Here a creak, there a creak, down the dinky stairs to the basement where Mr. Cheese sat fermenting. Oh, old Mr. Cheese wasn’t really fermenting, but Hans loved mockery even if the sting of guilt came after the unkind thought and Hans could be most unkind. Old Cheese had chosen glowworms to remind him of the forest, and Hans was grateful to Cheese for that. Hans was grateful, but he was also mulishly demanding, and if there was one thing Hans loved above all, it was light, any sort of light, except the bare bulb crowning Cheese like a brain miraculously extracted from a skull and made to stand upright, stiff as a soldier on parade day, and just as stupid, Hans added to himself, and Heaven knows, the world was full of soldiers moving, or in their lingo, maneuvering, about the bombed out area which puckered the ground like a scab and they were poking out people who were forming, not the glowworms’ lambent pyramid amorously inching up and down and in and out of Cheese, but the mad scrambles of mice, a race, Hans was sure, that scrambled ceaselessly. War, Hans thought sorrowfully, had annihilated the pleasure of walking, never had life seemed so ill fitted to live therefore, strangely, never had the mice become so desperate to live it and seldom had the city seemed so leaden with the occasional bloodshed after the rata tat tat of the guns’ to cut through its sapping grayness, but then there would come the brilliant ribbon streaking the sky, all sound and blinding light violating its sullenness, and causing Hans to clap madly and beg for more. The marvelous flash was, with chocolate, Hans’ only weakness.
But, here, in the basement, where moisture coupled with darkness, the huge ticking Bulb beamed a stinging splash of light solely on Cheese . Objects had become just stuff and yonder a shadow spoke, as a shadow could only speak, in teasing uncertainties. Was this an old chest of drawers or a commode or a gun closet ? Was that the gun closet where some long dead master of the house stored the means to defend his property when the world had rules for – or against- such property, but now that sorry thing had as much meaning as an amputated arm trying to bring a cigarette to a pair of lips. Noises are the voices of guessing games and Hans was rarely in the mood for them which was why he hated the cellar, although he loved gazing at the glistening lights the glowworms left on the gauze they were weaving about Cheese, embalming him, he who would never die.
And it was here that the Bulb’s police light beamed cruelly down on such… majesty! A true plebian intruder ! Hans found it almost unbearable. “Foolish brat!” Cheese hurled from behind as Hans jumped from stair to stair, pretending he was a monkey. Cheese had little patience with clowning, Hans’ damning character trait, which he would never “grow out of,” nor would want to, for Hans had ways of finding pleasure that eluded Cheese who might be, Hans suspected, slightly jealous and too overburdened with the worms to bother much about humor.
The last plank of the last stair groaned as Hans’ toes curled slightly over the edge and rested there, in an impromptu game of jungle swinging, the board was loose, Hans had just discovered, and it tilted in and out of the lighted area so Hans felt as if he were an ape hanging onto a shaky branch merely by his two feet. Cheese’s “Come here and stop that nonsense ! ” cut short his play and brought him beneath the hotness ticking out of the Bulb, which would wear, had it possessed a face, a sanctimonious smirk.
Of course the Bulb was no more a man than Cheese, Lord of the glowworms, which would knit his shroud with their vomit if Cheese could die, but Cheese never died, he just grew more flesh like that altruistically stupid Greek god punished for stealing fire. Cheese had spoken to him about the god and the eagle feasting and the flesh returning, but he mentioned them to Hans only to warn him against Hope, which was a waste of time, although that would be self defeating to publicize as both Hans and Cheese had made Hope their stock in trade. Hans giggled. With all the city in ruins, those still alive sought refuge in the flimsy façade of Hope, which was like the god’s flesh, eternally restored and eternally devoured, not a pleasant thought for Hans or for Cheese who, in his private moments wondered whether Hope might be a double agent working both sides. Hans wondered about nothing.
An incessant drip announced the presence of a sink, invisible, like all the rest of the stuff in the room, but gifted with sound, although Hans could not understand the purpose of a sink in a room waiting to be blown to bits. Still, the unseen sink was linked to the droplets circling the base of the Bulb and Hans thought of a swarm of righteously mad bees buzzing about a robbed hive and this was what angered Hans the most. Things would take on some but not all the characteristics of the forest, pervert its traditions and its intent, and somehow, fall stingingly flat of all Hans’ expectations and miserably fail, for what is anger if not movement and sound ? It was horrid ! And the bulb- ah that word again, belonging so legitimately to a tulip or a potato – seemed the measure of the horridness of this burnt out urban forest, their tentative headquarters. Whenever Hans went down to the cellar, he tried not to notice the top of Cheese’s bald head gleaming like a stretch of desert in the midday sun, mirroring the emptiness of an incidental sky.
Outside was a cold smoking swamp where the shouts of the bullet brown folk , like the drip of the faucet in the basement, gave a slapdash identity to doom. Sometimes, during the pallid daylights winced from the mean sky, Hans left the house to gaze at the cloud chamber with all its pinging and ponging noises, but not infrequently, the scratchy recording of a cabaret singer crooning a cradle song or a tenor slurring a love ditty reached his ears and he regretted nothing, he had a sentimental side which regarded little things with a certain compassion, and he hoped that Cheese would be a good sport and send a huge sky flash just to please him, but Cheese, who was a stickler for duty, told him repeatedly that “work is work and that is that.” There was no sense reasoning with Cheese on those days and Hans cursed the pale sullen light of the smoking swamp which relented to predictable dismalness when a terrifying hush crashed down on the city with the marauding darkness and only a few flickering street lamps with rouged birds nervously stepping in circles about their stalks, were to be seen before a monster wail announced the bullet browns.
But Hans also loved the irregular twinkling light that covered Cheese and he adored the worms which he took in his fingers. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, crawling over Cheese and, he was sure, down there, in the gentleman parts, (Hans giggled) he could not really tell because of all the thick clothing Cheese wore, but sometimes a hole in a trouser showed up with a warm lemony glow, so Hans felt pretty sure that Cheese had some down the you know where. Well, Cheese was a mind reader and when Hans wondered about that, Cheese would not like it, and cross his heart, Hans would get a scolding, and, he was sure, a scowl from Cheese, although he had never seen Cheese’s face, as it wore a visor and a veil of worms from the brow down, but bald men always make stern schoolmasters and Hans was quite sure that Cheese’s mean words went with meaner grimaces serving to quiet his annoyance, and embarrassment. This touch of vanity although misplaced was somehow endearing, just like the stern schoolmaster who would scowl and scold but forget to rap the naughty boy’s fingers. Cheese, Hans decided, must harbor some sentiments, some emotions which gnawed at his heart as the worms picked at his flesh and Hans had come down to the cellar not only because Cheese had wanted him, but also to test Cheese with his latest exploit. The time had come to add the whiff of adventure into their “contract”, a brave thing to do for Cheese wasn’t the least inventive.
However, Cheese was never angry for long at Hans. Cheese needed Hans and the glowworms needed Cheese and Hans, so after a while, Cheese would let Hans extend a plump and confident arm to the worms so that the more adventurous ones could ride up to his elbow, prickling the soft white skin until it became obvious even to glowworms (Hans giggled) that he was not embalming territory but… Oops! Too late, Hans’ small cold fingers would pick one up, hold it up to the hated Bulb and squeeze its fuzzy flesh. “Ding dong. Ding dong.” Hans chanted as his fingers pinched its tiny tube body and, it seemed to Cheese, that Hans would do this for hours on end, until the worm drained of its strength gave up and died. Yet, Hans was more imaginative than cruel and wondered what actually must be happening inside the glow worm’s body as its light went on and off. Was there a sky snake in the beastie ? Were there also families of scurrying mice?
Cheese groaned, Hans had tested his kindness and his patience, there was always work to do and , besides, Cheese was possessive. He demanded that Hans replace the worm in its “its proper hole” which was ridiculous because the animal was either dead or dying, but Hans threw the glowworm onto the floor, just under the hottest part of the Bulb to see if the body shriveled up in a dramatic dying exercise. Hans, who loved the spectacular, prayed for the “wee wee wiggling” of the animal… three long tumultuous seconds before the bludgeoning stillness of death. His prayers went unanswered. Hans never understood that exhaustion thwarted violent movements and the worm was a raspberry splotch long before Hans’ foot sounded the final note. The Bulb swayed and ticked. Was it cackling vengefully to its electric self ? Or, was it sounding forth a warning, or worse, a death knell to Hans who was essentially the arm of Cheese. It was true that this time, Hans had overstepped the limits, had been naughty, had taken initiatives that he never should have taken and, the mean acrimonious Bulb was taunting him with the certainty of the rap on the fingers, the schoolmaster would assume his harsh duties, well, let him assume them, Hans would survive, he was sure, he would go on as this harsh petty world went on with its sickly mornings and its dismal nights, only the flashes of the sky ribbons spelled the presence of God, of a god. Hans knew nothing about religion but suspected it took place in the sky.
But Cheese was losing patience. The dank basement was his universe, the Bulb, his sun and his star, the drips of the faucet, the numbing trek of nameless hours, the war, an abject and humiliating proof of his lusterless immortality . Exhaustion had taken its toll, he might have to sacrifice Hans whom he had fashioned from the glowworms, skimming from their slime and excrement the substance of his being, carrying the boy in his beard, and he wondered if he would regret the death of his creation, which would not be a simple disappearance, but a certain death for Hans had stepped out of line and the hand of the Father is pitiless, Cheese knew for sure. Was it not the same hand which had sent the eagle to the fire stealing god who had learned everything but the simple cretinous rule of Creation : never step out of line?
Many years ago, Cheese had sat in a sylvan cave, an aged demon, too feeble to ride the night horses, too weak to wrestle with prey, too blind to see the ghost-lights dancing over the ponds and as he languished, he conjured the depthless voices of the winds which used to charm him with tales of the past and the future, but now they boomed in the circular sounds of never ending destruction, and carried nothing but waves of murderous screams and the insane pounding of feet. But they also nestled, in his nearly sightless eyes, visions of bullet brown people who imagined they possessed the forest and could stamp haughtily over its darkest and thickest underbrush that they had burned to bile brown muck and that they could keep burning the world and all its creatures until everything wore the same excremental tint they wore on their backs . The bullet brown people laughed when a frightened ferret bounded from a lair, but it was not the ferret, nor the fox, nor even the stately deer, the bullet brown people sought. It was not the timorous squirrel scampering up a curl of bark standing miraculously upright on the pockmarked smoking land, nor the boar, drained of its fury with death in its eyes. It was not the owl robbed of its aching screech they hunted, nor the forlorn hawk nor the snake wiggling through the marsh. It was human blood the bullet brown people sought, but not as the lustful vampires for their strange twilight life, no, the bullet brown people were not of the dead but of the deadened, a race of crushing silence and obscene laughter. And, the deadened hunted fruitfully, mercilessly, like the vampires, but also heavily, with steel, iron and powder which had flattened the forest to a wasteland and had decimated the dark verdant caves and matted the underbrush so that all was singed and faded, and the green wore their bile brown.
Cheese sighed. He was no longer a young demon and the winds which he had welcomed into the glade had switched allegiance, they belonged solely to the Lord of Night and they told him to leave the forest as the forest would leave him, as the forest would become as whimsical as the Lords of Day and Night, which resembled each other so closely, that one was no more terrifying than the other. The land crawled with jagged processions, sometimes a sun slashed through to blind the leaden sky before it, too, retreated behind the gray green birds and their pellet excrement which caused the land to erupt in bile brown waves interrupting the processions. People fell, people muttered ditch side prayers, people meandered as if their meandering could save their bodies or their souls, which amounted to the same thing, as “dust unto dust” had no meaning when all was dirt and lead and the bullet brown stalked with their silence and their obscene laughter.
And, above, the sky’s serene billows swirled lazily, like the coils of a snake readying a strike which came in the form of the night streaks dying, as all the rest had died, into smoke and darkness , but leaving behind the smell of powder and decomposing bodies, and, in the rot that had become the city, wayward screams rose uselessly, to plead with one god or another for whom life was an item on a ticket of rationing. Cheese shook his head. He hated what he had to do, which was why he would not cry, never.
Once, long ago, Cheese prayed to the Lord of the Night who had stroked his fair locks when he was a youth , and who had given him flair and cunning. Perhaps the Lord should look kindly on me, should favor my petition, should remember my services. The Lord of the Night had answered his prayers, Cheese had been lucky to have Hans sent to him first as an insane itching about his chin and then the glowworms (the beastie Cheese had chosen) had come to froth a womb of his grass piqued beard. This had been a wise move, Cheese remembered that children loved those fuzzy creatures who were forming a plump pasty faced baby boy. But as the kid was growing in his beard, Cheese, like the dying queen, had whispered a final capricious plea to the Lord of the Night,“ Give my son but one human weakness, let him delight me as impish and intelligent children delight their fathers. And give me the power to grant him this wish, for he shall be a good boy and work hard to please me.” And so Hans was thrust forth from the beard, a strapping pie faced lad, looking every inch a baker’s boy, which was the profession Cheese had chosen for him, and his weakness, chocolate, fit neatly into that trade.
The rest was a mere matter of following rules, the young demon replaced the older one in the cellar. The routine had changed. Mothers with children came to him, seeing in his sweet open face and friendly chubbiness the image of the soul’s benevolence. Hans understood them, although their chatter tired him out, being repetitious and full of cherry pie hope! “Yes, of course, I will take your little one in, he’ll be the baker’s assistant, don’t worry about the papers, I will provide… will provide. Your little one will help me at the furnace, he will be safe, he will be warm and away from the bullet brown people, yes, away from the bullet brown people. Yes, until after the war, after the war…A loaf of bread bespeaks my compassion for your plight, my sympathy for your hunger. Take it and bless you.” Then – thwak!- as soon as the door was shut, another was opened and a line of bullet brown people marched off with the little one. It was a thoroughly functioning routine until Hans ran into little Issac. And that was why Hans was called down into the basement. Well, what a bore! There must be some way of getting away with it. Cheese after all was not such a monster!
“Have you done what you had to do?” Cheese asked sharply.
“Tell me about it.” Cheese tried to adopt a neutral tone.
“ Just the usual.” Hans rolled his toe over the raspberry corpse crushed on the floor. It was going to be harder than he thought.
Cheese’s anger mounted , “ Don’t take me for an idiot! Tell me what happened. I want to hear it.”
Obviously Cheese already knew the truth, and was testing Hans’ courage and honesty. The rap on the fingers might accompany a secret sense of pride in his son’s fortitude. Or, the rap might not come at all. Hans breathed deeply, assuming the nobility of his sedition which seemed so inescapably right at the time he had committed the crime, but the shame of his betrayal overcame him, and he stood for a minute in complete silence while the Bulb ticked spitefully.
“Speak!” Cheese let out a low scream, but, then , unexpectedly, softened his tone, “Come now, it could not be so bad. Nothing is unpardonable. Confession is half the way to forgiveness.”
A wave of cool spring air seemed to lick Hans’ neck and the Bulb had stopped its infernal racket. “Well, remember we had the appointment…. I mean the shipment. The little kid..”
“You are stuttering and I hate that. Just spit it out!”
“Well the kid came in, and just as I expected, he was a real beauty, all dark eyes and curls. The mother seemed so tender, so trusting, so…”
“They all are. Just tell it.”
‘He… he was different, this little dark Issac.” Hans was gulping noisily. He suddenly realized that punishment was due, the rap, if it came, would be hard. Was there any punishment more painful? “ He was all bundled up in a blanket, and tired and… well, I thought of a little bird with a broken wing and…”
“ I care not a fig for what you thought,” Cheese pounced back, “it’s what happened! Just say it and don’t worry about the rest. However, if you invent…”
“He was all bundled up in a blanket and I thought of throwing him into the fire like the witch in Hansel and Gretel which I told you about and you said that it was an alternative if nothing else could be done…”
“Would you kindly stop your idiotic breathlessness. I am not a police commissioner. I leave that to the morons who buzz about. Just CALMLY tell me what you did. I am sure I shall find it in my heart to forgive and… well, not forget, but somehow pass over the unfortunate incident. You are young, and the young make mistakes. Don’t we all?”
Heartened by Cheese’s speech, Hans stood outside the circle of light. The dark dampness felt like a cool cotton on his harried face.
“ I was just about to let in the bullet browns when the kid stopped my hand and he beamed a marvelous smile at me. Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out… he pulled out…”
“What in the name of God did he ever pull out? DO NOT TEST ME!”
“He pulled out a large bar of chocolate. And said that it was the least he could do being that I was saving his life and he started telling me how his parents used to import the stuff all the way from Belgium and Africa and Arabia and how his Mother stuffed his pockets with it as a sort of gift he was to give me and how grateful…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. In other words, he bought HIS LIFE with a chocolate bar! And you went for it! Some traitors do it for 30 pieces of silver…” Cheese’s voice rose a tone or two before falling.
“No, no,” Hans responded softly, looking at the ground, “and what has 30 pieces…”
“NEVER MIND YOU FOOL! Just…just say the rest.”
“Well, I was about to open up for the bullet browns, but, I admit, I was interested …”
“And greedily devouring the chocolate!”
“Well yes, but I promise it won’t happen again. I really and truly promise… well, then, he just curled up and went to sleep. And then, I swear to you, I was not bought or bribed, I said nothing about what I am or what we are. I just looked at him asleep and somehow the chocolate he had eaten with me, sort of made his face rounder, and you know, Cheese, the effect that chocolate has on me, it makes me happy, makes me see the world not in the desperate colors of sullenness and eternal nights, but as a possibility , or maybe (and Hans paused to choose his words ) a bridge to some better place, where the forests will rise again and we will be able to admire the stately majesty of the fir trees and the hills will not be leveled and brown but crowned with wild flowers and something called peace will reign. That was in Issac’s sleeping face and I could not call in the bullet browns when I saw it. I just could not.”
Cheese waited a long minute to formulate an observation. He then said glumly, “ In other words, you have become human.”
“No, I would not say that,” Hans replied. “ If I am telling you this, it is because I owe you allegiance, and I have failed you and seek forgiveness.” He bowed his head low.
“Well, you have not finished your tale.” Cheese said and then assumed a high pitched mocking tone. “So the chocolate bar was the good fairy’s magic wand, and all the world was sunny and gay after you had indulged your greediness , and then what happened? Even dreaming fools wake up!”
“That’s just it, I didn’t, or rather, little Issac didn’t. But don’t worry Cheese, I took measures. The kid was sound asleep. I scooped him up. He was already wrapped in his blanket and I took him out…”
“And gave him to the bullet browns, I hope!” Cheese provocatively filled in.
“No, I gave him to the crow lady at the corner. The lady who seeks customers under the flickering streetlamp light. The lady who is the only thing alive in this land of curfews and bullet browns.”
“Oh no! You didn’t! So he is still alive !” Cheese began sputtering,” Don’t you realize that you … you interfered… You interfered with things as they were set down, as they were supposed to be! Issac was not to live, not even for all the chocolate in the world!” Then, he gasped and Hans entreated his demon father.
“Really and truly I am sorry! I promise you, Cheese, it will never happen again!”
Silence gripped the room, a maniacal silence, a silence that could have been waved from an enchanter’s wand, stilling the drips and the ticks, unearthing the first silence of Creation when dust and water made the strange creature, and then, after dust had left for dust and water had returned to water, the creature was alone and lonely in its judgments and its calls to dust were answered by the winds blowing wildness and its calls to water were answered by the rolling waves and the answers they gave him belonged to the fishes or the birds but did not belong to him. And the creature, who was and was no longer part of Creation, had to find in the forest or in the city the only answer suited to his kind and the only answer was life itself, to treasure and to behold, for it was the only thing the strange creature really possessed and the strange creature should only make judgments on the value of his marvelous possession which defied all the other rules of the universe, as Hans had made his final judgment, and as Cheese would never make his.
The glowworms had darkened their incandescence, Hans looked at his demon father and saw that he was no more frightening than a filthy mendicant, stinking with the cheap blame for every pocket he had picked , for every crust of bread he had snatched from the bakers’ stalls, for every shoddy little lie he had invented to prolong his miserable existence, and it seemed to Hans that the lowest of the low shone with suns of a majesty which blinded Cheese and all his powers and that Cheese’s evil was but the shabby answer a demented monkey had once whispered to the lonely creature left to grope in a dark forest or a basement which a tribe of circus worms illuminated with eerie lanterns in their bellies. And he began to feel a creeping repulsion for them and his father whose only crown was the Bulb and he felt that his repulsion was cause enough to lay down his life.
Hans turned to his demon father and repeated, this time, in a grim and determined voice, “It will never happen again.” And Cheese knew what had to be done and that they should part. But, in a certain way, he was proud of his son and he said, “ There is a sky snake tonight. Very spectacular. I don’t think you will want to miss it.” Hans nodded and left.
The Bulb returned to its ticking, the faucet to its drips , but Cheese heeded nothing except a touch of his own sorrow and a phrase that the forest winds howled to him long ago, and to which, at the time, he paid scant attention, it was something about whoever saves a life saves … Oh bother! Cheese was not of that category and he knew it, but he felt cheap, cheaper than the bullet browns who had at least the excuse of their folly, but he had none except for, well, tradition.
The sky snakes would be breath-taking that night. Two ribbons crossing each other. He knew what Hans only suspected, that it would be the last. The eagle had ripped away its last parcel of flesh, it would not be returning for more. Then Cheese, the demon father, muttered a prayer for his son’s soul.
Diana Pollin was educated at New York University, Middlebury College and at the Sorbonne University in Paris. She holds degrees in English and American literature and Semantics. She has enjoyed a long teaching career in the French university system and has been a translator and interpreter. A new writer, she has published on various websites and has completed a first novel. She resides in Marseille, France.
Copyright © Diana Pollin