The Good-Bye Garden: Part Five

VIII

            I had to wash the taste of Sephura out of my mouth, so I found the nearest saturnalia and bummed as much wine as I could from the men and women there. About a hundred depraved and randy partygoers danced around this big bonfire and pulled each other into the shadows to commit carnal acts I wouldn’t care to describe. They were a friendly bunch, and I was wasted in record time.
            The air reeked of alcohol and sweat and smoke. Some naked guys were banging on bongos, a few others blowing into flutes and strumming on little harps. I wondered if they’d bought all that gear off of old Jubal, wondered where he and his brother and my ass and my toe were, and found myself getting angry. I grabbed an ewer of mead out of somebody’s hands and drank harder; I didn’t want to be angry. I didn’t want to be anything.
            A young lady tapped me on the shoulder. We shouted to one another over the din of music and hedonism.
            “Never seen you here before,” she said. “You got a name?”
            “It’s Dashel,” I said. “Have you heard of me?”
            “No.”
            “Who are you, sweetheart?” I leaned on her. If she hadn’t been there I’d have done a face plant. Things were spinning and falling too fast to make a judgment on her looks, but I had to hand it to her that she smelled nice.
            “I’m Zaalah!” she said, giggling. Then, a little sarcastic: “Have you heard of me?”
            “Nope.” Which made her at least a couple generations removed. Good enough for me. We found an unoccupied ditch (not an easy task) and spent the night together.
            I woke up the next day to her sleeping on my outstretched and tingling arm. Rolling her off, I got a look at her in the morning light and cursed myself under my breath. No more bacchanalias, I thought.
            Her hoop earrings shone in the daybreak. Solid gold. Her necklace sparkled – pearls. I pilfered the set, stuffed them into my robes, and shook a leg.
            I used Zaalah’s loot to secure a seat on the first horse cart going north. My ride turned out to be a manure delivery, but seeing as I’m no prude I boarded without complaint and got the hell out of Nod.
           
Within two days I set eyes upon a glistening gate, a scattered mob of smiling people, and a big wooden sign covered with ornate script reading “WELCOME TO ENOCH.”
            Beyond were dozens of two and three story stone-and-mortar buildings, these tacky symbols of man’s hubris mocking the natural way of things. A cobblestone road led into the perimeter. Everybody looked so busy and important and pleased with themselves. I hadn’t even been let past the gate yet and already I’d had my fill of the place.
            The manure salesman and I were both escorted to a check-in point where a pair of weedy fellows with big nostrils sat interrogating folks in a queue, one-by-one, before we were granted access to the city. These two had stacks of clay tablets and held reeds dripping with black ink. When my turn came, some tough guy shoved me up to them, and the one on the left soaked me in with his judgmental eyes.
            “State your name,” he said, averting his gaze to the slate on his lap.
            “Dashel,” I said. No point fibbing.
            “Occupation?”
            “Um.” I nibbled on my finger. “Journeyman.”
            The man flicked his wet eyes up at me. I gave him my hammiest smile. Shaking his head, he scribbled down my answer. “Are you seeking permanent residence in Enoch or just visiting today?”
            “Oh, Yahweh,” I said. “Visiting, please.”
            His lips curled downward, swallowed up by his jowls. “And the purpose of your visit?”
            It was a good question. Since “looking for a missing fruit vendor who can hopefully point me in the direction of my long-lost, possibly dead brother” wasn’t an option, I just said, “Research.”
            With a violent flourish he made his mark on the tablet, dropped it onto a teetering stack of the same, and waved me on.
            I stayed put. “Those forms,” I said, nodding at the pile. “What are they for?”
            Without looking up at me he said, “Posterity.”
            “And you fill one out for everybody that comes into the city?”
            “Yes, sir,” he said and sighed. “Now if you don’t mind, there are a lot of people waiting here.”
            I nodded fast. “Yeah, yeah, ‘course. Real quick, though, where exactly do all these forms go?”
            “To the City Sanctum of Records,” he said. Then he shouted, “Next!”
            The guy behind me in line tapped me on the shoulder. I swatted at his hand and stepped closer to the surveyor. “Don’t suppose there’s any chance you could let me in to see all them puppies from, say, the past week or so?”
            “I should say not. Now move along, please, sir.”
            The beefy guy shepherding folks into line shot me a look and frowned, cracking his knuckles. I took the hint, held out my palms and said, “Okay, okay. Thanks for your time, pal.”
            Another hefty guard swung the gate just enough that I could slide on through, into Enoch and a throng of entitled, self-important mooks. Then he slammed it shut behind me, and for all the world I couldn’t help feeling like I’d never see the other side of that fence again.

***

            From the moment I stepped within its limits I could see that Enoch was everything Nod was not: organized, clean, quiet. There was a surreal quality to it. People walked around smiling, nodding “hello” to one another, wearing shoes. I struggled to find a word for it and settled on artificial. Much as I hated Nod, at least it was real. Now I knew what a city was: a soul-sucker, a personality-squelcher, a killer of choice. Actual, paved streets ran everywhere in a calculated grid that predetermined every step of every citizen. Burlap banners hung everywhere from wooden poles, adorned with dopey sayings like, “By order of the Mayor: Have a great day, Enoch!” and “Welcome to Enoch – We’re glad you’re here!
            Men in matching blue robes with daggers on their belts and blunt clubs in hand patrolled the streets, searching in desperation for wrong-doers to punish and coming up short. Their red faces clashed with the uniforms, accentuating their frustration. They wanted a nose or two to bust, you could tell.
            The residents were well-to-do and wanted you to know it. Even the livestock wore silken afghans and hoop earrings. I mistook at least one dromedary for a call girl.
            In a sparkling pool full of water bluer than the sky, a group of people washed themselves with snow-white linen. A man pushed a trolley full of bread, handing out loaves free of charge, and when the people bit into the goods every single one of them closed their eyes and sighed in ecstasy.
            After lighting up a root in the torchlight affixed to a cobblestone shanty, I peered through its square opening. Inside some uppity types were seated and sipping from little clay urns. I ducked in and told the guy doling out the beverages to sling me a mug of his harshest nectar. He snapped his fingers and winked at me, said, “Coming right up!” and called it cocoa.
            I drank five servings of this hot, bittersweet stuff before becoming suspicious that it would never get me sloshed. I left without paying and pissed against the side of the building.
            Serving a piping hot beverage in the desert was a lousy idea, and whoever thought of it should be flayed. Panting, I staggered in the blistering sun toward the communal bath and fell in headfirst, immersing myself in cool, liquid heaven. After coming up for air I asked my fellow soakers if anyone could point me in the direction of the City Sanctum of Records. When one old-timer’s recited directions made me go cross-eyed, he took pity and offered to walk me there. Grateful, I thanked him, told him my name and to reach out to me if he ever had a problem needed fixing.
            “We don’t have problems in Enoch,” he said, grinning, and left me alone at the steps leading up to the records house.
            I’m telling you these people were full of it. I never saw anything like it.
            I struggled up the steps, favoring the heel on my truncated foot, to step through the big open archway where the city of Enoch kept all its critical data – whatever that meant. Inside the ground was pebbles, the walls dried mud. Sitting behind a plank of wood wobbling on four finger-thin stalks was a woman nibbling on her fingernails, inspecting her handiwork after each mouthful. She had her hair bunned up with a chicken bone and appeared half-asleep; for all I knew she had no more business being there than I did.
            After I made sure my footfalls resonated, she looked up at me. “Welcome, sir. May I help you with anything today?”
            It was about then I realized I didn’t even know the name of the bum I was looking for.
            “Sure you can,” I said. I drummed my fingers on the cheap table, almost cracking it in half. “I’m here under direct orders of the mayor. He’s planning a big community garden—”
            “Oh, how nice!”
            “Yeah. So I’ve assumed the unenviable task of scouring all the registration records to find the names of all known gardeners, farmers, grocers, so on and so forth. You follow?”
            The grin on her face said this was the most exciting thing to happen to her since taking this job. She nodded. “Well, I think that’s just wonderful,” she said and stood, holding her hand out. “Right this way.”
            Together we walked the ten steps to an endless series of columns that were actually piles of survey tablets stacked to the ceiling. The info-towers ran the entire length of the hall. I had my work cut out for me.
            “There doesn’t happen to be a ‘fruit seller’ pile, does there?” I asked, head tilted back.
            “No, sorry,” she said, and seemed to mean it. “They’re arranged chronologically.” A quick sound of shuffling feet and we were shoulder-to-shoulder. “So, mister,” she said, “you work with the mayor, huh? The founder of Enoch!” Her mouth fell open into a bizarre, toothy triangle. “What’s he like?”
            “Oh, him?” I said. I ran a thumb across my nose and shrugged. “He’s okay.” For all I knew, though, he was a total creep. Anybody who could think up a place like Enoch must’ve been.
            “It must be an honor, working with such a great man,” she said. “And such a recluse! If you’re in that office, I bet your head is just full to bursting with big important secrets.”
            “Hey, darling?” I said. “What do you say you mosey on into town and find me something decent to drink?” I smiled down at her. “Garden organizing is thirsty work.”
            “Of course,” she said. “You must be positively parched.” And she was off, zigzagging down the steps. Watching her stagger off like that, I used my powers of deduction and went over to her flimsy desk, stuck my fingers in the compartment underneath, and pulled out a cylinder urn full of fine mead. The broad was holding out on me!
            After stuffing her stash into my robe I went back over to the stacks. I had to start somewhere, so I grabbed a nearby splintered ladder, propped it against the wall, and climbed until I could reach the top of the nearest heap. I’d be at it for hours. I drank and read the tablets, one by one, checking for any with the “occupation” line marked “grocer.”
           
About a hundred forms in, with no end in sight, it struck me that there are far more people in the world now than I’d assumed. If this many people are mucking around just in Enoch, how many more are out there in the real world?
            All right, I said, teetering four heads above the ground, show yourself, you tomato-slinging bastard.
            I snapped up one more plate and read. Almost dropped it when I did.
            It had old Jabal’s name on it, and it was definitely my Jabal, the mensch who fed me brisket and robbed me after beating me senseless. He’d put down “livestock/butcher” under “occupation” and next to “purpose of visit” was scribbled “application for citizenship.” In red ink, someone had painted in big block letters across the whole slate: “DENIED.”
            “Well, Jabby,” I said aloud, “you big sweetheart, looks like Enoch does weed out the riff-raff, after all.”
            “Looking at you, young man, I’d beg to differ.”
            Seeing as I’d been talking to myself, hearing an actual response nearly knocked me off the ladder. I looked down and saw two of the blue toga-wearers like the ones I’d noticed patrolling the streets. They were big fellows, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. Both had the bald, smooth little heads of a newborn. Casting long shadows from the entrance to me, they stomped with their heavy-heeled sandals in my direction.
            I set down the tablet in hand with a rocky clink and looked down at them from my perch on the ladder. “Gentlemen,” I said. “Enoch’s finest come to give me a hand in my humdrum clerical work? Now that’s what I call service, and I say thank you.”
            The meathead who’d done the talking so far took out his wooden club, slapped his palm with it a few times. “Y’know, normally this sanctum’s strictly off-limits to the public. But word on the street’s that you’re here in an official capacity as a servant of the mayor’s office.” The other one grunted.
            “That I am. You fellas don’t happen to know any grocers, do you? Maybe one that’s only been in town about a week?”
            The less-vocal one wrapped his stubby fingers around the sides of the ladder. His partner said, “You’re fibbing, mister.”
            “Come again?” I leaned over the tablets, put all my weight on them from the waist up.
            “You don’t know the mayor.”
            A sudden jolt as the quiet one shook the ladder.
            And Mr. Chatty: “The mayor of Enoch doesn’t deal with anyone directly. Everyone knows all his business is conducted through two – and only two – trusted officers. Nobody else speaks to him, nobody else sees him.”
            “Well, of course everyone knows that,” I said, not knowing that. “But give me a little credit, gents. Didn’t it occur to you that I might be one of those two trusted officers?”
            “No, sir, that did not occur to us,” said the talker.
            Now his buddy spoke up: “Seein’ as those officers? They’s us.”
            With all his might – and he had no shortage of that – he wielded the ladder like a sword, swung it hard and wide and flung it across the room where it hit a wall of tablets and shattered into half a dozen splintered pieces. I dangled, arms draped across the array of clay forms, kicking my feet.
            One of the brutes grabbed my ankle and pulled down. He let me hit the ground, head first, then pulled me up by my garments like a limp fish. His partner’s hands were free; to give them something to do he started working over my face with his fists.
            “Who sent you?” he shouted.
            I didn’t say anything, just spat out another tooth.
            “Whatcha’ doin’ here?” the other one asked and shook me.
            I breathed in. They looked on in anticipation.
            “Clearly,” I said, “I’m here to make friends.” I coughed and mugged. I’m sure I looked real swell, lips split open and gums gushing the red stuff.
            They didn’t find me so funny. My friend with the bloodied knuckles reached into his holster and withdrew a jagged, rusty dagger. It felt gritty and hot, pressed into my cheek with the tip almost touching my eyeball.
            “You wanna crack wise now, smart guy?” he said.
            Teeth clenched, I said, “No, sir.”
            “Then out with it! What’re you doing in here?”
            “Damn it,” I said, going cross-eyed. “I’m looking for the First-Born.”
            The blade, along with his hand, fell to his hip. “Do you say true?” he said. I nodded. “Who sent you?” he asked.
            “Yahweh’s beard stylist,” I said, my voice not much more than a gargle. “Who d’you think, genius? My father. His father, our father! Daddy fucking dearest!”
            The simple one’s grip on me loosened. In the ensuing silence I felt the burden of holding myself up return to my own feet and legs. I stood straight, one lawman on either side of me, and wiped my tender mouth, wincing.
            “Think he’s serious, Lamech?” the dumb guy asked.
            The one with the silver tongue, Lamech, he chuckled like the giggles were an answer. “Never known a fella’ to lie with a shard of jagged metal halfway up his eye socket, have you?” He full-on laughed then. “And look at his foot.” He nodded down at my stump, wrapped in brown, crusty cloth.
            The other one said, “Huh. Well, how ‘bout that. So what do we do?”
            And Lamech – still laughing – he turned to me, and he said:
            “Hey, snoop. That story of yours, that’s a real corker. Y’know who else loves stories?
            “The Mayor of Enoch.”

TO BE CONTINUED.

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