Nod was and always will be a cesspool. Dingy, humid, smelly. And that’s just the citizens. A few bad apples, kids and grandkids and so forth of Mom and Dad’s, got it in their heads they’d relocate to Nod a long, long time ago. All these years later and the apples only got more rotten and more numerous. Blink in Nod and they’ll rob you blind. Fall asleep there and you might wake up one kidney, tongue, or ball short.
And these monsters are family, mind you.
But all that was secondary to number one on the Reasons to Steer Clear of Nod list: Sephura moved out there about a year ago. Sephura’s my sister.
We had a thing for a while. It ended badly.
I made it to Nod just as daylight broke. I could tell by the eyesores: tall, lopsided walls of thatched stone, swaths torn through the brush to accommodate horses and carts, and decorated planks of wood sticking out of the ground trying to sell me things I didn’t need. (“Coming Soon to the North: Housing, Shopping, and Luxury All in One Spot! Why Wander, Nomad? The City of Enoch – Home of the Future!”)
Memory served me well. The layout of the settlement all came back to me, each dank alleyway and brothel as familiar as the back of my hand. I think my ass must’ve spent some time there, too, or else could read my mind. He seemed right at home.
First stop was the marketplace, because that’s where Big Brother had been sighted, and also because I was famished. I tied the donkey to a post and went searching for some grub. Vendors barked at me; filthy children darted between my legs; leprous women gave me come-hither looks. I avoided eye contact with all of them and made straight for this rickety old meat stand, so flimsy it wobbled even in the weakest breeze. This fellow standing on the other side, kind of a chubby dopey guy, folded his arms over his big belly trying to hide the crusty bloodstains on his robe.
“I’ll take a sheep intestine,” I said, and flung him a cluster of burning root tied up in a reed: my idea of a fair trade. His, too. The man handed me my order and as I tore into it with my teeth, he thanked me.
“Nope,” I said, “thank you, brother.” For all I knew he was my brother.
I asked him if he’d mind if I sat with him to eat. He seemed thrilled at the prospect. Really, he seemed thrilled with me, and I made some comment to that effect.
“Well,” he said, “most don’t pay for the meat. Usually I’m robbed of it – if I’m fortunate, when my back is turned.” Tugging down on his robe at the neck, he revealed a lumpy, gnarly scar. “When I’m not so fortunate…” he said, grinning.
“Yeah, well,” I said, chewing, “that’s Nod for you.”
“It’s true,” he said. “All the civilized folk are headed north anyway. Building a fancy new city up there. Roads and baths and houses. Man, what I wouldn’t give…” The sigh he let out could’ve knocked a goat over.
“Oh, you mean ‘Enoch?’” I said, recalling those tacky signs. I wagged my hand, like I could shoo the thought away. “‘No More Roaming?’ Pah! You can keep it. Me, I happen to like roaming.”
The guy let out a rough chuckle. He held out his hand. “Well, roamer, I am Jabal,” he said.
“Dashel,” I said, and we shook. With another bite down the gullet I went to work on the next. Four or five little kids went running by, screaming. Terrified or delighted, I couldn’t tell. “Hey, listen, Jabal,” I said, “seeing as we’re friends now and all. Maybe you can help me out here. See, I’m looking for somebody, somebody my sources say was skulking around these parts just a few days ago.”
Jabal, beaming, was stuffing the roots I gave him into his clothing. “Oh?” he said. “And who might that be, Mister Dashel?”
With my teeth sunk into a ream of sheep-gut, I answered. “The First,” I said.
The little sticks went tumbling from his grip, rolled away in the sand.
“Him,” he said.
One of my shoulders went up. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m on a mission, see. My daddy made me promise I’d find his prodigal sons. One and Two.”
“Oh,” Jabal said. One hand on the counter steadied him as he lowered to sit next to me on the ground. “So that would mean your father…”
“Yes,” I said. Popped the last bite of gut into my yapper and wiped my greasy hands on my leg. “Yes, that’s my father. So how about it, sport? Seen any first-borns around these parts?”
Jabal shook his head. “No,” he said, “no. I spend most my time tending the livestock back home. But,” and here he took a deep breath, unsure whether to trust me and go on. Like I said, though, I’m a likeable guy, and old Jabal must’ve took a shining because he spilled his guts now. “But,” he said, “my brother saw him. Or thought he did. We thought he was crazy, of course. The First hasn’t been seen in… oh Yahweh, not in a long, long time.”
I put my hand on him. Flashed my chompers.
“Until now,” I said. “What’s your brother’s name?”
“I am Jubal,” said the scrawny thing before me that, I guess, looked more or less like a man.
Big, fat Jabal stood next to him, made him look even more like a lone cattail, and put an arm around him. We were in a less-trafficked corner of the market, in the shade of a dilapidated stone wall, downwind of a sewage pile.
“Dashel,” Jabal said, “this is my brother. Jubal, this is Dashel. He has some questions for you.”
“Oh?” The younger brother, twig that he was, barely filled up his loincloth, and I could see his heart beating fast clear through the skimpy flesh of his breast. In his hand he clutched a wooden ocarina, drumming his fingers over it in a nervous tic. Distrust was all over his face; I could read it like a tablet.
“Sure, Jube,” I said, putting on what I hoped was my best smile. “Jabal here tells me you might’ve seen somebody right around here a few days ago. My older brother seems to’ve resurfaced. I’m looking for him, and – congratulations – you’re my first big lead.”
Jubal set down the instrument on his pushcart, which was full of more of the same: pipes, flutes, little harps and such. I guess he was selling them, or trying to, but the size of the pile led me to believe business wasn’t booming. With his hands now free he took to rubbing his arm – a jittery little thing, he was. His eyes darted from Jabal to me and back.
“Go on,” the elder said. “Tell the man.”
“W-well,” Jubal said. He swallowed. “It w-was, ah, right over there.” He pointed across the way, at a small square of land marked with deep wheelbarrow tracks. “That’s where the fruit man sets up shop on sixth-days,” he said. “I saw… him… bartering with the grocer over dates. He was very agitated, your b-brother. Things got, um, heated. A little.”
When he was done, he’d nearly rubbed the skin clear off his left bicep, and he stared up at me, sweaty and fidgety. A scared little boy. Part of me figured Jubal was always like this, all twitchy and anxious. But another part told me this was extreme. Something about what he’d seen – who he’d seen – had set his bones to rattling.
I put a hand on Jubal’s shoulder. At my touch he flinched, and the closer I leaned in the buggier his peepers went.
“Jube,” I said, “help me out here. Are you absolutely certain the man you saw was who you say he was?”
“And just how do you come by this certainty, may I ask?”
He looked at Jabal and gnawed on his fingernails, saying nothing.
“Jubal?” A little shake of his shoulder snapped him out of it, sort of. He turned back to me. “Jubal, I need you to tell me. How did you know it was him?”
A labored gulp of air went thup-thup-thup into his throat. Finally he said: “It was the mark.”
“Mark? What mark?”
“The man I saw, he bore a mark upon his forehead. Right here.” The music man pressed a digit right above the bridge of his nose. “Right here.”
“This mark,” I said, tightening my grip on the crook of his neck. “What did it look like? Was it, what, a big cuneiform ‘C’ or something? What was it about it that made you know?”
Head wobbling, Jubal stepped backward, came very close to tripping clean over his cart right onto his rear. “I can’t explain it,” he said, shuffling back and back. I followed, if only to hear his low murmur, and him scooting away the whole time. “I just took one look and knew. Knew it was him.” Scootch. “Knew to leave him be, keep away.” Scootch. “Knew I shouldn’t ever talk about it.” Scootch. Now his back was against the crumbling wall. Nowhere to go but Answerville.
“What,” I said, “did the mark look like, Jubal?” My finger flew to his sternum and poked. He let out a little whimper.
“I can’t,” he said. “I mean I really can’t explain.” He swallowed, something considerable, probably some renegade bile. “But you will know it, you will know him, when you see it.”
I looked at my finger, digging into the poor guy’s flesh. Clucked my tongue, like it was some naughty thing independent of my body and I was chastising it. I pulled back, let off. “All right, pal,” I said. “That’s fine. That’ll be fine.” Patted him, gentle-like. “Thank you.”
Kicking up sand, I spun around and looked to Jabal, the big one. “The grocer,” I said. “He comes on sixth-days?” He nodded. It was a fifth-day, so that gave me the night to go get lit and get laid. “Thanks,” I said, and set off with a footstep or two before he stopped me.
“Wait, stranger,” said Jabal the meat man. I looked over my shoulder at him, at his big goofy smirk. “Jubal here’s just about off his shift and I’ve got a basket full of brisket. There’s a pretty little spot, right outside of Nod, where we cook our workday meals and just relax.” His eyes narrowed as his smile widened. “You look like you could use some relaxation. And a decent meal. How about it?”
The chatter of the settlement needled my ears. The smell, the heat, all of it seemed like it was trying to push me out. But I knew if I left now with the ‘Bals I might not be able to bring myself to come back – promise or no promise.
“That’s very nice,” I said. “But I’ve got work to do.”
Jubal perked up. “We’ve got wine,” he said.
I pointed at the little baby bird of a man. “Buddy,” I said, “you just sold me.”
Their “pretty little spot” was only okay, if you ask me. All the same I was happy to drink their wine. Jabal lit a fire to roast some spiced brisket that’d been buried, near-to-rotten, at the bottom of the deep, smelly stores of his delivery cart. We even dug a trough and filled it up with water, for the ass. Jubal leaned against his dinky barrow of music-makers and strummed a lyre, and we ate and drank and talked and sang into the night.
Later I sat and puffed on a burning root, ignoring the big one’s rambling about this whole Enoch thing – how glamorous it must be to live in the city, how exclusive and hard it was to get citizenship, and did you know that people in Enoch shit solid gold? And so on. When I couldn’t stand it anymore I turned away from him to the scrawny one. “So,” I said, “this fruit vendor. The one who got into it with my brother. You know him, Jube?”
The thin man stopped strumming and turned to his companion. I was so used to the music, so lulled by it, that the silence was upsetting.
“No,” Jabal said. “He doesn’t know the fruit man.” From a strap of leather tied around his waist he withdrew his carving blade and sliced off another hunk of blackened meat.
“If it’s all the same,” I said, “I was asking your brother here.”
The dagger caught the firelight and shimmered, there in the dark. Jubal put down the stringed instrument and twisted his body to rummage through the cart. “Jabal is correct,” he said. “I mean, one day a week he sets up shop across the way from me, but we don’t really talk. Bought an apple off him once, but never again. Bad for my constitution.” His shaky hand emerged with a little pan flute, which he was prompt about stuffing into his mouth. I had to admit, he was a hell of a player. It might’ve been the wine, or the full belly, or the soothing tunes – or a combination of all three – but I got real drowsy just then.
“You’re very good at that,” I said through a powerful yawn.
I flicked the remnants of my smoke into the fire. Jabal, the big one, he stood up licking his fingers. At his younger brother’s side he squatted to take up the abandoned lyre.
“Oh,” I said, leaning back on my elbows, knowing my head was bound to hit the dirt soon enough. “You play, too, Jab?”
“I dabble,” he said. “Say, my man,” and he looked down at me, lit up all spooky by the campfire. “Your folks – is it true they’re the Progenitors?”
I closed my eyes. “Mm,” I said. “That they are. Old as time and won’t let me forget it, the lunatics.”
“They ever talk about it?”
Sleep was taking hold now. I couldn’t open my eyes if I’d wanted to. “Talk about what?” I said, dropping to a whisper.
“You know,” said Jabal. “The Beginning.”
I turned on my side, yawned again. “Only every damn chance they get.”
The crackle of the fire came from both sides, and deep, deep down I somehow understood that one of the cracks wasn’t the flame but Jabal’s knuckles.
Above me, he said, “Well. Ain’t that something.”
Jubal, the younger: “Jabal – wait.”
Then the elder: “This one’s for your bitch mother. Tell her ‘hi’ from me.”
Next I felt a sharp jolt of pain across my skull, saw the briefest flash of white light as the lyre in Jabal’s beefy arms broke into a thousand pieces against my head. For less than a second I heard the discordant twang of snapping strings, the agitated protests of the musician, the hateful cackling of the meat man.
And then I was out.
TO BE CONTINUED.