The Good-Bye Garden: Part Six

IX 

            After binding my wrists with some hemp they took me to an enormous and grotesque white building, all sharp angles and mottled with pebbles and granite chunks. They called it “City Hall.” There was a ring of deep water around it full of piranha and the leftover bones of all their previous meals. The lawmen marched me down a never-ending and windowless corridor, lit only by flickering red torch flames. Just when I’d taken to thinking they really were leading me to the edge of the world, we reached a pair of massive, cherry wood doors, and Lamech and his partner each pushed one open then shoved me inside.
            The coppers’ friendly nudge sent me spilling to my knees. Palms pressed against the stone floor, I looked up and around. In an inset nook on the far wall there roared a large fire. In front of that, the skin of a grizzly bear was spread across the ground. Adorning the black onyx walls were the severed heads of a variety of creatures – a lynx, a dire wolf, an eagle.
            Just beneath the snarling visage of a decapitated lion was a big granite block covered in clay goblets full of steaming brown liquid, inked-up reeds and blank cuneiform tablets. Behind it was a wooden chair, and standing beyond that was a man with his back to us, dressed in a fancy maroon silk robe. He had his hands linked just above his rear-end, staring out the wide opening that looked onto the city.
            If I’d been a sap, I’d have found all this inspiring.
            The man gave no sign of noticing our entrance. He was as still as the bodiless menagerie hanging overhead.
            “Uh, Mister Mayor?” said Lamech. “There’s someone here we thought you’d want to meet.”
            The mayor of Enoch didn’t so much as flinch. I started thinking maybe it was a statue set up there, some kind of ruse or a goof.
            But after a spell, the man at the far end of the den said, “Lamech, was I dreaming when I told you no visitors, or are you just the disobedient whelp I’ve always feared?”
            Lamech swallowed. His buddy helped me to my feet – and by “helped,” I mean “yanked violently.”
            “Sir,” Lamech said, all shaky, “we found Barat, we think. He was in the records hall. Digging up dirt on the First-born Son of Man.”
            The mayor’s back arched, his chest swelled with a breath so deep he almost burst. His head turned, just so, just enough to see the glint of one golden eye, the crooked bent of his wide nose, veiled behind his broad shoulder.
            He said, “That is not Barat.” Whoever that was, I felt sorry for the guy. Not as sorry as I felt for myself, just then.
            Lamech swallowed loudly. “W-we thought—”
            “Clearly you didn’t,” the mayor said. And the sharp, hawk-like eye affixed on me. My guts rolled over. “Now,” he said. “You.
            “Y-yes?” I said. Added, too late: “Mister Mayor?”
            He breathed in then, his gaping nostrils doubling. On his thick neck, his head snapped back to consider the cityscape. He called out: “Leave us.”
            The doors creaked open behind me, there was a shuffling of feet and a slam, and then I was alone with the mayor – the whole room between us.
            It took a long time for his voice to travel the distance between his mouth and my ears.
            “Have a seat,” he said.
            There was a tree trunk, fashioned into a kind of stool, on my side of his stone counter. I limped over to it, folded hands over my lap, and sat.
            “It sounds as though you’ve been busy,” he said. That voice of his rumbled in my chest. He was still turned away from me, his shoulders rising and falling with focused breaths.
            I never stutter, never get choked up, but I did spit and sputter like an idiot then. “I-I’ve been making the rounds, sure,” I said.
            “Who are you?”
            “M-my name is Dashel—”
            “No,” he said. He’d taken on some animal quality now, his voice a growl, his neck swallowed up in his hitched shoulders and back. He turned around and placed his fingertips, so delicate for such a big guy, on the countertop and narrowed his yellow eyes. “Who are you to me?”
            And I saw it. The mark.
            The First-Born’s mark.
            Jubal, he hadn’t been pulling my leg when he tried to explain it. It was right there, streaking the bridge of his nose halfway up his forehead, daring me not to look away. When I close my eyes I can still see it, like it’s burned into my lids, waiting for me every night when I try like hell to sleep. But if you held a hot coal to my feet I still couldn’t describe it to you, put it into words you could understand. I can only tell you how it made me feel.
            It made me feel like jumping out the damn window.
            Every bit of sense I had went bubbling, roiling in my noggin, telling me to leave him alone, to get away from him, that he was marked and I had no business bothering him. He was Above, or maybe – maybe somehow Less. Either way it wasn’t right, being in that room with him, talking to him man-to-man.
            Damn, it wasn’t right.
            “Boy,” he said. “Boy, look at me.” I did, at the risk of tossing my lunch. My eldest brother, from all the way down the family line, he bared his brown and gray teeth and narrowed his eyes into dead little slits and said, “Who. Are. You?”
            Croaking, parched, I said, “D-Dashel. I’m your little brother.”
            He shuddered.
            “Mom and Dad – our mother and father, I mean – I’m their youngest. Way after your time.” I licked my lips but it was like sand on more sand.
            His nose became a vacuum from which no mote of dust, no particle of pollen could escape. He ran his tongue over his bottom teeth and stared at me, studied me. One thick, callused finger reached out and lifted my chin. He closed one eye and leaned forward to better inspect my face. After a long bout of this, he threw back his head and cackled.
            “Well, I’ll be!” he said. “My own flesh and blood! Why didn’t you say so?” He trotted around the table and came up behind me, snapping me up in a crippling bear hug. Yahweh, was he big. He planted chapped kisses all over my forehead, chuckling in between.
            “Welcome!” he said. “Welcome – what was it? Dasher?”
            “Dashel.” He dropped me back onto the stool.
            “Dashel! Little baby Dashel.” He slapped my back, blew the wind right out of me. “It’s an odd thing, isn’t it, baby Dashel? To be kin and strangers all at once. Damned oddest thing.”
            I shrugged. “I mean, I got hundreds of siblings,” I said. “Anyway, you’re the one who never writes, never visits…” I stuck out my chest in hopes of resetting my spine.
            “Damned oddest thing.” He balled up his fists, planted them at his hips. “Y’know, I can remember a time – and it doesn’t feel so long ago – when there wasn’t such a thing as a stranger.” He looked at the floor. “It really doesn’t feel so long ago.”
            I crossed my legs to prop up my injured foot. “Aw, I happen to like strangers,” I said. “Haven’t had a chance to disappoint any of ‘em yet.”
            My winning wit was lost on him; he was staring at my crusty foot. He noticed me noticing and looked away, embarrassed. “What,” he said, “ah, what brings you here, ‘stranger?’”
            For a focal point I used his mouth – much easier to look at than his forehead, poor dental hygiene aside. “Mom and Pop,” I said. “Got me running errands. They sent me to find you.”
            The corners of his mouth twitched. “To find me?” he said.
            “Yes.” I scooted back a bit on the stool. “They thought you might know where their second son went off to.”
            His face darkened. “Oh,” he said.
            “Screw ‘em,” I said. “They’re lousy parents.” I started to feel a little more at ease and traced circles on the counter with my finger. “For a long time I figured I must’ve gotten the short end of the stick, being last in line. That all their compassion and understanding and interest had waned over the centuries.” I locked eyes with him, ignored the gooseflesh that popped up all over my body. “But the look on your mug when I mentioned them? I can tell they were just as shit back then as they are now.”
            His mouth opened, closed, opened like a fish – like a million thoughts were battling their way out of his throat. Then he said, “He was always their favorite. Always.”
            “No news here,” I said. I held my forearms up to him and smirked: “Why d’you think I’m so pasty, brother? Living in his shadow for thirty years.”
            He straightened up, nodded. We were really bonding now.
            I said, “But look at you. Built a city, running things from on high. Living well’s the best revenge, huh?”
            An ugly smile spread across his face. He closed his eyes, lifted his chin. “I’ve worked hard,” he said. “Toiled and suffered, but here I am.”
            “And anyway, you’re in way better shape than him,” I said.
            The smile vanished. The eyes sharpened. “What do you mean?” he said.
            “Listen,” I said, “I got some bad news. Our brother – he’s, hmm. Not sure how to say it.”
            “Well, please do anyway.” His knuckles, white and flaky, rose and fell like waves.
            “He’s… Well, I guess the word’s ‘dead.’”
            He said nothing. No surprise; I’d figured he wouldn’t understand. I mean, I barely did. It was no easy thing, to tell him all this.
            “I can take you to him,” I said. “Or what’s left of him. And look, for what it’s worth—”
            “I don’t believe you.” He pinched the thick bridge of his nose with even thicker fingers. Eyes clamped shut, he said, “And I think that’s quite enough.” Head hung, he turned away. “I think you should leave.”
            A burst of wind flew in through the window. In the stagnant heat the breeze should’ve felt good, but it came in biting, bone-chilling. Rising, I let the sharp cool flow into my sleeves, down my neck and chest, and shivered. I put a hand on his shoulder; he gave a terse jerk but otherwise didn’t respond.
            “I get it,” I said. “Believe me, I get it. But if you’ll just hear me out…” He was a stone wall, a mountain. Time or tide couldn’t budge the guy. “Oh, hell.” I sighed. Pressed against his ropy back, my hand was damp. “All right, you win. I’m leaving. And I won’t tell Mom and Dad. As far as they know you’re a drift of wind in the sand. I’ll keep it that way – how’s that sound?”
            One hand swung over his shoulder, clutched my wrist and threw off my arm. “Get out,” he said.
            There was this feeling, some niggling detail I couldn’t shake off. Like there was something still unsaid, something he or I wouldn’t have the chance to say if we didn’t take it now. But it wouldn’t come to me. And I wanted the hell out. He wasn’t looking, but I nodded at him. Then I turned around and made for the exit.
            And stupid me, I stopped.
            I turned around. He was already staring out the window again – a real deep thinker, this one. My voice a little higher than normal, I called out.
            “Sorry,” I said. “Just – real quick. It’s been bothering me. About a week ago, you were seen at the Nod market, arguing with a guy slinging vegetables.”
            He twirled his hand at the wrist: And?
            “What was all that about, anyway?”
            He took a deep breath. Mournful-like, I’d even say. He turned around and dropped his eyes to my level.
            “You’re really something,” he said. “You’re a rare breed, aren’t you? Just voracious for knowledge, famished for the truth. Real incorrigible, a proper wise-guy.”
            The nasty blemish on his face seemed to pulsate. I felt a little sick and looked away. He was reaching into a carved-out cranny in the stone counter, a little storage space. From it he pulled out a little wad of linen and held it flat in his palm.
            “Come here,” he said. “You forgot something.” But it was he that plodded over to me, to place the thing in my hand.
            “What’s this?” I said.
            And his raptor-like eyes gleamed; his bottom teeth jutted out. He said, “It’s yours.”
            I pulled the cloth apart. From it spilled a little round chunk of meat. I prodded it and realized what I was holding. My insides caved in.
            It was my big toe.

 ***

             Even though Big Brother shoved me out the door of his fancy mayoral den, the instant he plopped my long-lost toe into my palm I knew he had no intention of letting me leave Enoch City Hall. Every instinct I had sounded the alarm bells in my brain, begged me to get out, get out, get out. I stood there, hands clasped around my severed appendage, alone in the hall, knowing full well I wouldn’t be alone for long.
            Already I could hear the footsteps approaching. I could see the long shadows cast by the mayor’s men, dancing in the torchlight, growing and growing.
            The corridor walls were made of big limestone cubes, stacked and sealed with dried peat. Some stuck out more than others, and these I used for footholds, scaling the wall, and crammed myself into a tight gap between the wall and the mud ceiling, looking onto the room where my brother now stood alone. Not daring to breathe, I cocked my head just so and looked down at him. He had three fingers pressed into his forehead, massaging away. With the other hand he wiped a tear from his cheek.
            Down on the hall-side, the pair of toughs who’d dragged me here had made it. They looked around a second, confused, and went in.
            The mayor gave a start – straightened up, assumed the alpha male stance again.
            Lamech and his pal, they scratched their heads, hemmed and hawed. “Uh, boss,” Lamech said, “where’s the flatfoot?”
            “What do you mean? I just sent him straight into your arms.”
            “Um…”
            My brother brushed past them, parting them with a violent shove to poke his head out the door. He looked down the hall.
            “Don’t tell me you let him by,” he said.
            “I’m tellin’ you, boss,” Lamech said, joining him at the threshold, “he never came past. Tell ‘im, Tubal.”
            The dumb one, Tubal, ran his hand across his belly and said, “Nawp.”
            “Well he didn’t just disappear!” my brother said. He jabbed his arm out the door, a gnarled and root-like finger stabbing down the hallway. “Find him!”
            Lamech and Tubal ran out, their wide stupid feet slapping hard against the floor.
            The mayor, my blood kin, pressed his hands together and fell to his knees the moment his lackeys were out of sight. He craned his neck and looked up. I held my extremities flush with my body, nice and compact, not even daring to breathe. I swore I was made, I was done for.
            But it wasn’t me he was looking for up there.
            “Father!” he shouted. “Oh, Father – have I not suffered enough?”
            No surprise to me, he got no answer. When the moment passed, he roared at the sky: “Then so be it, Father.”
            And he stormed off, mumbling to himself.
            I waited a while to climb down into his office. I crept, low, over to the opening in the wall that overlooked Enoch and peeped out. Saw the three of them crossing the platform that led over the water ring and out into that grotesque forest of brick and mortar.
            I went over to the carved stone workspace and found the compartment where my toe had been kept, started emptying it out. There wasn’t much to speak of inside – some chicken bones, a Senet board. But buried deep in the back was a small piece of tree-pulp covered in half-legible glyphs I could only read in direct sunlight. It said:
            “I HAVE IT
            AND I KNOW EVERYTHING
            PAY UP
            TWELVE GOATS
            and A SOW AND BOAR
            and I’LL KEEP QUIET
            NEXT SEVENTH-DAY
            YOU KNOW WHERE

            My chin tingled beneath a tight frown. I read the thing over a couple times before rolling it up and stuffing it down my sleeve. One step toward the window and I stopped, reached into the folds of my clothing and whipped out my severed toe. Gray except a little green-ish black at the cut, it didn’t look as though it could’ve ever been a part of me.
            I put it back in the slot and chuckled at the thought of the mayor’s face when he would inevitably find it there.
            “It’s yours, you gruesome wretch,” I said. “Keep it.”
            It was funny ­– at that moment, I could’ve sworn I still had all ten piggies, still attached and wiggling wee, wee, wee. I could feel my lost toe, like it’d never gone, like it wasn’t sitting in the inset of my brother’s desk, a decaying rotten “screw you” just waiting to be found.
            If you’d stepped on the empty space at the edge of my foot I would’ve cried out in pain, I swear.

TO BE CONTINUED.

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