The Inheritance of Man

Robert Kloss


Your father died in the noonday heat and several days hence the swollen figure of the man he had been was discovered in the evening shade.  So it was those two university men in their brown suits, their faces jaundiced in the glow of oil lanterns, notified you in the early dawn. "It is as if he had already been dead," you said. The mindless wail of your child in his room, your wife who remained in bed, who feigned ignorance until you told her you had been summoned. And now she wept and now she refused meet your gaze and now she held you and refused free you even as you layered the pink silk lining of your valise with trousers, shirts, socks, undershorts, a revolver, a penknife, a pouch of tobacco, a corncob pipe, notepads and pencils. This pale girthy woman who clung to you and pleaded and threatened even as you met those men at the door. "I will not forget you as he forgot my mother and me," you said. And after you disappeared into their carriage she returned to bed.


They brought you beyond the extent of civilization into the shadow of the wall. The wall: ancient and obsidian, constructed by a civilization born and doomed and eradicated from any ledger well before the advent of your own. And it towered into the clouds and it loomed over all and it vibrated and it seethed. And carrion birds roosted upon it and wild dogs lurked in the shadows below it. And beneath the wall stood the silent canvas tents of supplicants. And beneath the wall stood your father's shack, dust streaked and gray with rot, overgrown with vines and weeds. The shingles, stripped by winds and rains, now lay scattered throughout the wild. The windows were open and fat flies buzzed within, while the tracks of wild dogs lead to the door, the pale scars where those beasts pawed baying. You held your handkerchief over your mouth and nose as you entered and still you retched. The humming and buzzing of flies, the stink of voided bowels, of man gone to blackness, of man fattening with gases. A stained yellow bedsheet bulged on the floor. You held against this shapelessness an ancient tin type of your father at age eighteen, clean-shaven, black eyes gazing as if into some limitless horizon. You did not lift the sheet.

How had he lived and spent his hours in this shack, how had it seemed in his waking days, when he breathed and moved and thought, this room of decay and blackened bloat, this room of musty putrid air and blue flies? The room papered with yellowing poems of his composition, poems with titles like "The Peasant Lad's Duty" and "Elegy for the Honorable Soldier", while dusty volumes on the subject of the wall stacked the shelves and mounded the floor, books on the nature of the wall, books by those who claimed the wall thinned the hair and weakened the blood, that the wall contained celestial vibrations. And there were books by those who claimed to have ventured beyond the wall, who claimed that the wall kept out "the creature," long extinct and now a gathering of bones and dust, a creature of leather and claws and once standing two hundred feet, a creature savage and malignant. And there were those who believed the world to come lay beyond the wall, the life everlasting, and beyond the wall the souls of all those dead now walked as in the paradise the world had first known. And here was your father's revolver, worn and rusted and emptied of ammunition. And here were your father's log books, perhaps thirty of them, yellowed and dusty. And perhaps he had arrived at the secrets of the wall and these secrets were herein depicted and perhaps he had thought of you and your mother often, and here he mused over your lives, your growth, your progress, here he imagined himself in the room with you and relating to you as men relate to their children. And perhaps he had written of the final hour as it approached, perhaps he felt the coldness gripping his soul, even as it fled his flesh. And perhaps those pages contained his apologies to you. Perhaps they contained words of reconciliation and love. Perhaps they reflected on the boy you had been. Perhaps he too remembered the final moment shared, the moment that taunted you from within dimly remembered dreams, the warmth of his arms, the brush of his well trimmed beard, the awkward smack of his lips upon your brow. And perhaps those pages contained only ravings, only delusions, of a man driven mad by solitude, by thoughts of what lay beyond. You did not open them.

And now you dragged your shrouded father, heavy and loose, the arm bones wrenching from the sockets, out the shack and through the tall weeds, white with flowers, with the fluttering of butterflies. And when you reached an area barren and dusty you returned to the shack for a shovel while the supplicants, hoary and dressed in tatters, watched with silent and yellow eyes from their tent openings. And the black and red smudges of carrion birds atop the wall now took flight and circled in the throbbing sun. The dark and moist wormy-loam you settled into a heap. The shape of a man you dug into the dirt and filled with the shrouded remains and then filled over with the loam. When you finished you leaned on the shovel, dusty, sweat-dripping, and you watched the dirt and you watched the wall and you said nothing. And then finally you returned to the shack for your father's books and his journals and his poems and the remains of his final dinners, the bones and the burned skin of some mostly consumed animal, and these you mounded and these you stood over, smoking your pipe, the pungent waft of the blue smoke. And the birds screamed and the long off dogs howled. And you looked at this heap for some while and you exhaled and now you removed his logbooks from the pyre. Then you burned the rest.


In the hours to follow you leaned in the doorway of your father's shack while the fire eradicated much of what he had been. And when the wind gusted now the ashes caught and twirled and settled over the land like ebony flakes of snow. And in the following hours you layered the mattress with your clothing. And onto the desk you propped the tin type of your father. And you laid out your notepad and your pencils and your father's logbooks and your revolver. And you stood in the doorway smoking your pipe, the blue dispersing waft, as the supplicants slowly emerged, bobbing their heads like wary cats, uttering their prayers, bowing, and they pressed their brows to the ground, and they burned their grasses and herbs.

After they finished their prayers you broke open the final supply crate and there you found cans of tomato soup, the labels yellowing and the cans themselves speckled with rust. These you brought to the supplicants who flinched and cowered as you neared, and you left the cans in the dust and backed away. When they gouged the lids with knives and sucked the cold soup through those lids you said "Perhaps a fire…" and now they gazed upon your face with red smeared lips, with soup drooling through their yellowing beards, and still they said nothing.


And in the night the wild dogs bayed and snarled and rooted out your father's corpse. The carcass hauled across the moonlit field while you stood waist deep in the grasses. And the supplicants emerged from their tents, silent, with caverns for eyes, until one man let a wretched bellow and another moaned. And this terrible judgment continued until you fired your revolver into the dogs, snarling and rending, until they fled or toppled, pulsing blood. And you went to the corpse, missing sections of once-flesh and no longer recognizable as any man who had ever lived. And the supplicants crept to you across the fields. And they stood wary on the edge of the grasses, whining like uneasy dogs until you gathered the corpse in its tattered shroud. And you carried the figure into the forest while calling out: "I will bury him in here." So you brought him to the edge of the swamps. And there the soundless drift of alligators through the peat clotted waters, the stillness of alligators settled onto mossy banks and gazing with merciless vision. And you slid the body of your father into the murk, and from these waters he could never return.


Such were the motions and interactions of your first hours before the wall. And when the last of the soup was exhausted you went to the machine upon your father's desk, a contraption of tarnished steel and battered keys and rubber sheathed wires, and you sent word for more crates. And in the following days no response came from the machine. And when no supplies arrived the supplicants prayed and hungered before the wall. And they became even more gaunt and ragged than when you arrived. And when they did not pray they crouched before their tents and watched you with ghostly cavernous eyes. And so now you took your revolver into the forest. The first doe you shot fell thrashing, mouth yawning in agonized horror, black tongue wagging. You held your pistol to the wide eyes of the beast, only to flinch at the final moment, and you left the animal to die in the brush. And when you exited the forest the supplicants watched from their positions, drooling and moaning, their dusty filthy faces, their tangled beards, their blistered lips. And you shouted to them, "The soup is coming!" and they continued their weathered and mute gaze. So you went into the shack, propping a chair against the door, and when you peered through the window they returned gaze from their tents. That night the carrion birds and wild dogs kept you sleepless with the noise of evisceration, the sounds of bones breaking, the sounds of a body disassembled and eaten free of guts. When you looked upon the doe at dawn you saw only ant covered ribs and hooves and scraps of fur and a skull emptied of brain and eyes and tongue. When next you were confronted with ebbing life you were able to end the matter. You stood gasping and shaking and saw the eyes voided of light. From then on you became a great murderer of deer and rabbits and squirrels. These bodies you dressed in the forest, burying the organs deep beneath the soil, dragging the stiffened and gutless carcasses through the weeds, finally laying them before the supplicants. "Build a fire," you told them, their arms already sunk to the elbows in the meat.


You sat in the open yard in the shadow of the wall, of the circling birds, with your father's logbooks before you, reading as a child reads—your fingers slowly tracing the lines, articulating the sounds. And in the first of his logbooks he wrote nothing of you or your mother, of his life or dreams. He wrote only of the wall and how it appeared in the various shades of day and night. He wrote only of how the supplicants came from the forest and prayed for the cessation of disease or the safety of a child or the return of success or the return of love. They prayed for salvation and an end to ruin. And he wrote "There comes an hour when they are fixed before this wall. They become locked in prayer and they do not leave." And when you wearied of reading you returned to your shack, there lingering before the tin type of your father. Taken some years before he was summoned into service of the wall, some years before his own father passed into the unknown. And you realized you did not even know his name.

And as the days progressed you sent messages to the university, to your wife and child. Your fingers and wrist stiffened for the writing and sending of these tabulations. And to the university you sent word of the weather and the motions of the birds and the shape of the shadow of the wall and the color of the wall and every other obvious visible characteristic. And you noted the white lines of scars on the supplicants, their tattered clothes and yellowed beards, and you said, "Send bandages and salves. Send fresh shirts. Send combs and scissors." And to your wife you wondered of her days and the days of your son, and you asked her how he grew and you asked how he flourished. And you said "I expect he has acquired a great many friends" and "Tell me what a fine athlete is he" and "Do not spare the rod." And you told them all your days were savage and despairing without the two of them in your arms. And you received no word from either save missives composed in a gibberish or according to an unknown code, spiraling reams of paper notated in near endless repetition of: DCKLDGHQ*URBL&!HG. And this you proposed to translate and when you were especially stricken or when your mind seemed lost in a particular delirium you became convinced that your wife had divorced you for another man, some fishmonger or common salesman, or that your son had fallen to fever, and even now lay yellow and decomposing upon the slab. And in those fits you wept and gnashed your teeth and you fired your revolver at the wall, the sharp squealing echoes as the bullets ricocheted in bursts of black dust.  And the supplicants moaned from their tents, while those who prayed before the wall paused in their utterances to glare. And the birds took flight and circled and screamed. And from the monument there came no sign.

And when you could not sleep you believed the wall hummed to you. And when you dreamed you believed the wall filled you from its reservoir of time and memory and horror: for in your dreams came the dead unknown to you in decomposing armies, in rags and dangling jaws and  gray ragged skin. They came eviscerated and bludgeoned. They came speaking your name in slurs, in languages forgotten or never known. And from behind the wall a great monster hissed and growled and thrashed. And in your waking hours you went to the wall and when you inclined your neck the sun was blotted and the edges of the wall glowed. And when you touched the obsidian you knew the hum and your skin was scorched as if some monstrous life within the wall seethed. And the supplicants watched with black eyes and dusty faces. And they moaned from within their prayers.


And there were days you tottered in your walk and you realized you could not remember when you had last eaten. And there you were days you lugged tin buckets of mosquito clotted waters from the swamps, the yellow eyes of alligators opening and shutting beneath a gauze of peat, and sometimes the supplicants boiled the putrid water and sometimes they gulped it from shaking hands and fell to retching. And some days you hunted in a dim forest when behind you sticks snapped and there a withered supplicant stood speaking meaningless phrases in the cadence of a prayer. And some days there seemed only the burning of grasses and herbs. And some days only the murder of animals. And all days the hollow throb of the wall and the ceaseless chant in a language you doubted had ever existed.

And there were days of sewing and patching canvas tents when the rains wearied them. And there were nights the glow of fires lit the windows of your shack, the elongated shadows of supplicants as they bowed and prayed with clasped hands. And there were days of the stillness of the machine. And there were days when the gibberish uncoiled from the machine in a fever, and this ribbon of paper you crumpled with a reddening expression. And there were days when you bellowed the name of your child only to realize the sounds you made were born into a mindless roar.

And there were days of logbooks and the voice of your father who wrote, "I asked one man for whom he prayed and he replied 'for my son who is ill' and I later learned he had been here for several years" and he wrote "many come dressed as rational men, in collared shirts and wired spectacles, but they are in fact brutes—their worship contains nothing of logic, of intellect" and he wrote "I trust them not—how they watch me from the corners of their eyes" and he wrote "I woke to find one leaning over me—he was praying—I thrashed him before the others" and he wrote "They want what is not theirs—I found one man prying at the supply crates—the others moaned while I thrashed him but he said not a word" and he wrote "I must be ruthless or they will believe they can overtake me. I know they watch when my back is turned—I know they measure my resolve."

And you read of the pole your father found in the forest, carved with the images of alligators, with their faces and their tails and their teeth and their leather and their claws, wrapping and swimming into each other, one body impossible to discern from the next. And they were hued red and blue and yellow. And their faces were twisted into soundless expressions of hissing. Around the pole wild dogs circled with low-slung tails, whining and pawing with hesitance, and your father fired his revolver and the dogs lingered and he fired again and now they fled. And your father touched the pole and knew the ancient wood was without rot or splinter, although smeared with moss and soil. And he circled this pole, and he noted all the mouths and all the eyes. And you read of the caves painted with the figures of enormous alligators, with the splatter of blood and the men they consumed, and from the shadow of alligators fled does and bison and bears and lions for in these illustrations no creature was more monstrous or terrible. And your father wrote, "The supplicants tell me those who prayed here long ago found the bleached bones of such a monster. They claim one man found shelter in the skull of the beast. I have seen no evidence of this." And your father wrote of how the supplicants became "wild" in the presence of these totems and paintings, how they tore their clothes and gouged their flesh, how they howled. He wrote how he "thumped one" with the butt of his pistol to quiet him and the man lay gushing blood from his scalp while the other supplicants "swarmed round him like flies," bleating and moaning and bowing with hands clasped. He wrote how they bound the man in grasses and herbs and burned him, his flesh arisen as smoke and ash.

Now you went amongst the supplicants, their weathered tents sagged, rotten with mold. And some dozed while you asked questions and some sat in the grasses watching the wall and others smiled with blackened teeth. They all stank of decay and you covered your nose to be with them. You touched the soiled brows of those who slept and you asked if they had known the man who died. Those who listened gazed back without recognition. "The man who was here before me—did you know the man … the man he murdered." And none replied. Now while one man prayed you found within his belongings a photograph of the man he had been, austere in a black suit and black beard, his dour faced wife, the boys whose shoulder his hand rested upon. And you watched the man with his fellow supplicants, moaning and chanting, bending to the dust, while beyond them the wall loomed and seethed. And there was little doubt in your heart that the boy had perished long ago.


Then the summer airs vibrated with heat and the sun ravaged the fields until they were brittle with death. And the air of the swamps, the humid stink, carried throughout the land. And the mosquitoes came in black clouds and fed until the supplicants were smeared with their own blood. And your shirtless chest too was welted with bites and you scratched until they bled. Through the hours the discordant strains of grasshoppers, the shadows of carrion birds, and you lay on your mattress sweating and bleeding and reading the logbooks, muttering aloud the most fascinating passages. And you sent messages to your wife, "Have you been faithful? Does nothing survive this chasm?" and you wrote your son, "Be sociable and kind to your chums but trust not their hearts."

And when the machine returned only spiraling reams of gibberish you stood in the blazed dead grasses with hands upon your hips, your chest swollen and bleeding, and you asked the nearest supplicant of the carrion birds ever circling, "Could they be captured and trained? Could we make them carry word home?"

And you read in the logbooks where your father wrote, "They believe god lives beyond that wall, but there is no god in this world—Here we have only monsters—" and he wrote, "They hiss in the night like broken pipes. The earth vibrates with their thrashing" and he wrote, "You must understand I am only one man. Eventually my grip must loosen."


And you hunted in the sweltering shadows of the forest, the murky air, the mosquitoes swollen on your arm. The faun you wounded in the shoulder before it fled into the darkness. You followed through the brush and over the tangle of dead fall. And the deeper you continued the less you heard the carrion birds, the sacred drone of supplicants. And now the squelching mud of the swamps, your boots sunk to the ankles. And you continued into the depths of the swamp, where the air vibrated with heat and decay. Here peat shrouded alligators lounged on the opposite shore, yawning, the ancient machinery of their mouths clumped with some recent kill. And here lay the body of the faun, the rise and fall of its breathing, its wide white eyes and its tendons bulging. And behind the faun loomed a pole engraved with alligators, their red and yellow and blue painted bodies and mouths. Now from the dark emerged a man in a collared shirt, his trimmed beard, his wire framed glasses. He came in silence and he regarded you not. And now the man went to his knees, and he grazed the faun's neck with his hand. Now the fawn lay dead before him, its mouth opened into blackness.

The world entire seemed to hum in the heat while dragonflies landed on the corpse and alligators slid without sound into the black waters. The pole with its ancient depictions stood ruthless and without judgment. And perhaps the sun fell and rose again while you studied this totem and perhaps some awful object merely blotted the sky.

And now the man said your name. And now he said, "Had I been able to reach you I would have sent warning." And he said, "By now you understand you will die here."


You returned to find the windows of your shack smashed in, the door torn from the hinges and scattered in the bleached grasses. And rocks lay in the broken glass and blue flies buzzed throughout the room. One man lay with another man on your mattress, a tangle of hair and sweat and pale flesh, the half asleep mouth of one man drooling onto the emaciated breast of another, their rags cast to the floor. And the tin type of your father lay dented and crumpled and a rock was sunk into the machine, a ruin of keys and rubber and frayed wires. And you beat the wall and you shouted. And the men exalted from their position of near-sleep, smiling with black mouths.

And now a fly settled upon your shoulder, laying eggs. And now another.

One and then the other, you dragged the men through the dead-brittle grasses, the lines their fingers drew in the dirt, their arms pulled from the sockets. And you tossed them to the dirt before the tents. There they sprawled naked and without shame. And the supplicants in their tents watched with silent gravity while you thrashed the first man until your arms wearied, until he spat red and three brown teeth floated in the blood puddle. The other man shielded his face with his spindly arms. The flies walking in the blood, the toothless moaning, and you tossed the dripping branch into the grasses.

And you stood waist deep in the grasses while the supplicants gathered round the bruised and bleeding man, while they chanted and prayed, while they set fires. And you watched their shadows flailing in the light. And there you stood until the winds gusted and the fires spread into the grasses. And the supplicants chanted even as the fields blazed and the fires engulfed their tents, even as some new and mysterious roar came from beyond the wall, some terrible hissing and loathsome growl.


Your son grew into a gangly youth without his father to watch him at play. The battered leather of his mitt, the red and fraying laces of his ball, the loose way he flipped this to the boys in the distance. Their socks pulled to their knees, their blond bangs fallen into their eyes. How the boys watched with tanned hands on bony hips while the university men emerged from their buggy, the uneven chugging. And when they called your son by his full name the other boys dispersed like flies.

Once indoors the university men established a phonograph upon your kitchen table. There the vinyl disc crackled and skipped until finally some man spoke in a high, thin whine. This, they said, was your voice. This, they said, was your final testimony. And you continued in a solemn cadence until the thin whine ceased and the university men said to no one in particular, "So you see, he always thought kindly of you." Your wife placed her hand upon one man's tweed sleeves while her eyes said there was no misdeed she would not commit if they relinquished your son. The university man smiled, and now he bade your boy pack his things for the wall.