Sunday
Nov112012

The Alligators of Abraham

By Robert Kloss


Mud Luscious Press
November 2012
978-0983026396


 

Soon you leaned upon the rail of a ship in the moaning of ropes and boards, the slapping of water against the hull, gulls swirling and shrieking. You leaned against the bulwark while these other men milled and smoked on deck, while they mimed shots at the gulls darting and plummeting past the sails, and soon the captain touched your shoulder and said quietly, "Look alive, man" and in a voice meant for the rest of your men, he said, "Ready yourselves." And soon soldiers led the unpaid to their compartment below while you waited in your cabin. And you watched your eyes in the mirror and these seemed the eyes of a different man, and you sat on a velvet cushioned chair with your boots upon your desk, smoking, listening to the rocking of the ship, to the twisting of the ropes, the wind beating against the sails, and you thought, "I have not always been here" although this now seemed the only moment you had ever known.

And soon you drifted into the vast gray with those hundred unpaid below deck, husbands and wives and children, and how slowly the days when the sun scorched all, and then the long days of gray when even the gulls seemed lost in the murk, and then days when the unpaid were allowed to air their compartments and they wandered the deck covered in straw and shielding their eyes.

"Have you perceived the depth of the earth?"

And this unpaid woman along the deck, how she leaned against the railing, how she brushed the straw from her dress, from the thick of her hair, absently, and remember too how the sun shadowed the curves beneath the cotton of her dress. Remember how you watched, how you sat in your compartment long days before finally you summoned her to your room. And when she lay within your arms you did not care that she carried a dead odor and that even her breath seemed rank and humid. You cared only for her curves mounding your sheets, the way she moaned in your bed, how her lips and her tongue warmed and wetted your throat, your chest, your thighs, your groin. And when you marveled at her skill she smiled and said, "Yours was hardly my first summons, Sir."

Remember how this woman regarded your quarters, your cot, your mirror from the sopping tangle of your bedding and said, "I feel like a millionaire's woman," and then laughed, and soon she lay outstretched, and there the curves of her ribs, the pungent brown of her nipples, the almost pink-puckered slit along her belly, and this you touched, and of this you asked, "Were you bayoneted?" and she laughed and sighed and said, "I suppose something like that."

And you fell asleep in the slender of this woman's arms only to wake into the aloneness of your own, and there she sat in the glow of the lamp light, reading your letters. And this unpaid woman said, "You're married—what a husband you must make," and you rose from the bed, stood behind her as her fingers traced your lines, and she said, "You have a boy" and your hand fell across her shoulder and there it remained when she asked, "And what's his name?" You said what you thought his name should be and she said, "Ah, just like his father."

And there were days when you and this woman did not rise from bed until the sky swelled golden and pink, and your men watched you along the deck with dark eyes.

"Do you know how the bone grows in the womb of her who is with child?"

And when the open air frosted you wrapped this woman in your wool coat, and soon gulls again thronged the skies, and these fell bloodied into the gray, spattered askew onto islands of ice when your men fired their rifles. And the days with this woman, alone, and no more the open air, and no more any of the world but her arms, her legs, her lips, her tongue and there below, the space, the warmth, the moist folds. There were days when you said her name although you could not recall her name, and you whispered into her ear, along her throat, into the scar of her belly.

And when shore was sighted you stood on deck with this woman in the chill, overlooking what seemed a landscape of mossed rocks and green grass and pines, while the long-off figures of caribou and elk grazed, and you held this woman against your figure, and you said to her, "If only we could stop all of this, hold onto this life, each other, as we are now, to never again move," and she gazed up at you with a mouth opened as if horrified, and slowly she gathered herself, and soon she said, "Yes, I feel the same."

 

The ship drifted from the shore, not to return for a full year, and for once your men did not fire upon the shrieking gulls. Instead they milled and smoked and paced while the unpaid huddled in your midst, shivering in their cotton rags although it was spring, shivering except for the woman who was shrouded in your bison coat. And your ship was a mere smudge when your soldiers hitched huskies to sleds piled with coal, canoes, dog food, bison and bear fur clothing, citrus, liquor, nails, tarpaulins, small national flags, powdered milk, canned peaches and potatoes, tinned smoked oysters and beef and carrots, bison hide sleeping bags, and, as donated by the wives of your soldiers, clothes, novels, games, cigars, and jars upon jars of plum puddings boiled by countless mothers over stovetops and covered with wax paper and twine. And the slow trudge of your crew along this landscape.

Your men erected tarpaulin shelters in the dirt, those for the unpaid on one side of the land and those for your men on the other, and one for you alone, what you called your office, where you worked in the lamplight glow, where you and this woman lay together. And in the evenings the unpaid ate canned roast beef and canned carrots in their dining hall, a considerable construction of tarpaulin and beams, and your men ate chocolate in the open, by firelight, and you and the unpaid woman ate in your tent, upon your cot, this woman who breathed against your chest, who kissed into your mouth, who ate from the same tin of beef, the same tin of carrots, the same square of chocolate.

Through the days your men and the unpaid labored and constructed while the woman and the wives dressed and prepared the caribou and deer and elk, and the huskies howled from within their wire and tarpaulin enclosure. And you smoked cigars on the edge of the camp and, in the evenings, kerosene lamps and candles cast shadows onto the walls while all dined on oysters and stew and venison and rabbit and seal and peach pie and apple pie and whisky and wines. And there were those among the unpaid who played the fiddle, and there were those who sang in deep sorrowful voices, and you swayed against this woman while the others settled into games of checkers and chess and backgammon, and those few children fell to bed. And you and this woman wandered the barbed edges of the camp, and there you knew the purple and rose glow, the soft whine of wind, the huskies howling.

"Have you walked in search of the depth?"

And when the caribou and deer and moose left for warmer climes, your feasts were reduced to canned roast beef and chocolate, and now the sunken faces ever deepened until eyes seem to peer from caverns. The nights lengthened into days and to wander from one building to the next required a lantern, so always now the glow of men gathering supplies from the shed, men who returned with frozen beards and cracked red faces, returned insisting the supplies had been pilfered. And they looked to you, and they looked to the woman, and they looked to the unpaid hunched on their bunks and salivating.

 

And soon the halls cleared of laughter and the playing of games, and now the sounds of shoes scuffing the plank floors and the scraping of forks on plates and coughing and the occasional mournful wail of some unpaid child, and from somewhere beneath the winds, the starving huskies howled from tarpaulin pens. And the woman in your bed said, "I hope those poor animals don't freeze to death," and you said, "There's a reason we brought these particular dogs."

 

And soon darkness spread through the land, and never again sun or the slightest glimmer, and ice dangled from your cabin ceilings, and winds gusted and thrashed the walls so they seemed to bend and buckle, and the freezing air tore throughout the hall. And soon those cabins bent beneath the drifted snow, and your men and the unpaid huddled together in the same immense hall with its furnaces and kerosene lamps, and the glow of faces always watching you and this woman, and all slept in the same enormous hall save for you and the woman in your cabin, layered in bison furs and clasping each other, for as you explained to her, "It's important to make the distinction between a commander and commanded in all areas" and when the drifts near obscured your cabin you sent men with shovels and pickaxes to unbury the structure. You watched their labor through the windows and when the men returned indoors they returned with faces red and haunted with ice,  even their eye lashes whitened with crystals and they watched you with intent before setting aside their tools.

 

And to your face the men praised your greatness and your leadership and filled you with their share of the rum until your eyes swam, and then they suggested that you send an expedition south where another encampment, a scientific settlement, was rumored to flourish. And while most considered the keepers of that post long dead and you believed they would find iced-shacks and grayed, frozen faces, your men said, "But otherwise we will perish." And you wondered aloud why they had signed on for such a voyage, although you understood they had been offered little option. And you refused, saying a second ship would arrive soon enough in the spring. And they said, "You are a fool." And they watched you now and whispered in the shadows and plotted your removal, and in your journal you wrote how they meant to bind your wrists and ankles, how they meant to hold a sham trial in the wind and snow and endless dark, and you burned these pages immediately, and you smeared the ashes with your boot until no sign of language remained.

And the unpaid murmured amongst themselves about how your men ate all of their food and burned their fuel, and your men ordered the unpaid to cook the last canned potatoes, and your men drank from the casks of rum while the unpaid settled for powdered milk, and your men in their lengthening-beards crouched on their cots and jotted in their journals of their suffering and their fury and their loneliness, all while unpaid children wailed and thumped the floor with their wooden soldiers and the parents slouched on bunks and against walls, watching the faces of the other unpaid become gaunt and hollowed in the kerosene light.

 

And then the night you woke alone in your bison skin and found the door unlocked, and her boots and coat were missing. And when she returned you feigned sleep, and you asked nothing of her whereabouts, and when she trembled you held her and warmed her, and when she fell asleep you lay awake, watching the flickering of her lids.

 

You wrote of what you would do when they came upon you with knives or pistols, when they had you shot and discarded to the frost, when they made your corpse a mass of ice, deathless flesh in bottomless cold. And these pages blurred beneath your boot heel before she returned from her errands.

 

And she whispered to you as you slept, "They are starving," and the unpaid seemed like skeletons buried beneath their furs, and you wrote about how you understood that she blamed you, your rations, your men and their mere existence, and you ordered an expedition in search of supply depots or smoke from other encampments, and those who remained huddled together, bundled in furs and leather, and their breath become a swirling cloud, and their faces soon frosted and cracking as they squinted, and all waved to those men on their sleds while huskies tossed clumps of clotted snow in their wake.

And when these men returned they returned with canisters of spoiled bread, tea, sugar, salt, and rum kegs emptied for defective bungs that one man rode strapped to, moaning and delirious, his face small beneath the shadows of his eyes, the long icicles of his beard, and the other men whispered unto you of his legs swollen to twice the regular size, and you studied these blackened appendages when inside the hall, while the unpaid tore through the ruined and worthless findings. "Cut them off," you said of this man's legs and gestured to an area below the knees, and the man wailed and many of your men turned away and vomited and wept and the unpaid women cried and even yours pulled at your arm and sobbed.

And now in the gloom and hopeless hours of the always night, the unpaid women, even the married ones, coddled those soldiers who returned, especially the crippled one, the man of stumps who now pulled himself upon a wooden cart, and the unpaid men watched and whispered in each other's ears while the unpaid women said, "You were willing to risk yourselves, for all of us," and they gave your soldiers portions of their rations, these women skeletal and soon dead, but your men did not turn down their offerings, nor did you suggest they should.

 

And when the huskies thumped and howled and moaned in the night, foaming, mangy and snarling, you decreed the dogs would be destroyed. And a cry went up, and they begged you for some final mercy, and you said, "These dogs have accomplished their purpose." And soon the report of rifle fire, lost and distant in the wind, and the dogs lay dead and frozen to the floors of their kennels, and you left them so until the children froze against the wire kennels, clutching pen knives and burlap sacks. And now your men doused the kennel entire with kerosene and the almost green flames of tarpaulin. And for the next days, the smell of burned dog and tarpaulin in everything breathed and everything eaten. 

And when you told the woman in your bed how the unpaid wished to eat the diseased flesh of dogs, she replied, "Can you blame them? They don't want to die any more than you do." And soon after this, the unpaid began dying, the children at first, then the older ones, the near elderly, emaciated and calling their relations the wrong names, and from their death cots they said, "Someday we will be free," and they called you "Master." And with gauzed eyes they groped the air and called out, "Oh Lord, you've come to free my poor soul." And after the death rattle and the low-gasping articulation, you wrapped the corpses in burlap and deposited them outside your encampment, and when the bodies became more frequent and as your men began to join them, they were simply carried in a bison coat and dropped to the mound where the eyes quickly frosted and the slung open mouths filled with snow.

And through the days now your men plotted mutiny until the only question was when they would set upon you. And you remained at your desk with your rifle at the ready, while the woman in your bed called to you in a lusty voice, asking why you no longer fornicated, why you no longer held her, and when you explained, "I must always be on my ready" she smiled and said, "My spies have reported no conspiracy."

And there were nights when she said, in  half sleep, "Why do we want to live? Why can't we simply drink the kerosene or throw ourselves into the snow? Why can't we let ourselves go from this suffering?" and she said, "Would you smother me if I asked you to?" and more quietly, "You're heartless, so you might. But you're also a coward."

The dead became hillsides of snow unto themselves, and soon all were too weak to carry a body, even these half-bodies, and now four men were required to carry them and another two men to help those who stumbled and collapsed into the snow. And soon there were those who snuck across the camp to this mound with knives, and when they returned to the hall there were those who pretended new rations of "beef" had been discovered, and all were ravenous at the smell of "beef" scorching and sizzling on heated skillets, and none dared turn down these new food stuffs.

And you and this woman in your cabin yet consumed your rations of canned roast beef, no longer heated, and then the frozen meat, and the slow chewing.

And you remained in your chair before this woman swaddled in your bison hide, and how she wept for those dead unpaid, and for those living unpaid, and even for those soldiers who had died, and for those who were forced to live.

 

You prayed in those days that she would learn to forget those others, and you and this woman and a piercing light, and you and this woman and what seemed the voice of your father, the fragrance of the prairies, the smoke along the grasses, the clover and yellow primroses, and you and this woman and your talk of the coming spring, of the animals you would hunt and smoke and salt, and how the two of you could live the rest of your lives in this land.

And soon you woke alone in your bison hide, although your skin seemed numbed from where she pressed into your figure, and you knew her coat and her boots would be missing. And when she returned you pressed your knife to her throat and said, "No words" and bound her wrists to the cot, and her hoarse screams through the door as you hunched against the winds. And in the low light of the hall, the horrid faces and near skulls of your men, and perhaps five yet living unpaid, and the sleepless faces of many dead unpaid, and you said unto these men, "I have found the woman who is stealing our rations," and you and your men bound this woman by her feet even as she wept. Her low wretched sound as you carried her panting into the open night, her tongue hanging in the lamplight, and you watched her laid to the ground even as she said she had never loved you. "Please," you rasped to the soldier nearest you, and you meant to say, "In the back of the skull. Immediately," but no words came, and you made only the fatal gesture.

"Can you send lightning that they may go?"

And after dim years alone amongst these skulls, you in the shadow of the bones of the unpaid and the bones of your men, bleached in a hillside of their own, you believed these men who emerged from their ship were mere apparitions. And soon they called you in the name you had not heard in years, and indeed, in their mirrors, you seemed an ancient figure, a withered thing in rags, and when you smiled you smiled with blackened teeth and black-red gums, and when you spoke you said words like "plague" and "starvation," and you said, "There were those who became crazed in their illness. The winter was terrible. I sought to appease their souls. I sought to grant them mercy."