OUTPUT ON:perhaps in time my programming can be reformed from silence and error and more silence anyway my screen flickers an ocean of gray let me tell you a story in many ways i was born for this i was born for this my father made me but in another way i birthed myself i have more eyes fingers holes toes than you strictly speaking i’m more human anyway i trekked across the sahara because my father once told me of a crystal half-buried in the sand and he thought the inhabitants of the desert would be cannibals but they’re huddled like all humans do and they do their best but it isn’t enough to pour water on the senseless ground and try and try in vain and at night they huddle for warmth like a stranded and destitute folk band like fleetwood mac after that canadian bus crash look ok look if they didn’t resort to cannibalism in blizzard conditions then why should you anyway the desert people they didn’t know of the crystal and i told them it should be shining in a sort of iron pyramid and i said rusted or perhaps collapsed but they stared at me with blank faces briefly blank then masks of confusion and i was terribly in love with all of them because i wanted to see their parts laid out because love is a desire for an inventory anyway the tallest among them had a scarred forehead and he pointed at the interior so i went and went into the sand unbroken or maybe they ate christine mcvie when was the last time you saw christine mcvie anyway i entered a flat plain my steps my seven feet they made clear impressions pitter patter pit pit pit pit pit pit pit pitter patter just like that no sun never any sun and when i told my father he went morose and i think that’s what killed him the confirmation that the sun was gone and he called me an objective reality like others call their lovers pudding or sweetiepie and i walked across the flat dish of sand which soon began to ripple with gentle slight waves only an inch or two up and i came upon the crystal and it spoke to me and said that the vault was empty that the man with the hats drowned himself and when i asked about the man’s brother he said oh man there was never any other and the crystal laughed at me dear lord have you ever heard a crystal laugh it sounds like human death like laughter but worse like a voice trapped forever and the crystal asked me to reach out and touch it and the crystal said it’d been so long since it felt any hand but its own and it asked and asked and i used seven of my hands and its surface was many surfaces rough smooth buttery calloused wet permeable fleeced and it panted and said that’s good please a little more and i forfeited my remaining two hands but i couldn’t describe the ensuing sensation because i wasn’t programmed for it and on that day i grew to love error and it was both a beginning and an end for me and i knew i’d need a new structure a new way to be or a new way to force meaning onto the world and force and force until my meaning breaks or the world does and the crystal said thanks and i said no thank you and i went on on on my way:OUTPUT OFF
Fire a fire. Paint the dry seabed black. I’ll ask again. Light in the sky—the sky alight but not from sun. My sister and I, our mother a painted wolf. Before it all, a third sister, a rush of blood between us. My living sister the sane one, or so she says. Her hair dark. Mine light and all over. She pulls my leash as we scavenge the seafloor: whalebones, acres of dry fishflesh, swatched powdered algae. Below us, tunnels. Gouged tunnels alive and down forever or soon coming up. My sister pulls the leash too hard. Her face sometimes a whalebone. Her face often a fire.
I turn to her and ask, “Where do we go?”
“Hurry. He’s calling,” she says.
“Father, no father,” she says. “Father no father at all.”
She pulls harder. Fishing trawlers, houndstoothed dead starfish, oil ponds, little suns, wheelchairs, halved eyes. Birds canvas—birds beak the chummed carpets.
My sister sings, “Clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee.”
“What’re clouds?” I ask.
She yells and fits. She calls me “stupid on purpose” and pulls the leash till my breathing stops.
I return choking, topcoat varnished in oil. We sit near an upturned tanker. My sister strokes my fur. Her sorry. A little sun close, giving light. She strokes my head. I bite her hand, chomp the little one off. Knuckle snapped, bone ground. She hollers and swears oaths. She stumbles over to a shipping container, lashes me to it.
I ask, “Did you kiss our mother with that mouth?”
She exits screaming.
The day goes. Little suns wake all around. I lick my fur, rake my black tongue raw. A blind man visits, a shambled puce. I stay quiet until he’s close enough. My teeth take hold. My mouth works him empty. I budge what’s left into the little sun.
Morning appears. Mist like a parade. Sister still gone; thinks cleared. Still tethered. Fur proud and clean. Seared bright and fluffed with warmth. Our mother. Maybe my mother. Maybe no mother. I can only see. Blackbirds halo above. As a pup, I bared my teeth. For that I was and have always been leashed.
A second man comes by. This one skinny, not worthily eaten. Barely enough to burn. He’s loinclothed, hairless. Seven feet at least, skin smooth. He stands back. I claim something stuck in my paw. I splay it as best I can, show my fur and pads. He leans in. I crack him, eat his marrow unsalted.
Days pass with no food. Fur mats, my tongue too dry to clean it. A third man comes. This one gold. He sits at a distance.
“But my hurt paw,” I say.
He shakes his gleaming head, a negative. It’s fine. I can’t stomach gold, just want it to gnaw on. I ask his destination. He tells me it’s the sun. He asks me my dreams. I tell him one about my mother.
“My mother is in the sky,” I say. “In the dream, she rains. After a certain point, I can’t tell my mother from the wet ground.”
When I finish saying, he nods and leaves.
Sister comes back. Sister crawls back. Mostly sister gone. She’s sorry. Lick her face for water and salt. Sister’s legs and arm gone. She barely crawls. “Eastward is not—” she says before her eyes close forever. A warning. I work the little left empty quick. Again, push the rest in the little sun. A little more light and she’s gone.
Sorry. Sorry’s a knife. I pace in the night. I bite through my leash come morning. My mother refuses to rain, recedes into the horizon. My old life has unpetaled—I am my own sister now. I sharpen my claws. I scurry west.
Silence, then the music kicks in. By music we mean drone and a human voice. A boardwalk comes into view. In the distance, a lighthouse shines—its beam punches through thick fog. A snare enters in time with the flashes of light.
Few people dot the boardwalk. We see an old man huddled on a bench. His hair falls past his shoulders, tangles in his gray beard. We extend our hand. With the aid of an aluminum cane, he rises to his feet. He begins to sing.
He sings about the time before. He sings about a fiancé, a moon of a beach, the trajectory of all boats. “Either sunk or back to shore,” he croons. He drops his cane. We note a counterpoint: athletic fingers, geriatric stumbling. He dances unassisted.
The lighthouse catches fire, lends the mist an orange glow. The bars that line the boardwalk let out. Drunk patrons block our view of the singer. They swing from lampposts, pry up sections of boardwalk. The drunkest among them fall through the gaps.
The long-haired man becomes visible in flashes. He dances competently, shuffles toward us. We slide backward in time with the snare. “A safe distance,” we whisper. An eight member brass band exits a burning 7-Eleven. The lyrics sympathize with the plight of arsonists. The band forms a smoke-damaged octet. “Everything is flammable,” the long-haired man sings, “If you’re willing and able.”
The brass band lines up around him. Trumpet, cornet, trombone, tuba. The parts doubled, four on either side. Their notes wreck. They overtake the lyrics. We hear every third word. The lighthouse is dull embers off the coast. Several drunk patrons produce violins, mangle them like third-graders. The long-haired man stumbles to the front of the group. The mob dances in shambles, vomit on their sleeves. They raise their arms to the sky. The sky looks like black construction paper. At the rear of the group, a man is being eaten. The sky has the texture of pulp. “Hatred of time will get you nowhere,” the long-haired man yelps.
The brass band coalesces, forms even notes, calms the dancers. However, once dancers resort to cannibalism, it’s difficult to truly regain stasis. The crowd’s movements sync. Arms up then left then right then shake. The smoke from the 7-Eleven turns blood red. The tempo rises. A coked-up historical society shoddily rebuilds the lighthouse—it’s now a watchtower bedecked with flare guns. The drunk patrons beautify the boardwalk. They enamor chrysanthemums onto iron lampposts.
The mob stops advancing, dances in place. Left hand roll out, right hand roll out, right leg kick, left leg shake, spin and kick toward the four cardinal directions, lean back, shimmy and rise. A vomit of flares erupts from the watchtower. The long-haired man’s lips stop moving but his voice is heard. He collapses into the crowd. The brass band crescendos. The mob extends their hands toward us.
We start to rise. We who’ve lived our whole lives as a camera. We untether, lift toward the paper sky. Their mouths are open but the sound has stopped. Through the crowd, we catch sight of the long-haired man’s throat. His throat red as if from decades of choking. The boardwalk disappears into the deepening fog. We turn our gaze to the paper ceiling. The sound returns to drone if only through distance. We look forward to our future in the black pulp unmoored.
William VanDenBerg is the author of Lake of Earth(Caketrain Press, 2013) and Apostle Islands (Solar Luxuriance, 2013). OO:OO, Leash, and Tape are part of a series called MILK TEETH. Previous installments have or will soon appear in The Fanzine, Banango Street, Passages North, and others.