The Age of Understanding
Behind the gate is one of their old men, A-Number-One. White like landscape stone, he buys cigarettes from the Dowager’s garden. “I feel for you, bro.” Grease paint clumps on his forehead like lard. This keeps him from burning.
He’s A-Number-One because he walks so easily to the gate during the day, shoos away the ones always prepped for the set-upons, looks through the one rectangular slit of the big gate to make sure it is us, and then walks out into the street for the transaction. He always smokes one with us even when we don’t want to smoke. The Cyclops always abstains.
A-Number-One uses his right hand, always clutches the extras with his left. “We are in The Age of Understanding,” he always proclaims. Tall and thin like The Doctor of The Church, always also in a long white shirt and pants like Doc, gleaming, the old gold of the wall behind him, the grease paint stinking and pooling. “We’re all in this together, bro,” he sometimes says when he drops the butt on the ground and walks back to the gate, which closes with the largest thud. When he goes in, they come back, the soldiers. They always look on us with their big dumb eyes, “like in Roman mosaics,” according to The Cyclops. After what Dowager did, they started to stick their tongues out through the gate slits.
Dowager got a bigger order than usual from him after that, so big we loaded them in bushels and she got Hawk Head Rick to help, what with his strength. On the first bushel, The Cyclops just threw the fresh cigarettes in by the fistfuls. No order or grace in it. His big burnt mitts would snap the unlucky ones stuck between fingers, letting some of the leaf cuttings spill out their tubes. Hawk Head Rick has better muscle memory. He picked the same bunch sizes up slowly, as if it were an infant, and laid them in a crisscross pattern per row. Saved her bushels, made carrying them over easier and less scary. Don’t want no spills close to the wall.
You could hear moans from inside, “like whale songs,” according to The Cyclops, which made me wonder if he ever actually saw the ocean, what the fuck does he know; he had to only see pictures like the ones he showed me. The brigade know A-Number-One’s habits and appreciate his transgressions, so when one of them put the order in, he gave us explicit instructions to take not the big entrance, but this other one that faces out into the deep red dirt, way out of town. So we huffed it, each carrying two bushels except Hawk Head Rick. He balanced one on his bird brain and hung three each from his arms, sporting the balance of their big guy on the cross. Kept close to the wall. The whale songs—or whatever, the dirges—would fade out before fading back in when we got close to the gold honeycomb door, A-Number-One’s shape appearing in the negative spaces of the design. His voice, “hey bros,” a low one.
He opened the door halfway and let one of the brigade, the fattest any of us saw, drag each bushel in and set it along the wall. The door opened enough, that we could see The Little Shit strung to a gold wheel. This tall slender guy breaking the old bully’s hands and limbs with a gold hammer because, of course, everything needs to gleam in there.
And that’s where the whale song came from, scarred mouth of The Little Shit, “quite the objective sound,” The Cyclops murmured; I guess he’s right, it was harder to understand than the dirge over the loss of his dogs. One could say they were moans. His face so bright red that it will never leave you. Like when the moon becomes ominous once a month.
“Damn shame my amigos,” said A-Number-One as he put one of the fresh cigarettes in his mouth, tipped me and this young kid who runs errands for the Dowager with our own. Lit our’s first.
“What happened?” asked The Cyclops because he’s a precocious idiot.
“Well, you guys were really mean.”
“How so?” asked The Cyclops.
“Decapitating those hounds like that, rigging them to polls. It was quite obscene. Doc was bummed for weeks, going on about ‘why would they do such a thing?’ Why would you bros?”
The grease paint dripped down his face; he smelled like pork.
“I mean, c’mon, you’re gumming up the works. Doc had a quiet night of introspection and came back with a very terrible vision—he raped his mother at the altar of an old idol. His words. Real upset about it, you know, wrote many, and burned many, proclamations, but then one of the advisors suggested that this was a good thing, you know. That Doc is exerting the true gold light onto the wicked. That’s the most important part bro, one’s gut. Everybody plays. And so the Doc knew young Corinth in there was a pox. Really weak, you know, the weakest, got to hand it to you bros. I mean, a brigade captain letting his tongue get cut out like that by one of you. We have to hand it to you. And Corinth, kept reminding Doc of your obscenity, so he knew we all needed a good cleanse.”
Gave us all another cigarette, lit them with another match.
The Little Shit’s song kept going under all this, longer then shorter, then just marks of tone, “like what static must be,” The Cyclops commented later.
They finally untied The Little Shit and put him in a glass box with gold gilding, to blot out the sound. The box up on one of their high points so that you could see above the wall; writhing like that, the heat beating the panes, made him sort of glow, a ball of light.
“Just be cool,” said A-Number-One. “Remember, The Age of Understanding. You are high quality bros, and I like you guys a lot. Just stay reasonable.”
He gave us payment and The Fattest Member of the Brigade sent us off.
Long walk back. Usually, the walk back is quicker than the walk to somewhere. The Cyclops told us that once one familiarized themselves with the unknown, on they return they feel calmer. This long walk wasn’t like that. We looked out into the red dirt and wondered how much was out there and how long.
“They’re being tested now,” said The Old Man, the one always with the gas mask on. “For once.” His laugh muffled, one wouldn’t know it if they didn’t see the move of it in his chest.
It was Hawk Head Rick who sighed. “I miss city life.”
The Smell of the Prayer Tower, Which Becomes the Smell of Our “World”
Witnessing is different than set-upons. Neither have warnings, but we try to make it as best as we can; we have a few old men in the town, and we know what’s coming from watching them, how they move off the street or sit on their porches, if they have them, waiting. They’re not all bad, but it gets annoying; dragging one of the dead out of the street, and the old men sing shit in that rising octave, “We are being tested by Whatever.” It gets worst at quorum when Shockmaster rises from his seat to give the reports. Always shirtless, slaps his belly; no need to wear that helmet all the time, especially since it always falls off when he tries to look down and read from the official record. “We are being tested, but our time will come. We will shock them boys and sisters, with our gleaming swords. Their reckoning comes nigh.” Every fucking time. The dirt has always, of course, been red.
If it was a witnessing, which are a little easier to get through, you definitely have to pick up the thrown fish. By then they are only half-stones, since they have just thawed and you can put them over a fire real quick. The Cyclops is unsure where they get the fish, as most of the water is man made here.
After a recent witnessing, he pontificated about this, how they must farm them, which would suggest a source of real water, or maybe they have many of them and they make them all breed even when they are the same, which would be quite disturbing, eating inbred fish, “which might explain the extra bones and flecks of meat chaps,” or maybe they are, unfortunately, quite right in their belief and we are following the many headed dragon.
“Fuck you, I’m eating,” yelled Hawk Head Rick. The fish gone to a white mush of soft bones in his hands
“We need to know the origins,” The Cyclops murmured—if that is the right term, it’s one of his words. You know, when only one truly hears you.
The Cyclops does make a point, about where they get the fish. My theory is they have two pits of water somewhere: one for all of them and one for the fish; might explain the smell of the place, which lofts to our side. As in the previous chapter, The Cyclops likes speaking of the ocean or comparing things to the ocean, but I doubt he knows it in that intimate way, when one is actually there. Dowager knows, we think, she came here, wasn’t born in it like me or Shockmaster, and she usually nods her head when the big stupid cat’s eye marble brings the big stupid blue up as a simile for our experience. Best I can say is that it smells like when you piss on copper. So sweet it sours in the back of your nose and throat. This sweetness is most pronounced the closer one is to the front gate of the wall of the prayer tower. This might explain the Old Man in the Gas Mask maybe. That’s my theory, that he can’t stand the sweetness anymore, but The Cyclops assured me that the old man’s choice was “purely based on that unique intersection of aesthetics and childhood trauma.” I mean, that’s interesting too, but it would be nice to find an origin point or explanation not based on the body. The smell gets easier the deeper you go into our side, the town, and dissipates in the darkness of the bar.
We had a King once—he tried to wear a crown that gleamed as bright as the tower, but all of his hardcore polished so much the crown clouded and he’d gripe about it all the time; never gleamed like the tower. I guess it used to be that the King was supposed to only rule harvest to harvest and would be killed by a new King, one all agreed upon, but then we lost track of time, no more harvests, and he ruled so long everything went to shit. Anyway, he assured us the smell was Whatever’s way of blessing our land. That wasn’t much of an assurance, to take a scent in so powerful it dizzies you, makes you almost agree with The Cyclops’ hot take of the beast. Maybe that partially explains Dowager’s cigarette garden: the brightleaf dulls the sweetness and keeps us going. We eventually dumped the King, over the odor and his decree to kill the garden; I wasn’t there for it, The Cyclops said the dumping was quite grisly; when they pulled him apart like that, “it made us, for a time, wonder if it was all worth it.” The Cyclops pondered, always, pondering, then he went on to say that the more one reflected on the King, with those sunk-ass cloud eyes one knew that sometimes one needed the hand of terror as much as the hand of virtue, or something.
But the Prayer Tower’s piss-and-metal sweetness persists. Because everybody ignores The Cyclops many public musings, I don’t share my theories. But as this whole thing’s design is to serve as some sort of record of us, please don’t forget us, I want to say that Whatever’s reasoning, and The Cyclops’ dark theory, have to be bullshit.
First, if that Prayer Tower was gold like everybody says, the smell wouldn’t be that sugary sweet. I’ve smelled gold. I still have my grandfather’s ring, back when shit like union mattered, and I have, at times, took the ring, with all its scuff and wear, to my nostrils and breathed it in and got nothing, aside from the sweetness of old tobacco smoke, which isn’t just sweet but something more complex and subdued. You get a hot and coolness out of it, a comfort. So gold actually smells of nothing; it carries what you bring to it, doesn’t project onto you.
Second, because gold is just a harbor, then the Galileans project their sweetness, which isn’t a sweetness but a thick sour masquerading onto us, which isn’t what their whole thing is, right? The Cyclops speaks of their earlier beliefs: that life is an ocean, and to reach their Big Guy, The Son and proxies guide you through the treacherous wine dark, and you yourself must help others, lift them up. Only then, will we all reach the Big Guy. This sounds more like a maze to me than the ocean. That doesn’t seem to be what the brigade or A-Number-One or their Doctor suggests.
There is no third, not yet. I’m working it out.
Dowager Speaks of the Ocean
She doesn’t reveal much to us about her before, unless she’s drunk. That’s why The Cyclops keeps a moleskin, hoping to make notes. The sand thick and hot like our red dirt, but that didn’t matter once you got to the cool rocks, which hurt from their points but brought relief from the burn, and then the wine dark itself, sometimes bright blue or green or that red, depending on what the water picked up and carried to her. “Carried to us.”
“And when you’re out there, there’s a sound.”
“Like static?” asked The Cyclops. I don’t know why he wears those dumb custom glasses—a single lens on the edge of his nose, the arms that pull back around his ears; his vision so much sharper than any of ours, why does he need it.
“Nah. Just a gentle sift most of the time, like something to remind you that we don’t do everything ourselves.”
“The sound of our fuckness,” chimed Hawk Head Rick. “The sound to remind of us our bird brains.”
“Ah,” replied the beautiful lone eye idiot, in a way that I know he is only half understanding. I half understood too.
“It was the same sort of thing with the dog, when he’d scratch the soil between the leaf rows. You know, sound. Different than noise. To remind you of a bigger world, and your selfishness, even only for that moment.”
“Did you ever hear the whale song?”
“Not at that spot. We were a bay, taking in the excess of it. We’d get crabs on the rocks, little creatures.”
“But you could sometimes hear them way out at that edge. They’d warn each other not to come over. They could get trapped where I was at. Not so much a song but a ‘look out dumbasses.’”
“The same sound of the cries of the Little Shit?”
“Sure,” fake pondered Dowager. You just know that look.
She got up from us, took her cup to the bar. I asked The Cyclops why he had to wear that single lens, the big nerd, “you have the sharpest vision.”
“Ah, but my dear chap, I need the affect.”
There’s the “chap” again. Makes you want to dump him out in the desert with only oil to drink.
Phil Estes is the author of the poetry collection High Life (Horse Less, 2016). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Action Yes, Big Muddy, Diagram, Fence, and others. He lives in New Haven, CT.