I. Behind Our Lines
First the prisoner and his interrogation. Of my final mission into their territory, more later.
Beyond our village the highway crosses a narrow bridge of concrete, and then in a gorge of stone goes north. At four o’clock the subject came pedaling beneath the row of palm trees; I stepped from behind the abutment and grabbed his handlebars. When asked did he “Want a drink of our water,” the prisoner’s face turned white: I had taken another courier headed north.
Our procedures of Search and Interrogation are prescribed: with the subject facing a wall, legs apart, we search first for the knives or other weapons of offense. Only then may we place our hands first on the crown of their heads, rumpling well the hair, then on the seams of clothing where the saw blades are, then down to the shoes—in his case, rope sandals. Inspection of the body cavities, especially females who wear pads or tampons, takes place at my private office in the abandoned school house. Only after complete inspection may interrogation begin.
Subject courier carried no weapons of offense, but when I placed my hands on the crown of his head I noted a soft innocent odor, a coconut-oil pomade. His trousers had neither seams nor fly. When I removed the cycling clips from his ankles, the trousers came apart and exposed completely the lower part of his legs. His “trousers” were only a single piece of cloth, gathered at the waist; the legs were formed very cleverly by use of steel clips. Not until my second interrogation, however, did I see the absolute symmetry of his whole body. Looking back on that instant of capture, I now wish the prisoner had tried to run. As a CI Captain, long in the field, I do not miss; as it was, the subject prisoner pushed his bicycle towards my detachment headquarters. The other natives smiled at me pleasantly—a kind of salute; they knew this was planned at Babe Ruth, and besides my previous two hundred and seventeen captures are a matter of informal record in the village. That night the prisoner’s interrogation began.
But first a word about my methods. In addition to obtaining military secrets and/or agent-contacts in the Territories, I also take unofficial information for my private files: if subject is married, then admitted infidelities; if single, then deviant sexual practice, relations with Self, and all “chance” encounters. These personal notes I send into the village for “secret” typing and reproduction. In this way I am an indirect moral force in the community.
“You are by profession a Siziar”—one who professionally washes the dead.
Subject prisoner declined reply.
I then methodically disclosed other items of his file from Babe Ruth. Our files from Corps Headquarters are very complete and contain, chronologically, all instances of unconscious confession as well as the implications from household wastes; at Babe Ruth our specialists analyze evidence from the field for patterns of conduct and consistent routes of travel.
“Your profession and one living relative—your grandmother—are your excuse to go north. Sixty-eight per cent of the time you go via the bridge—at four o’clock.”
Subject prisoner declined reply. I then came back to a phrase he had heard before because I had carefully planted it in his subconscious: “How would you like to drink our water?”
Concerning our water this much should be clearly understood. Although the Rossiter or the “Lawyer” may be delegated for morale purposes to the enlisted men, including my detachment barber, I alone—in private—administer all water. One half-gallon in each nostril is often enough. The head fills, rationality departs, and by delicate adjustments the subject is suspended for some hours in a twilight state of full confession. When professionally administered, fatalities are almost unheard of. At that moment the prisoner remained suspiciously calm and so I put my question once again…”the water?”
As though to reply, as though to begin his interrogation of me—a Captain six years in rank—my subject reached down and took a cycling clip from his right ankle. The cloth fell away from his leg, and the light turned his thigh to silver.
Without hesitation, I did the only responsible thing. I kneeled before him, and I forcibly replaced the cycle clip around his ankle. Then I rang for my orderly. Instead of suggesting the prisoner might wish to “Talk with a Lawyer,” I ordered this subject held under special guards, in a stone cell in our stone outbuildings. I now felt this particular prisoner might be a rewarding exercise, after all.
The next morning, I sent my entire CI Detachment, including the barber, into the field for ten days. I wished to complete this interrogation under Ideal Conditions. When I asked him again if he wanted a drink of our water, the prisoner looked directly into my eyes, but everywhere in his face I saw genetic weakness. At that time I disclosed, completely, the secondary information in his file: he had washed the young girl overly long. Why? Consider those unhealthy relations with Self. Why? The light behind my desk shone full into his eyes.
My prisoner did not either reply or change expression. Instead, he bent gracefully and removed both cycle clips from his ankles. It was the flesh of his thigh that glistened and winked and moved like liquid metal in the folds of cloth.
For the first time I saw the symmetry of his whole body.
As a matter of command decision, I opened my interrogation drawer. On my desk, I placed a bamboo rod, one end flayed. To my surprise the prisoner neither asked for mercy nor made assertions contrary to our cross-filed data from Babe Ruth. Instead, he took the rod from my desk and somewhat awkwardly—like a girl trying to throw a baseball—flayed the sunlight.
“No. Like this,” I said, and brought the “CI Lawyer” down across my own leg. The prisoner’s face was ecstatic. Once he saw our correct methods, he went around and around my private office, striking desk and chairs and the plaster walls.
Only after I removed my own shirt and placed myself on the interrogation bench did he see the obligations of continuity. He, himself, cried out as he brought the bamboo “Lawyer” across my flesh. As I had known he would, the prisoner broke down and began to weep. So ended my second interrogation.
Such was the pattern of our next four days: early each morning I suggested our water; in response, the subject removed his cycle clips. Each day I placed a new mode of investigation on the desk; avidly, he learned our methods. In order, I submitted myself to the knout, the Rossiter, the Penis Key, and the Fire Stubbs. Towards the end I even dreamed of the prisoner, head down beside our carboys, a nostril hose swinging in the sunlight like a vine. Still, I held back, and so it was, at night, our bodies exhausted, that we began to talk.
“You have told me of your past,” he said. “You came from an outlying Province, and because your father was a Tax-Fraud Investigator, your parents often moved. Only your mother is now alive.”
On those nights I disclosed even the secondary information about my childhood: all our white cottages behind picket fences in a hundred villages; helping mother pack china in the barrel of straw for still another move; the ways I kept my teachers morally strong by the little notes addressed to the superintendents of all my old school districts…
As though it were his voice speaking, I heard about my interesting past: recruit days, my medals for services in the Territories as Chief of Patrol; my sought-for commission, and my satisfactory advance to Captain, Counter Insurgency. Sometimes his hand lay on my breast and in the darkness of my room we were prisoner and interrogator, almost intimate, almost One. Very much I wanted to administer our water, but this he denied me in the following way.
“Captain,” he said on the final night, taking care to speak with appropriate respect. “I will now do the thing within my power.” He raised me by the hand, and I followed to a room where already he had laid out the ritualistic towels of a Siziar.
His insistent hands bathed and bathed me until at three o’clock the telephone beside my bed—my direct line to Babe Ruth—began to ring.
The voice on the wire was Tiger, at Babe Ruth. In code, our Operations Major gave me the co-ordinates of a new transmitter—deep in the Territories to the north. At once I volunteered for this mission. Tiger denied my request. I remonstrated. At last he sensed the urgency in my voice and he agreed I should draw grenades at Dump Two. In less than thirty minutes, crepe-soled scouting sandals on my feet, my body covered by a native burnoose, I began my last patrol.
Subject prisoner wept without restraint at my departure. Only once did I look back: from the door of the abandoned school house, his back to the light, he was watching me go. When I returned he would be gone, for as a token I had given him my private key to his outbuilding cell. Under formal orders once more, I walked steadily across the valley. At dawn I drew grenades from a watchman at Dump Two, and then crossed easily into their territories to the north.
On the second day, high in the mountains, I crawled beneath bushes and came to the barbed wire surrounding their transmitter. This place was of hard, swept clay, the red and white tower clean and erect in the open space beyond the fence. Beside the tower I saw a house of cinder blocks, with a low, square, green door. Pacing the strict limits of his post, a very large man—a guard—sometimes shouted cadence to himself as he walked. With grenades and the machine pistol held close to my belly, I covered myself with my leaf-colored burnoose and waited for dusk.
Shortly past noon I saw the relief guard arrive on the back seat of a motorcycle. To be far behind the lines and to see them talking in their green uniforms and arm bands is always sinister. This new guard was slender, and obviously less military. At once the new guard went into the transmitter house and in the quiet of the afternoon I heard the noise of a toilet flushing.
Finally the new guard returned to the post—with a folded beach chair. The guard leaned the rifle beside the door and unfolded the chair. With the motorcycle now far away, the guard removed first hat, and then blouse. After an almost knowing look around the perimeter fence, the guard took off her brassiere. She reclined in her chair, her face to the sun, her red hair winking in the light. This new guard—a woman—apparently drifted off into sun-bathed sleep.
All afternoon, through a little opening in the briars, I watched the woman “guard” their transmitter. Clearly she was my enemy and yet from time to time she roused herself and peered very innocently, yet very intently, into the hand mirror in her purse. Always before on my patrols I had used explosives, guile, disguise, appeals to pride, or bribery where possible. Now, for reasons I did not understand, I felt beyond Tiger and even Corps; in fact, although I still say our war is Just, I felt beyond the entire chain of our command, both tactically and politically. I began to tremble in my burnoose, and yet with grenades and automatic pistol warm near my belly, I forced myself to wait.
What happens next is perhaps strange: some will say I wanted to die, but the fact of my victory proves otherwise. Boldly at dusk, I stood up. I went directly to the main gate: she did not challenge. Therefore I went to the place where she lay. At close range she was much younger than I had imagined. Provocatively—innocently—in the half-light from the transmitter tubes, I saw her teeth and her halfparted lips. For one moment, pistol at full automatic, I stood above her.
Suddenly her eyes opened. Without trying to rise she spoke to me in my mother tongue and she said, “You have come.”
In fury I remembered Corps and Tiger. I armed and then I threw my first grenade. I threw it with great force inside the transmitter. Only then did she cry out. Too late, she saw my face bent very close above her lips.
She cried out again, but I threw my last grenades into the now flaming house. Suddenly, I heard laughter. This was my own voice. As I ran across the clearing and leaped the fence and ran down a ravine of stones, I heard the transmitter tower crash down into the clearing somewhere behind me.
I repeat: although the woman guard awoke and positively identified my face, I did not shoot.
On the trails through low jungle to the south, I sometimes wept. Too late I saw that my prisoner—now escaped—and the woman guard were in league: what the prisoner began, the woman finished. And it was a fact: I had spared them both.
Therefore imagine my intense joy when I arrived back at the village and crossed the narrow concrete bridge. I found the school house still abandoned-except for my prisoner. He had remained faithful. He had even prepared for my return, for food was already on the table. At once I slipped out of my burnoose and my sandals and together we ate.
From gratitude and from some apparently deeper understanding, I very willingly taught my prisoner-at last-to administer the water. His confession was lyrical, complete.
Awkwardly at first, then with greater control, he administered the same to me. One half-gallon in each nostril is often enough.
Painfully at first, then in a visionary way, all consciousness left-and then returned. In the end, my body outraged by water, I sank again into the isolated darkness of the abandoned school house. Towards dawn, I very clearly heard the prisoner going through the drawers of my interrogation desk, taking one of each thing I had taught him—correctly—to use.
Unable to arise, impotent, my Detachment still in the field, I heard the back door slam. The prisoner, after all, was going north. Somewhere this side of the mountain he would meet the woman guard. They would cross-file their notes and together they would view all of the things he had taken from my interrogation desk; together they would go to some house I would never see and there, late at night, they would make their full report. As for myself, I knew well enough what both my sergeant and the barber would report to Tiger and also to Babe Ruth.
Not far up the gorge of stone I heard men counting cadence lustily as they came. I heard my own Detachment march across the narrow concrete bridge and then up the path towards this abandoned school house.
II. Outside the Cave
The buildings of the city and of the prison itself were fire under the sky and the land beyond the city’s edge with no rain in the past two years was cracked as an old woman’s hand: cattle with legs apart in the fence corners, mouths slobbering foam, eyes glazed by the memory of water. In that heat he passed walls of stucco where the noise of buckets swinging empty above empty cisterns echoed among the small shops that lay beside the railroad tracks going north across the valley until the rails became a sliver of steel between two hills and then went on into the territories beyond. To himself he said, “No. Not yet.”
“Going on?” the barber asked and with a white paper bib in place the barber began with the clippers. “Very far?”
The man said nothing for truly he had no plans. Although he had waited years for his release, and although his papers were correct, he now accepted something for the first time: in a coastal city where they had interrogated and arraigned and had tried him, indeed in the whole world, there was no one waiting for him. Years ago his only sister had stood by him for awhile, but now even the judges were dead.
“Shorter than that,” he ordered the barber, and because he was now free, with good papers, his voice was contemptuous.
“Yes indeed, sir,” and the barber went on: so this year not one land owner planted a crop. And to be honest about it, in the whole town only one garden remained green. That one, by rail, twice weekly, got barrels of water marked Salt Cod—it was said. Also: young girls roamed the streets after dark, the government did nothing, and so who was to blame?
The man in the barber chair said nothing, but he heard well enough that girls ran alone in the streets after dark. In the sky overhead he felt some grotesque fowl—all fire—beat its wings.
“Good luck,” the barber finally said, and with false enthusiasm whipped off the paper bib. Released prisoners often ducked into his shop like this for they wanted to pay someone to do a personal service, perhaps for the first time in years. The barber resolved to say no more for this one was very pale and very hard and very possibly a murderer—or worse. When the ex-convict looked at him coldly the barber added nervously, “Ahhh, good luck. Ahhh out there?”
As the prisoner walked along the railroad tracks going north, he happened to look up and see the cave. Because he was going nowhere at all, he climbed the high bank to see about it. This cave was in a ledge of rock and not much larger than his old cell. Inside the cave there was nothing at all; outside the cave’s entrance was a large, smooth square of clay.
Because he was fatigued, the convict sat for a while on the square of earth to rest. Towards the town at dusk he saw the lights of the prison workshops suddenly blaze in the heat; along the tracks to the north he saw only the landscape and the rampant heat of the valley flow across the hills like a river.
With no possessions except for the suit of blue serge and the small amount of money they had paid him for work at the stamping machines in the prison, with no very real hope of a future, the convict saw no reason to move on. The money left over from the barber shop was not enough for either bribery or a train ticket; therefore he threw all his coins over the bank towards the railroad tracks. He took off the prison-made suit coat and the shoes and placed them behind a rock in the cave. In the old way, exactly at nine o’clock, he slept.
At daylight the convict sat again in the mouth of his cave. For the first time in his life, without rancor, he observed the sun’s first rays come up and then spread across the curve of the earth. On the train tracks below the first peasant walked towards the white buildings of the town; past noon a released prisoner in a blue serge suit walked north, eyes on the gravel. No one looked up at the cave in the limestone ledge so the ex-convict who had committed so many crimes against both women and animals did not call down. He watched his morning shadow disappear at noon; he watched his afternoon shadow grow longer and disappear at night when the sun went down.
On the third day the ex-convict slept upright, and awoke to find a youth standing on the square of clay before him.
“Are your lips black because of no water?” was what the boy said, for he was an unemployed drover who had found several coins on the clay bank. One after another these coins had led him upward to this cave. Because the convict had been so long in a cell, he had somewhat lost the habit of speech and so he made no reply at all. As a little joke he even pretended not to see the money which the young drover showed him.
From guilt and also from the joy of having found coins that a man in a cave did not claim as his own, the drover boy went at once into the town. At cafés, a little at each place, he spent the money and he recounted also his adventure with a black-lipped hermit. Old women begging at tavern doorways heard this story and each one knew in her heart that if one coin were found there was always another.
At dawn the convict awoke to see a half-circle of townspeople staring into his blackened, sun-warped face. A beggar woman had found the last of his coins on the clay bank above the tracks; in a respectful voice, she gave thanks. The drover boy stepped forward to ask all of their questions: In fact, had The Hermit been without food or water for seven months? Did or did not one melon roll down from the bank above the cave each night and thus sustain him? In what manner were certain of the clay-bank coins changed overnight, in merchant’s tills, into gold?
The former convict felt laughter deep in his belly. Once he had been a stone mason but much drink and a vicious temper had caused him to kill a fellow workman. The body had floated many days down a canal, and his first crime was not discovered; after that his violence became more open, and there were others. Finally, almost by chance, he was questioned about a woman’s body and the child’s body dead beside her. At the trial other things were established. To hear their deferential questions made him feel superior, much in the way his crimes had made him feel beyond the judgment of all men. In addition, he saw one of these “pilgrims” was a young girl with black, serious hair down around her shoulders. The old echoes of desire clanged and clanged in his mind but because he had worked as a mason he thought, “Let’s first see how this little job goes….”
With all of the guile and dissimulation he had learned in prison, the convict solemnly raised his right hand, palm outward towards their faces. Well enough he saw the young woman was frightened: this was good for he knew from experience that genuine fright may easily become passion.
As protection against the dust, one man had cloth over his face and so the convict did not at once recognize the barber. As though on official business, the barber walked slowly around the convict: very closely the barber inspected the half-moons of scalp above the ears, the slope of the forehead, the grey-tipped hair growing wildly from each nostril.
“Of course I would know the prisoner by his neck and his hair. Besides I never forget a customer who tips generously. This man is not the man who came into my shop. I give you my word, this hair was not recently trimmed by a fine barber such as myself.”
The first delegation from the town walked back along the railroad tracks and the beggar women followed, making little pods of dust with their sticks, looking for more coins.
The convict watched them go and then rolled backward into his cave and laughed until tears came into his eyes. He felt these people were even bigger fools than either wardens or prison guards, themselves always prisoners but because of the pay never admitting it. Nevertheless, to keep up appearances, the prisoner sat again outside his cave and was surprised to see that one visitor—beyond any doubt the barber—had donated a few coins. This new money the convict also threw over the bank: others would find it when the sun rose the following day.
Then it began. Beggars and the small shop owners who sold cloth and crushed maize walked out along the railroad tracks. They left melons, gourds of water, or coins; each night the convict threw these coins wildly across the landscape for the people who found the money also spread his fame most swiftly to the larger cities where now all canals were dry.
Because train loads of people came early and a great many stayed to imitate the convict’s peculiar cross-legged posture or to imitate the way he stared at the landscape, the prisoner found he could not easily retreat into his cave either to laugh or to take a long, secret drink of gourd water. He saw new respect in their faces, and this he had not known as either a prisoner or an honest but violent stone mason; he felt he deserved this attention for none of his trials had been covered well enough by the Press.
Unfortunately, their gifts and coins were in such profusion around his crossed legs that he could scarcely move. This effect of opulence distracted his pilgrims from closely inspecting his almost black body and neck and face. In the past week the barber had closed his shop and was now living at the foot of the clay bank beside the tracks. In his loud warden’s voice the barber lectured each day’s crowds and told them what to expect when they climbed the bank, and also of the miracles: Copper into Gold, and the Profusion of Melons.
Partly to offset these distractions, on the ninety-sixth day the convict who now really did look much like a hermit, motioned for the young girl to remain beside him for the night. Each day, without fail, she had walked to his cave and he understood she wanted to experience his body for herself.
“Do…” and he was surprised at his own voice for he had imagined his first words to her as sounding not coarse, “This, do…” and he picked up one coin from the heap and managed to toss it almost to the railroad tracks.
The young girl did likewise. He saw she liked very much to throw the gifts and the melons down upon the barber who suddenly found himself kneeling under a shower of coins.
Desire was what the convict felt, desire clanging in his blood. His hands ached as he thought of the white throat of the girl and of twisting fiercely her black hair around her throat until at the same instant he both defiled her and broke the neck with his remembering, stone-mason hands.
“Place me inside our cave,” he said. “Pour all water gourds over my unclothed body.”
This the girl did, and then without having to be asked she threw herself on his breast and sobbed, “Yes….Yes.”
Ironically, the convict now knew his lust was only in his mind. His gulps of water late at night when the barber slept, his fast, the sun all day and the dust, all those things had wasted his body to…oh, to these crossed sticks which were his legs, to these bones that were his thighs, to a protruding, black forehead, to flesh that now seemed almost stone.
She wanted to revive his flesh, but she could only weep in the cave. In his pretension he could only say to her, “Believe, believe.” Then he, himself, was taken by her innocent, smooth-handed desire. To her, yes; but to himself nothing happened.
“But we could,” the girl told him softly as she carried him once more to his customary place at the entrance of his cave. “If you will only permit rain to fall. In the valley.”
Partly to please her, partly to fulfill the role he had drifted into over the months, partly to perpetuate this joke on the herd-minded bourgeois that he so much despised, but most of all for revenge, the convict said it solemnly, one eye on her white throat:
“Rain,” he said to the dry moonlight. It was the kind of joke another convict might understand. “Rain. Comes.”
After the girl called those words down over the railroad bank, the convict saw the barber running along the tracks towards the town, already making manifest this promised miracle.
Yet in the days which followed the heat overhead beat the entrance of the cave with wings of fire. Now he wore no clothes at all; bleached by the sun, his hair waved across his rutted breast. In his mind he saw what he had become: a thing of influence, his words recorded by the friends of the barber. To men who left much gold where he could see it, the convict passed on a convict’s evasive, worldly wisdom; these men of substance used his words to justify business schemes which were both devious and cruel. For this service they left water he could not now drink in gourds of gold.
For two weeks, with longing, he watched the smoke plumes and fire of the railroad trains going across the valley towards the lighted cities on the coast. He thought upon it seriously: he would take only the coins of gold and he would bribe the drover boy to sit in his place for one night. Secretly he would leave this cave and board the train and disappear forever. Yet at summer’s end the convict saw it was already too late. And of course he knew: to excuse his own weakness and also to perpetuate the lie of his apparent renunciation of her flesh, impotent and wan, in a moment of sentimentality he had spoken two words and now those words were his ultimate act of deception; to insure the illusion of both simple folk and the prosperous fools, to focus attention on himself, he had promised rain. He felt entangled in the hope less vines of his own promise. His own words had reduced him to this sack of flesh. His condition was testimony to his own inflexibility and to his own vision of fraud. His days and his nights became one. This was his end.
Oh, he was dying. This comprehension came as both shadow and sunlight when the great wings of heat beat upward without remorse against the cloudless cave of the sky overhead. No rain came and in the delusion of all light the echoes faded inside the cave. Near the end he heard only the monotone of his own blood making the noise of a freight train dying somewhere inside this solitary cell of flesh that was once a man.
For the past week the girl had slept beside him, waiting for the end.
In the final hour when he was beyond movement of either lip or hand, he felt a moment of consciousness spring up like the last flame on a hearth place. In that instant he heard a distant sound. He heard it once again. He heard the thunder stamping, heard noise splinter the sky.
He opened his eyes. He saw the girl standing in the cave’s mouth, arms upspread, legs apart. In the sky beyond her legs, he saw the great slave whips of lightning lacerate both the clouds and the earth. He heard it clearly, heard it across the valley, heard the thousand feet of a running cloudburst: the rain, the…r…ain.
Half-believing, for a second believing absolutely in himself after all, he knew he was dead, dead and running down the clay bank and across the railroad tracks, running through the downpour into the valley beyond, submitting himself at last to the formal resignation of all landscape.
III. A Transfiguration by Vines
They awoke in a small valley, a gorge of stones leading down into the town. Beyond the guard rails overhead they heard first an automobile and then two carts on the blacktop road going down; behind and high above on the mountain where once they had camped, they heard the noise of wood choppers at work in the fir trees. The man raised his head. Beneath the guard rails, as always, he saw the road curving away, to reappear at last near a fountain in a green park and go on then into the town below.
The woman turned on her side of their blankets. By raising her head she could also view the place where they sometimes felt they wanted very much to go—at least after long discussions they had agreed once on that point. Now it seemed mostly a matter of time, and the time was not yet.
“Fires,” and she tried to take exactly her share of their blankets. Because she was domestic and responsible and hungry she said, “Other women—down there—are at breakfast.”
The man took it as a criticism, but did not reply. He was more philosophical and he often thought back to see how it had all begun—so to speak. For a few minutes he looked at the gorge where tiers of young fir trees rose above them, sparkling with moisture in these first minutes of another day. Higher up on the mountain the wood choppers worked steadily in the larger trees.
He threw back his side of the blanket: the vine was still there. He had known it would not go away during the night, but its new growth each day was always shocking. Nevertheless, he was always anxious to see how much it really had grown during the night while they slept.
Yes. This morning really a great deal—as he pointed out to her. Whether this growth was caused by these longer, late-summer days, or by the night’s humidity, he could not say. At first he had thought the vine’s growth was in relation ship to phases of the moon; now he was equally convinced that new growth was related to the water level in the trout stream in the bottom of the gorge. Water, from somewhere, must surely give the vine both food and useful minerals in solution; otherwise, how would the green convoluting vine with its leaves like hammered green metal, tendrils soft as his wife’s flesh, continue to grow?
Actually, they had come here in late spring. They had walked down a trail from the melting end of the mountain glacier. When lights of the town seemed very close they had camped in this spot below the guard rails for the night.
The vine, so tiny then, had been there when they awoke. She had intended to throw back their blanket, but he was already sitting upright, examining very intently this small green thing, the first leaf emergent and tender and silly there between his great toe and his second toe. He had said, “Fungus,” but as they both watched, a new tendril curled up and out, and by nine o’clock this first new, green leaf was a little bit larger.
“What about stockings?” she had asked, for it was still a few miles to the town, or at least to the green park where the fountain was.
He might have said, “No,” or he might have argued that this, too, was a living thing, but he did not; instead, he accepted it without either fear or discussion. He saw it was without roots and loved the sun and that seemed enough; therefore, they stopped all activity and all future plans in order to contemplate this new, tiny thing which was even then growing larger from between his toes.
Some days he lay with his head on the rucksack, and she lay beside him, and both of them watched his foot and the vine growing. At noon she went to the trout stream and brought back small cups of water to pour over his foot—and also to inspect more closely this new thing which was now really much larger and much more beautiful. Then past noon, when the wood cutters stopped chopping, they slept.
Towards nightfall they awoke and she took a little of their food from the rucksack and they ate together. Even after they went to sleep again beneath the stars they felt the vine’s newest tendril rustle a little around his ankle and—later-around the calf of his leg. Even in the nights of late summer they did not dream and at dawn they contemplated his new green leg, made green by the vine growing.
At the end of their second month, she realized the vine itself had become his life. This she accepted. His single-minded attention, his hard-minded exclusion of everything else, in fact his adoration of the vine, instead of either her, or their own relationship, made her feel lonely. Once she cried in the night, but he did not awaken. The bad, blue feeling came and she, herself, wished for the green vine to grow inside her belly. But no, and that mood also passed.
Nevertheless, during that night, she recalled a great deal about their old life before this vine came to them: at a place, a town it was in the Territories to the north. They had met when young. What it was like before they met, she did not now care to remember. At first they had gone out at night with other young people in groups; later, alone, they had experimented with drugs and went for long, harmless trips of the “mind”—singly, of course—but still much closer than ever before.
Finally when they were truly together, they had gone into the mountains towards the foot of the glacier. For several days they had camped near beds of wild flowers in bloom-of that much she was certain. Now each day the vine grew a little bit-like a habit-and now it held them both. She did not cry about this anymore and when the tendrils of the vine took his thigh, when she could no longer see all of his body in the old way she accepted it.
Acceptance, however, was not enough. At times he urged her to leave him, to go on alone into the town. She felt this was neither ultimate affection, nor even mercy on his part for now the roots of the vine had pierced through the blankets and went deeply into the rocks and the soil. If he urged her to leave, it was his way of being a hero; besides, he would have the vine alone and unadulterated for himself. That he could tell her to go on alone made her sad. After all, she had carried all of the water from the trout stream. She had accommodated the vine in their bed from the first day it appeared—innocent and tender—between his toes.
In September, before the rains, the thing finally happened. Deeply, she had wanted it to happen: she awoke but could not get up to serve either him or his vine. During the night, because she had always placed her legs close to his in sleep, the tendrils of the vine had taken her ankles. As they watched, the tendrils ravished her flesh and took her strength as though the vine needed this new thing on which to grow.
When the first rains of fall came down the gorge they did not move for they were both with this vine and—at last—a part of it.
At noon she felt him tremble beside her. What she saw was the first spume of snow, blowing down from the glacier and across the upper rim of the gorge. His breath at noon emerged from his part of the leaves, and she saw his breath turn white against the vine. Worse, the vine itself was now, ever so little, turning to brown.
In fear, in panic, with their rusted camp knife, he began to hack at the vine. When the vine drew back, she saw his neck and his breast. When she saw him again, for the first time in many months, she too began to pull and to cut each tendril frantically. Then each of them got a knife and the vine seemed to pull back and away-but not one tendril withered.
Still, she urged him on. Together they worked at each tendril in order; beginning at the top they pried tendrils from flesh, and did not stop when blood came from each place where the vine had to let go. That night, very late, the first flakes of snow fell in their camp and the vine was almost gone from their bodies.
“Tomorrow,” he told her, and she too felt they were free to go. “Tomorrow we will go down into the town.”
To her it seemed only an act of the Will, and so she put everything she could reach into small piles. Very early in the old way they would get up and pack and go on down the road which they had seen each day all summer. Oh, she knew they were exhausted but she knew they were also together in the old way, in the time before they watched this thing which they had nurtured and had finally accepted and which had, in the end, almost overwhelmed them both. “Good.”
And then she added, “I still do.” And he answered her and said, “Yes. I still do. I love you.”
And then it was morning.
During the night the vine had surrounded them, had grown back tighter than ever before. Now they could not see each other.
Because snow was coming down the side of the mountain very fast, the wood cutters—two of them—doubled-bitted axes over their shoulders, also came down the trails to the road.
That morning the two wood cutters saw this strange thing not far from the guard rails: a vine growing, with great roots going down into the soil. Furthermore, the vine had grown in upon itself—had not climbed either the guard rail or a tree, nor had it run across the rocks of the gorge towards the water, as might be thought natural. More strange than its shape was this: the coiling, triumphant vine seemed to breathe in and out. When the wood choppers placed their woolly ears close to the leaves they heard voices—or something—crying out from the core.
Therefore the wood cutters chopped this very large vine off at its roots. They also chopped away the stray tendrils. With leftover vines they made the whole thing into a long, mummy-like bundle. They also cut down a small fir tree and stripped off the branches to make a carrying pole. With the bundle of vine tied to the pole, they placed the pole on their shoulders. With axes and pole and all they went down the road and around the curves. Whistling as they walked along, the wood cutters soon entered an astonished village.
In that way, riding on a pole, intimate in vines, concealed from the people who watched with much interest as they passed, the man and the woman came to the place which they had looked at from afar for a very long time.
In the town square all of the following week the children and beggar women and men going home from barber shops or factories on the hill and home from prison or from some army post not far from the frontiers, all of them walked past, and some of them paused for a little while to look.
More than one said, “Yes. Something is singing all right, somewhere inside those wrapped-up vines.”
And then they walked on.