THE LONG NIGHT

by D.N. Stuefloten

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      Way up in the hills we went and whoom came down the rain and all was thunder and in the flashes of lightning the faces went groping upwards. The white cheeks and the black eyes. The slack jaws. I could feel the dark ground like a swamp under my feet. Hands were around my ankles. With each flash of lightning the voices went Ahhh, from the slack jaws, between the white cheeks, above the black, hungry ground. Through the darkness my hands went. Like snakes my arms were in front of me. I kept walking and so I gradually pulled in the lead until I saw the woman walking with head bent. I knew it was a woman because as soon as I sensed her, in the blackness, I groped for her, and felt her, and as soon as I knew she was a woman I felt very lucky and happy because there were so few left. I knew then that I would live. My luck could not desert me. Immediately I pulled her into the bushes and when she tried to scream, I hit her, and told her what I would do if she did not submit. She lay quiet and I was as fast as possible and when I left her I heard her muttering, “Goddamn it, Goddamn it, that’s the tenth time tonight.” Soon I was in the front ranks again. I could hear the crashing rushing people all around me. They went blindly. I conserved my energy. They waddled drunkenly into the thick mesquite and fell and shoved their way through. I felt my way and slipped around, or between, always going the easiest way. In the flashes of light I saw their faces and jerking bodies. Behind me it was like an army. The rain stopped. I was afraid of thirst. The rain began. Thankfully I let my rags soak up the moisture and squeezed it into my mouth. The hills heaved beneath me. I stumbled into a valley. I great light and a great blast knocked me off my feet. I got up. People were whimpering. A drone was overhead, then thunder.
     I walk through a giant black mouth.
     The giant white teeth collapse behind me.
     At a fire I see standing the naked woman I raped.
     A Mexican plays a guitar. When he sings sparks fly from his nose.
     WHAM! the night goes. I am very small. My feet are in puddles.
     I wish I could remember things. I wish I could remember well enough not to be here. To think of a time. A fire like a woman sways. Let me sit down. I want to sit down. WHAM! It goes again. Why! Why! I am full of the black night. I crawl into the firelight. It flicks like a tongue at my face. As I crawl closer, it gets warmer, licking my cheeks. The woman has her hands on her hips. The Mexican sings a sad song, with fierce energy, and drunken tears in his eyes. He is young and handsome, and his clenched muscles, in his sadness, bulge through his skin. The woman is muttering, “Goddamn it, Goddamn it, that's the tenth time tonight.” The man sings, “Mary, I love you, better than Sue.”
     “Why are you standing here?” I ask them.
     “I am sitting,” says the Mexican.
     “I am standing,” says the woman.
     “Why dont you stand, and you sit?”
     “Mary, Mary,
     Wary, wary,
     Please dont tarry
     If you want your cherry.”
     “Must you sing that?” says the woman.
     “I must.”
     “Cant you ever sing something nice, for Christ’s sake?”
     “Not for His sake”
     “Then for me.”
     “Mary, Mary....”
     “Goddamn it,” she mutters, “Goddamn it, that’s the tenth time tonight.”
     “What is?” I ask.
     “He kicked me. The tenth time.”
     “Why dont you kick him back?”
     “Why! God! He’d kill me!”
     “Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary....”
     “Is that your name?”
     “My name is Evelyn.”
     “Does he always sing that?”
     “Sometimes he sings like this: Help! Help! Help!”
     When she screamed that song I ran. The earth was like a woman. WHAM! came the night on the back of my neck. The people were all around me and their faces were white like worms lifted to the thunder.
     “Where are you going?” said a man running alongside me.
     “Over there.”
     He thrust a microphone in front of me.
     “Would you repeat that?”
     “Over there!”
     “What’s over there?”
     He had short legs.
     “Ten cents off.”
     “Off what?”
     “Look out! Look out!”
     He disappeared. Not my fault.
     Black legs lifted around me. Or white legs encased in black. With a sob I kissed them. A black dog trotted around them, doing something with his hind leg lifted.
     “Where are you going now?”
     “Below!”
     “Speak louder!”
     “BELOW!”
     “What’s there?”
     “ME!”
     “WHO?”
     “ME!”
     “WHO’S THAT?”
     “LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT!”
     He disappeared. Not my fault.
     Smile and you look nice. Grin and you look funny. Let me laugh. I dont know how to cry.

     Fourteen days of silence and then he kicked me. I turned around and stared at the small man.
     “Why did you do that?”
     “Because youre there.”
     “That’s a noble reason.”
     “I'm a noble person.”
     “God bless you.”
     He kicked me again. I killed him. I tore him apart very easily with my hands. When I was done blood was all over me and his guts yellow on me. Quantities of yellow liquid spilled on the ground. When I tore his mouth loosely open the insides of his cheeks were red and puffy. I put parts of him in different places. He had been a nice person, engulfed by noble impulses, but he had kicked me. After all one had to draw a line somewhere. He was now on the ground, and in the gathering darkness the animals came drawing near, and men came creeping, staring obscenely at the flesh. Bright eyes. Their hands crawled forward. I felt disgust. They were animals. They could not let a noble person lie. The woman and the Mexican came up. He thrummed the guitar, and she sang, and the people and animals began chewing. I relaxed to the music and felt very pleasant. I could ignore the grunts and growls and chewing noises.
     “What has happened to everybody?” she asked me.
     “What do you mean?”
     “People used to be nice.”
     “The world used to be nice.”
     “Yes...look at it now.”
     “I’ve seen it,” I said. “I’ve seen it all. I dont want to see it again.”
     “It’s something you have to face.”
     “It makes me sick.”
     “It is sick—but you have to face it.”
     “People chewing people.”
     “Yes, but theyre hungry.”
     “You can make excuses, but I still hate it. I hate everything. I hate the yellow ground. I hate the black sky and all the thunder.”
     “Do you hate me?”
     She made pretty eyes at me.
     I kicked her.
     The Mexican came at me with a knife and I hit him on top of the head with a rock. He fell and stared rolling. I ran into the brush.
     For three days I walked through the brush. For three nights I huddled close to the quaking ground. During that time I met no one. No rushing herds of people. It was very quiet except for night, when the clouds came boiling, and the fingers of lightning dug at the ground. The brush was higher than myself. Looking up I saw the tangled brown branches. It was very difficult walking, it was always difficult, nothing was easy, it had been that way all my life, ever since I was born in the snow and had been lost somewhere between the womb and daylight. Strange people in the streets kicked me. I was a creature unformed. Now the people move in herds in the hills and slowly they die. I find bodies in the tall brush. The coyotes find them and drag them leaving trails of blood. The scorpions travel the highways of blood. The snakes climb over the flaccid limbs. I am fond of the way the hills destroy the people.

     On the fourth morning I stopped. Below the hills was a small plateau which ended in a cliff, dropping down to a narrow river. Looking down at it I saw the group of cages and the clustered people and even heard them laughing and talking, and the sound was very strange. I was not used to people laughing. Where I was, rocking on my heels, the air smelled of sage brush. I thought it was a very barren place to be and wondered how I had gotten there. The day was very hot. There was a breeze which crackled through the brush. But below would be water and coolness and laughing people. I started down the hills. Near the bottom I saw small huts, simple square structures, built of old dry lumber, and from chimneys of some of them rose streams of smoke. At one window I even saw a large florid face, with great fat cheeks, like somebody’s buttocks, and black eyes that glistened at me. I almost stopped to stare back. The figure did not move, but the eyes fastened on me, and as I walked away I felt the gaze, like a hand on my shoulder. The ground was uneven. I listened to the people. The murmur resolved into voices, high ones and low ones, a gruff voice, and, occasionally, a moan that came from an animal hidden from my view.
     “Who are you?” someone asked.
     “Just a friend,” I said.
     I crowded among the people.
     “I aint never seen you before.”
     “I havent been here before.”
     A face swung into view, red and lean, and then was gone. Somebody’s elbow jabbed my side. I looked into one of the cages.
     A shaggy dog was lying there, mouth open, full of red tongue. Next to him was a small mountain lion with smooth skin and hard eyes. The black dog was panting in the heat, he looked very lovable, a curly furred bundle. A girl was trying to pet him and the dog's eyes were shining with happiness. No one would pet the lion. He lay silently, and didnt seem to be breathing. “How long have they been together?” I asked. “Forever,” someone answered. A dog and a lion.
     A big man came shouldering up.
     “I dont think I’ve met you. My name’s Sam.”
     He thrust out a big hand.
     “Glad to meet you," I said.
     “These are my animals here, all of them. I want you to look around and enjoy them.”
     “It must have taken you a long time to get these animals.”
     “A lot of time, and a lot of money, boy.”
     I looked up. The man's eyes were like the staring eyes in the shack. Black hair curled down over a white forehead. His fingernails were long and unclean, and when he moved, his loose jowls jogged up and down.
     It began to get cool. A wind came down from the hills, and it tugged at my clothes. No one seemed to notice it. Looking down below the plateau, I could see the narrow dark river wind its way with a whispering sound. The trees around it were weeping willows. Across the river I could see low rolling country, the hills were covered with grass, animals were grazing; and in the distance a thin curl of smoke rose from the chimney of a house. I looked at the big man. His hands were twice the size of mine. His arms were as thick as my legs. But when he moved I could see that he was soft and weak.
     “Why is that country, across the river, so different from this?”
     “That is good country,” he said. “This is bad.”
     “Why dont you live there?”
     He smiled.
     “Come see the animals.”
     A bear was rising on his hind legs. With one arm he reached up, gripped the top of his cage, and shook it. The people clustered around, giggling delightedly.
     “That is Samson, the strongest bear in the world.”
     “What does he do?”
     “He is strong.”
     The wind brought me the smell of the animals. There were donkeys and horses and mules. Further along were wolves, and jackals, and coyotes. There were two wildcats, spitting at each other, and a porcupine. A skunk was sleeping in his cage. A weasel streaked about, chasing a rat. At the end of the line of cages was a tiger, pacing his cell, a yellow-eyed beast. His padded paws made no noise. Set apart from the other animals was a coop full of chickens. In one cage with narrow mesh were snakes, a long slimy python, three rattlesnakes, a tiger snake from Australia, a boa constrictor from the Amazon, a brightly colored coral snake. The cage was full of minute rustlings. The scales glittered. In one corner was a twelve-foot king cobra. Spitting tongues streaked back and forth. Around the cage were planted flowers, petunias and daisies, and two white lilies. A pretty girl teased the tiger snake. She was small and slim and dark, and her eyes were glistening. I reached out and touched her. She took no notice. I tried to say something, to move her from the cage, but was helpless. The big man took my arm and shook his head. His black hair flopped from side to side. A buxom girl put her arms around me and kissed my neck. He hit her, and, pouting, she left.
     “You must stay for feeding,” he said to me.
     A group of monkeys were pointing their fingers at the people and making queer, wizened faces. Little girls and boys were laughing. It was a gala thing.
     “When do you feed?” I asked.
     He looked at the sky.
     “Soon.”
     Darkness came very slowly. The wind stopped. The air held its breath. The sun became swollen and red, and clouds were flaming, the animals were restless, the people moved more quickly, here and there, exclaiming, pointing, laughing. The big man began to sweat. I watched the beads of sweat start out on his white forehead, below his black hair. He rubbed his hands on his pants, and left dark wet marks. He bent over and started untying his shoes. “My feet are too big,” he complained. “The shoes cramp my feet.” His feet were wide and flat and very white. The toenails were yellow and crooked. He rubbed them in the dirt. I edged away from the smell, but he gripped my arm. “Wait!” he said. “Listen. For years I have fed these animals. They are my friends. They are the only family I have. I care for them, they love me. Now I can no longer feed them.” Wham! came the night. It was suddenly black. The people looked up, startled. Over the hills was the crackle of lightning. “The people are worse than the animals. They should be in the cages, and my animals out. You look like a bright boy, you can understand that. Look at that girl.” She had pulled her dress up and was doing something facing a tree. “Bah! Women have no modesty these days. Ah! Feel that wind!” He expanded his chest. The wind was hard and cold, curling among us. White faces turned up. The laughing voices became a murmur, and the people, restless, began milling in circles. The tiger jumped against his cage. Looking around I could no longer see the big man. I heard a baby wail, and a mother hushing it, and a lone, high laugh that came on the wind and went whirling across the river. I heard a screeching sound. The porcupine came waddling from his cage. The rat was running about among the people, the weasel clawing after him, and people were jumping out of its way. In the darkness I could see the black skunk with the white strip down its back, walking slowly, tail in the air. A jackal slunk by me, heading towards the hills. A gasp, or a moan, rose from the people. A tremendous intake of breath. Samson, the bear, picked up a man and slung him towards the river. A wildcat clawed at a woman’s face, then leaped at a child playing on the ground. The woman turned and looked at me, but her eyes were gone, and her face was running red. With a loud, obscene cackling came the chickens, fluttering and cawing and flapping wildly over the peoples’ heads. The stars were overhead, and they looked like clusters of tiny teeth. The night air tasted very good. The tiger snake was chasing the pretty girl who had tormented him. The python had a woman’s leg entirely in his mouth, and was trying to get past her crotch. Her other leg was off at a strange angle. A rattlesnake writhed past me, his long white fangs dripping poison. The mule was snorting and kicking. The small lion was loose, and with a marvelous bound he leaped over twenty people, and landed on three more, scattering them in bits and pieces. On top of the tiger’s cage I saw the big fat man, his arms in the air, his fists clenched. Sweat from his face was dripping down his shirt. The front of his pants was stained where he had been unable to contain himself. I saw him reach down and unlatch the door. The tiger threw himself out, with a deep thundering roar, caught the big man atop the cage with one paw, and flung him high into the air. I could hear him shrilling. He came down, the tiger caught him, threw him again, and he came apart, and fell in two pieces. In the blackness everything was jumbling and twisting. I saw a big black shape coming towards me, then the wild, glaring eyes of a horse. I grabbed his mane, and as I slung myself up, I saw coming from the house a woman with great fat cheeks, like soft buttocks, with eyes pinched by the flesh, and her stare was like a blow against my chest. The wild horse was leaping beneath me. The woman was naked and bursting with flesh. I saw the boa constrictor wind himself about her, and begin squeezing. As my horse plunged over a bank I saw her meat spurt out between the tightening coils. Then, with the wild sound of the horse in my ears, I could see no more.
     I took off my clothes and swam across the river, and started walking towards the house I had seen among the rolling hills. It was a very cool night, and quiet, except for the strange murmur of sounds behind me. As I drew near the house I could hear singing, a gentle song. A window was a square of brightness. Outside the house, I found a burlap bag, and wrapped it around myself. I knocked on the door, and the singing voice said, “Come in,” and then resumed singing. I went inside. The Mexican was strumming his guitar, and weaving back and forth to his music. The woman was sitting demurely on a sofa, she was wearing a short tight dress, and black stockings. As she sang, her red lips opened and shut. Her red and black mouth gaped behind her white teeth. I settled myself down on the floor and watched.
     At last she finished.
     In a low modulated voice she asked: “Did you like it?”
     “It was very sweet.”
     “It is my favorite song.”
     “Ai,” said the Mexican with the sullen handsome face.” Sing.”
     She sang another song. As she sang I could see her wet sweet tongue moving in her mouth. The Mexican began to sob with emotion.
     “Did you like it?”
     “Very beautiful.”
     “Will you stay here tonight?”
     “If I may.”
     “We have lots of room,” she said graciously.
     “If youre sure it wont put you out.”
     “Not at all. We’re glad to have you.”
     She came over and sat on the floor next to me. I could see her white thighs above her black stockings.
     “Youre unhappy, arent you.”
     I bowed my head.
     “I dont understand things,” I said.
     “You mustnt try.”
     “I feel I have to.”
     “There is nothing to understand. It is just the way things are.”
     I touched her arm.
     “I believe you. And—I am truly sorry for what I did—that night in the hills. I’d like to do it again—and do it right.”
     She kissed me on the forehead. She had a beautiful body. I reached out and touched her breast. “Youre big and warm,” I said. “Thank you," she whispered. Her eyes were glazed. I could smell her wonderful flesh. "Go to sleep now," she said. “We’ll talk in the morning.” She got up, letting me see the safe darkness between her legs, and disappeared. I took off my burlap sack, and made a pillow of it. As I started to drift off to sleep, I saw the Mexican sharpening a long knife on a grindstone. Sparks shot off from it. His eyes were melancholy. The room smelled very warm, wood was burning in a fireplace, I had only to relax. I lay my head back, exposing my soft neck. As I shut my eyes I saw the Mexican thumbing the blade and looking at me. I sighed. Morning was a long ways away, in another place, in another time; and the smell of it came closer, pacing the long sharp knife.


Text and photos copyright D.N. Stuefloten.
Contact:
don@dnstuefloten.com

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NOTES: Many of my early stories were experiments, with a nod to Aristotle, in both form and function. Even in my teens I knew that language had to be devoured and spat out in a new way: reality could no longer be confined into the paradigms of the past. Likewise with function, or content: the great American tradition of realism could not encompass the brutal changes of the 20th century, the trenches and machine guns of war, the destruction of ancient cultures, the dominence of an inhuman encorporation of lust and power. This story was an attempt to find new archetypes, new paradigms, a way to slip into what I was beginning to call the Underworld: not dreams, exactly, not Freud's id exactly, nor Jungs' Unconscious, but a kind of world that I only half-sensed which lay beneath our ordinary realities. Once—not many years after this story—I was working on the tuna clipper Cape Falcon. The sea one day was glassy and strangely calm. I stared down into it from the stern, and suddenly felt this uncanny vision of the primeval forces lying beneath our ship: creatures indecipherable, forces incomprehensible. Tbe vision was so strong I felt dazed and unbalanced. There, I thought, were my novels, in the profound depths, if only I had the courage and skill to bring them to the surface...

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