and lexical twist, there was nothing. No plants, no animals, not even birds. But not complete silence either. There was a cramping of the air, a vocal temperature to the wind. The boy was the first to notice. He stood his tallest stand, sniffing and squinting at the air, recrumpling the creases of his brown paper burnoose like some exotic guide.
“Let’s keep looking, there are people here.”
“We’re looking?” grouched Kayote.
“Can you hear them? We’re getting closer.”
A single scrap of saffron tissue paper or silk even, wafted up a little a head of them, from nowhere, from the ground. Everyone froze as though it had been a dinosaur.
They edged forward. Cadfly, just a little ahead of the others, addressed the universe.
“I say, do you have one in black?” If there was an answer, it was not for this question. Or else it waited for the wind carrying the bright birdlike fragment to do its dance choreographed by sky, sun and air. The tatter caressed the traces of its own flight like fire across a sky so blue, so blue.
Cadfly dropped clear out of sight.
Ever a man of action, Kayote ran past Mundi, leapt forward – and was gone.
Mundi scuffed into a run – to where his friends had been only... and skidded back in horror still tipping forward from his own momentum. Back! Back! Arms waved the wind to call him back from the edge, quivering at the lip of a precipice, sand flying off into space. Below him, Kayote and Cadfly tumbled down a steep slope like two black tumbleweeds.
From where he crouched, on a natural ledge of white, dusty sandstone, was a vista designed to swallow breath. Mundi was perched like a statue on the rim of a volcanic crater several hundreds of himself across – who knows how many people deep? From where he slowly stood, gasping, he could see lining the interior a dense, vocally peopled city. A city composed entirely of obelisks seemingly growing out of the skin of the cone like nostril hair. Positioned horizontally around the conic slope, only the last few dozen or so near the bottom leant at Dutch angles, until there at the very base of the volcanic crater, tumbled clusters of fallen obelisks were meshed into crystalline abstractions of tilted, shattered, upended spikes.
He surveyed the whole spiky city, crisp in the morning light, overrun with ivy cresting the pubic nestling of the obelisks into the crater's sides. They appeared to be the same calligraphic rock that Mundi had just tossed in his hand, while a few were luxurious minimalist marble. The letters were the driest inky black, like end of the run newspapers, and much larger in scale than the tombstony pebbles up above – edific capitals and scripted symbols declaring a certain neoclassical austerity, individualized by divergent fonts. Yet it became clear once the eye had settled, despite the obscurity of the linguistic mix, that these were all advertising declaratives. Among the alphanumeric scatters were outlines of hands holding birds by the feet, women’s fingers wiping dark liquids across their cheeks, meaty male hands holding bundles of booty, and I could be wrong but many of the S’s were crossed out vertically, which had to signify something.
Almost all were hollow in the manner of buildings, cartouche or diamond shaped fenestration illuminating rooms uncurtained along the sides, where silhouettes of people were to be seen doing the things people do in rooms. Some obelisks supported others by crossing beneath them, presumably these were older, but of the same lexeme stone, with caryatids of disrobed masked women bridging the side-steeple beneath to the one above, like shoes with their laces tied together. On little ledges, adjacent to these compliments to the mystery of what can be done with the human form, were totems to animals they presumably no longer had to deal with – under tall or squat glass domes dusted opaque by sand storms – stuffed pigeons, sparrows, roaches and rats froze in lively poses.
Along the tops of the obelisks, covered markets were a-hive with life. It was the bustle of these hustling marketeers that he had heard muted before. Now it was a shock of sound rising up from the crater like heat. The wind must have carried it as an eagle does its prey – off and away, soaring on toward culinary silence, or borne by the winds like a singing seed.
He began his descent to the obelisk flats – the tops of them. The brothers were long gone. A coolness met him head on as he broke from surface level. The side of the crater side was a perilously loose ratification of sand and stone, while its pathways were swept clean – smoothed into broad tiered walkways, slanted columns and subtle slopes. For the most part the downward route was one single spiral, a corkscrew curlicue threading the vast basin. But there were connecting paths of almost invisible steps or step-ladders cut into the volcano side, slicing through it laterally here and there. The cacophony seemed to abate quite suddenly. He froze where he stood, thinking he had been seen.
Creeping forward, eyes into everything, he found the dappling din of market life became audible again as he approached the next tier, slightly more raucous even, tattered with a harsher banter than his first encounter. One after another like this, each occupying different signatures as he came upon them.
Sauntering down, he observed long teeming life lines, each sprawling down a single lane of unrestrained locality. There was indeed something hive-like about it, drones buzzing about, yet answering to no queen here, only to their shifty, serious agendas which had only one honey: money. Shade was cool, so welcome, beneath pale canopies tugging just a little loose at the hem of a gentle breeze. People bustled and hustled, vendors tugging at the elbows of passers by, waving, ushering, inviting hands held out and too close, smiling the promise of a bargain with the insouciance of a perfectly reasonable lie.
There were cages full of live furs skinned and mostly writhing moistly, birds with fresh eggs inside them already plucked and beheaded, eager eagles for the table, and cadaverous cows even, strung up high, with suckling calf fetuses in plastic bags suspended from their swollen, pounding udders. Yummy, mummy. Children played cosmetics for the fall of a small money into a playpen proprietor’s palm – the little tykes tossed pharmaceutical balls that popped on contact, into the eyes of nailed down rabbits, writhing stapled mice and an exceptionally docile sewn in place beagle (even for a beagle – amazing!). Ah, young minds are our future, are they not? Testing each other with the success of the pain they inflicted, the depth of the damage, squealing with delight.
Little Mundi cautiously descended, though some distance from the well trodden zigzag paths that would have led him down like a local. If he had only known... Mundi began to slide. Snatching glances, the poor boy angled on down, gaining speed, not traction. His feet seemed to be running backwards, or else stepping slowly over open air, while he felt like he was leaping vast bounds without even breaking from the ground. Every time he broke from the surface was like flying, out and down. A chill peppered his face, something not of the falling, something of something else. He saw something!
Far out there perched on the end of an obelisk – was that the circus runt, Coco the Quaint? No not Coco – Ethyl Chloride! Mundi tried to skid to a stop with both hands and feet, and at least carried on sliding on his ass so he could look up. No it can’t have been. But wasn’t it? No.
Down he went anyway, building up speed now. It seemed like nothing was going to slow his descent, skidding out of control like a toy version of himself. So unlike life, he could see himself falling, could know for a certainty what he looked like, tumbling down, down, down, a tiny tattered avalanche of one – yet impervious to the will of gravity. Wait – now that was Rita’s face, just then, between market stalls, Rita’s face, Rita’s face! He slid on, kicking and scrambling. Shrouds of suffocating dust – he waved it away! It was! And one of the Lugs from the Smoking Circus! He tied to slow down, he had to see.
But down he went. Skidding, scrambling, upending himself, to fall bent forward head over toe like a horseshoe, trying to center his center to go down like a ball, not a paper plane. At this point it was pointless trying to stop himself falling, every fragment to be seen of the world whirling round and at him like a lasso or a whip! There was almost a stillness to the raining down, this drooling drizzle of one down the dry gullet gulley, this slither too fast to catch hold of, too slow to get a good look at with the world speeding all around. Mundi was Mundi no more. Only a ball of Mundi, a bundle of dust tugging rags out of the air to make a person’s shape just to crumple it up again. Death of a thousand stones – the thought of himself shrunk and shrunk – but it kept coming back from some nowhere place, reminding him he didn’t know what it was yet, where it was, that there is always something more to be alive to see... Mundi... a fallen statue demolitioning down in a storm of dust!
The Mohawk brothers tumbled on so far ahead in the same screwy spirals.
He began to stabilize. Easy does it young man. Easy.
Get a look at things. How far have you...
Someone fell on top of him! “Hey!” He – they – this new now double tumble bounced out from the surface in a wild jabbing crunch and mingle – lifting off the surface at a slower speed than the rolling down, sailing out into empty space then crumbling down close like clumps of wet mud picking up dry dust. The crater-side made an avalanche of them that grew no larger, but still kept on falling. Two people, Mundi and who? Who? Who! Falling as one at the boot end of gravity’s mad kick and even madder hug, tug and lick – crying blindness into the thick deafening air unheard with eyes too mute to squint. The ultimate reduction.
An obelisk below, loomed closer, gliding up the crater’s side toward them, or so it seemed. Here it comes! His hands felt dusty skin, his face tried to avoid a head jiggling right next to his. They crashed into a market stall – through a stand of colored phials – pots, pans, baskets of tusk and fang, glittering shards of rainbow pellets and silver shapes rained down. Snake skins and skinned snake candies made litter of themselves, scattering everywhere like they were alive again – which actually they were but only some of them. Furious marketers scrambled about yelling, grabbing, pushing people away, clutching merchandise close. Sound and dust and stuff! So much stuff!
An explosion of static objects vivified by alien influence, heavy now light, ornate made simple, splatters of color, noise, the pokes of falling everything!
They had landed in a pile of cactus flowers (just the flowers, thankfully) – face to face, still tangled up and half on top of each other. He struggled to see – who? Dust rained down, settling… into a statue of Rita.
Mundi fanned the dust away, wiped his arm across his face, smearing a plastering of it into a dark sweaty Lone Ranger mud-mask. Then a pot plant landed on his head, the clay shattering, the clump of roots, narrow reeds and a single flower settling in for keeps.
The suffocating dry cloud of it all began to clear. Squinting through the long leaves he saw... Rita! She lifted one of the leaves and smiled, blew dust at Mundi from her upper lip, which was as substantial as its partner in crime below it, expanding into a smile.
Bursting into laughter he jumped forward and kissed her.
She smacked him in the eye.
“Make the story interesting, or you’ll find out one day it wasn’t your story at all,” something whispered.
Sinking his toes in the swallowing sand, Mundi waded slow as stealth toward the island where the House rocked so perilously.
The moment was an era, it held itself high over baited breath. He kept standing there, staring, until he realized he stood a little farther away. Where was the shark? The shark. He'd been sinking of course with each step home, and was up to his waist now. But soon... he’d be close enough to make a lunge for a crag of that white rock – the rock of an island with a House Made of Wheels on it.
Step after sinking step, he sank toward the House. Chest deep now. The House.
He hurled himself at it, as much sinking with the sudden motion as the squirming free, up and out! He did it! He pulled himself free of the cloying heavy sand. Climbing at breakneck speed like a spider monkey, the House swaying perilously above him, up and up he went. Why had it kept on grinding toward the edge? The House should have known to stay still, for once. Yet there it was inching toward the edge, and here was Mundi coming on up.
He reached the top – felt for the final ledge that would deliver him to the House. He could see it, almost touch it. The House Made of Wheels creaked, teetered. A shadow fell across Mundi, evenly, eerily calm, stretching its change from light to dark with all the power of things you can’t touch. He scrambled to reach the House, with skinny, scuffed little hands so ill equipped for disaster. It tipped forward, over, right over him. It was close enough to brush against him, almost, and he stretched, leaning back, out – he made an Olympic grab for a spoke or some part of it, to go with it, wherever, but lost his grip. Time slowed all about him as he scrambled for anything, anything, that would make a difference. Time might as well have smiled for all the help it was, as he fell. Down again into the blue sand churning hungrily below. He turned to see it happen as he tumbled backwards, instinctively spreading arms out wide to kill the fear that gravity had him. The House, sailing past him, down into the sand.
The House groaned a primal wrench as it landed upside down. An elemental shush of sifting sand was even louder, sending a spray of suddenly sunlit blue out either side, catching the light to take one more thing down with it, but so dreamily, like dust particles sparkling on a gentle summer day, before scattering across the surface. Roof-side-down, exposing its foundations of hefty, dark, dirty wheels spinning helplessly, it called to mind an insect writhing on its back in that heady desperate sprint across air that’s everywhere but can’t be reached, the seething, settling awareness of a long, slow death. A moment after impact, the corkscrew spine of the stairwell sprung out through the basement with a deathly rattle – now a bizarre, twisted mast drilling a pointless hole in the sky. No flag at the end of it, only a wagon wheel loosened from its axis, spinning slowly like a skewer dangling a piece of bedraggled meat.
Everyone froze in shudders of the same sharp horror, transfixed by its effortless hold over them.
He surfaced, popping up like the stones skimmed by the brothers in some earlier, more carefree time which might as well have happened someplace else, for all the scope of mortality that had put itself between then and now. Of course he began to sink again, slowly.
Squirming, struggling, writhing, Mundi couldn’t rouse the calm that had saved him before – the House was so close! Yards away. A life away, inching away. Treading sand, he was going nowhere. Stepping slower and slower, elbow deep, he got a little closer, but the weight of the House sent sand reeling in unpredictable quivering eddies that turned him around. He used up a step or two just turning back, and stopped as still as he could be. The poor House creaked and murmured at the mercy of this dune-like tundra, but stayed afloat, its roof now a keel. Mundi didn’t move at all now, just a bobbin in the sand. Watching, watching everything he didn’t have – the House, freedom, a future – he could feel his power ebbing away. He just kept looking at the House, the only home he ever knew, up close but not close enough, drifting away for the last time.
Back on the island, a strained silence closed in around the others, tight as a noose. It was all so far away, like a slow death playing out at the speed of a life. Beyond their reach, it somehow touched them with such ease, to render their horror mute, unreal yet right there. They twisted their will hard against every thought that seemed to come at them from the outside. An inescapable end was watching them, and it hadn’t finished with any of them yet.
Cadfly spoke soberly. “I know where we are.” Eyes so dead, you just had to listen.
“Then how do we get out of here?” Rita asked, still wracked with tears that wouldn’t come, but wouldn’t quite let go.
“We can’t. This is the Hourglass Ocean, and that... is Lotus Sand. All the hourglasses in the world are made from it.” The mask fell away from his cemetery eyes. “In Lotus Sand you don’t die, you’re simply worn away, hair by hair, skin by skin, grain by grain until there is nothing left of you but living Lotus Sand.”
Rita stared, numbed. All her reason snarled up from deep within her, raging in disbelief, but powerless against so much absurdity. Absurdity that was happening.
“How good it would feel to not know that, Cadfly.”
“Not knowing won’t stop time flowing. It comes back at you some other way, it always has another day.”
“Mundi’s fucked,” Kayote mumbled.
“No he’s not!” Rita paced from foot to foot on the spot. “No.”