[The following is an excerpt from the novel-in-progess by the same title. It originally appeared in Surreal South 2009.]
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own
by Aleksandr Tuvim
(translated by Okla Elliott and Raul Clement)
Katya is still angry with me. But what if I told her I saw my brother’s troops today, marking the doors of the infected? And that I’d seen common Joshuan citizens doing the same, without provocation or reward from the soldiers? Katya and I had fought over means and ends again, and I left to make the rounds with our conflict unresolved. I hadn’t been in the streets an hour when I saw something so low it nearly turned my stomach.
In the door of a once fine Joshua City home, three men stood over something ragged and huddled, clapping each other on the back. A black boot swept forward and there was a whimper from the pile of clothes. Then the flash of a knife blade, the snicker-snack of someone bent to dirty cutting work.
“I’ll cut his idiot tongue out,” said a skinny man on the right.
“No, wait,” said another man, large, checking his friend’s arm. “I’ve got something better.”
It was the Day of Joshua, and men like these were celebrating what should be a marker of human freedom with thuggish simple-mindedness. The large man unfastened his pants and squatted over the creature’s mouth. Across the street, a wagon waited, loaded with tied-up lepers. Their faces had gone blank from terror. They did not know their destination—only that it would not be pleasant. The soldiers meant to be guarding them were marking doors, or were distracted by the Day of Joshua festivities. I might have cut away the lepers’ ropes while their captors were occupied. But I couldn’t leave these other men to kick the creature to death. I scolded myself even as I was doing it. What right had I condemning a dozen people to save one?
I felt a familiar coldness, and knew there was only one way to be rid of it. “Stop now.”
They looked at me, their fists hanging at their sides. “Who are you?” the large man asked, taking a delighted step toward me.
“I am an angel of reckoning,” I said. “The doors you mark are your own.”
They considered this before surrounding me. I looked at the large man, who seemed to be in charge. “Before you do that, you might think about the freedom you still enjoy to walk away from all of this.”
“Sure.” He smiled. Behind him the undersized man or ancient child they had been tormenting rose to his feet. Go, damn you, I thought.
“And then I’ll have a nice chat with God,” the large man added. His friends laughed.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“And we don’t care.” The first blow cracked my temple, and my ears rang, but I kicked back. I heard a cry from the smallest of them as I connected with yielding bone. My finger found an eye, worked at popping it. Another blow and I was forced to the ground. A tooth had come free, pink and glistening in the mud. Beside the tooth lay a flyer, one corner caught beneath a chunk of concrete and steel mesh. I read its garish font: Day of Joshua Parade! Come one, come all, and celebrate this great city’s anniversary! I raised my head a few centimeters. The creature was gone—no parting look, no sign of gratitude. Their leader lifted a brick, wrathful now.
I rushed him, and on the ground my hand found the brick. I raised it and slammed it down against his face; I raised it, slammed it down; raised it, slammed it down—with each blow his face was less human, more meat and dark fluid. Behind me, I heard his friends making their way down the alley, no doubt to home where they would contrive stories to explain their injuries. The man’s chest was still moving beneath me, and I wondered if that was a good thing. I heard the soldiers returning to their leper captives. I did not want to risk another run-in with General Schmidt.
The last time had not been under pleasant circumstances. I was snatched up by his men and dragged off to an interrogation room where high-watt bulbs were trained at my eyes and I was asked a series of questions. I kept demanding to see my brother.
“Schmidt,” I said as they hooted at me and struck me with stones wrapped in wet cloth.
They must have figured out who I was, because two hours later Schmidt came striding in with his imperial air. He took in my battered face.
“Nikolas,” he said. “I can’t go on protecting you forever.”
I grinned. “How’s mother?”
He turned away, showing me the side of his face. “Kristina is sick,” he said, persisting in his habit of calling Mother by her Orthodox name. “She wishes you’d come visit her. I won’t tell her what you’ve become.”
“Nor will I tell her about you, Marcik.”
“That’s not my name.” He stood and paced the room, turning sharply on his heels each time he reached a wall. “You’re a brilliant man, Nikolas, the real genius of the family. We could use you on our side.”
“I prefer my soul intact, thank you.”
He grabbed me by the shoulder, pinching the tendon there. I might have whimpered. “You continue like this,” he said, “and there will be nothing of you left intact.”
Now, seeing soldiers in the distance, I ran down the alley, leaving my victim to live, though with the scars of his misdeeds tattooed on his face forever. As I ran, I damned myself for leaving those lepers at the mercies of the soldiers, though the joy of violence was still in me.
I turned the corner and was nearly to the Saint Leocadia Avenue entrance to the Underground, when I saw a quivering mass on the sidewalk. It was the deformed man-child I’d saved. He looked horrible, forehead split like ripe fruit and the skin of one eyelid ripped and ragged.
“What happened?” I asked, as if I needed an explanation. Those men were riding the wave of patriotic idiocy. And if it had not been them, the bone fiends looking for an easy score might have done the job, or the insane turned out of the asylums when Marcik and I were children. Remembering those days, I had the beginnings of an idea.
“Where are you from?” I asked. He grinned, revealing shockingly pink gums. His cheeks were rose-colored; his eyes shone with childlike brightness beneath the blood. “Do you speak? Can’t you tell me where you live?”
He kneeled in the dirt and with a piece of wire began to draw an elaborate system of boxes and lines. Soon I understood it was a map, charting the streets of the district in beautiful, unnecessary detail. When he began in on the trelliswork of the house where I’d found him and his antagonists, I asked him if that was where he had lived.
He pointed backward, over his shoulder, a gesture I determined to mean the past. “Your family used to live there? How many of you?”
He pointed to himself, held up his palm, fingers splayed. Five including himself. “Where are they?”
Hands behind his back, cuffed, an arm grabbing his neck, tossing him into the back of a wagon. Lepers? Himself uninfected?
“Don’t you speak at all? What’s your name?”
He stuck out a tongue scored with razor cuts, and let out a saliva-choked grunt. He looked around, saw a storm drain, and reaching down into the urine and the scum, fished out something slick and wriggling. He popped it in his mouth. He grinned, proud as an infant who’s just wet himself.
“Slug?” I asked. “Your name is Slug?”
Before I knew what was happening, he had me in a ferocious embrace. He spun me around and set me back on my feet, and when I’d recovered I asked him if he would like to come see my underground home—if he would like a new name, one to inspire fear instead of scorn. He jerked his head up and down, letting out little happy squeals.
What would Katya make of this?
A continuation of last night’s events: when we arrived back at the Underground, Katyana was waiting for us—or for me, at least, though if she was surprised by my new friend she did not show it. I hid the bloodier side of my face.
“This is Slug,” I said. “Our newest member.”
With a shy turtle-like twisting of his head, Slug avoided meeting her eye. I wondered if he was frightened by her porcelain mask. I myself scarcely noticed it, but I suppose the uninitiated must find its smooth, expressionless surface frightening.
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Katyana said, all faux ladylike decorum. Slug scampered back and hid behind me. He peeked out, ducked back, peeked out again.
“Is this another one of your little projects?” she asked me.
By now the other four had come out, and were standing expectantly at the tunnel’s entrance. Their bodies, emaciated from leprosy, must have shifted the path of the light. Katya gave a small cry and hurried to my side.
“Nikolas. Your face.”
I pushed her off, but gently, so that she could see I wasn’t really angry. Without the others present, I would have enjoyed her doting, but I had my role to keep up.
“Take care that he gets set up properly,” I said.
She turned to the others and, in a tone both distracted and authoritative, instructed them to set Slug up in the pump room. When they were gone, she took my hand.
“Come with me,” she said.
She led me to our bedroom, such as it is, and set me down on our bed. She opened my medical bags, found a swab and disinfectant, and began dabbing at the mess of my cheek. I winced.
“Does that hurt?”
“Not so much,” I said. “They weren’t soldiers.”
“Still, anything could have happened. You must promise—if not for my sake, then for our cause.”
But later, long after Katya had gone to sleep, I lay in bed staring up at the exposed pipes of the ceiling. They looked like the arms of a giant sea-creature, prepared to strangle us all. In the dark, I put a hand to my face and touched the new stitches, then the older scar beneath.
I was eight, Marcik ten. Father had died in the Barbarian War, and it was just the three of us now—Mother, Marcik, and I. Marcik and I shared a pallet smaller than the one Katyana and I sleep on now. We breathed each other’s air, guessed at each other’s thoughts, and stepped gingerly over each other’s boots and moods. At times it was comforting, but mostly it was stifling. I was the younger brother—and I knew even then that I was the braver, the stronger, the smarter; Marcik’s being two years older afforded him the official title “man of the house”. When Mother needed something from the market, I had to accompany Marcik, because she trusted me to get it right, but it was Marcik who carried the money and did the purchasing. “It makes him feel older,” Mother said.
And it was I who had to hold Marcik when thunder rumbled on the horizon, or when the insane roamed the streets at night, piercing our walls with their tinny laughter—but next morning he was all orders-given and orders-obeyed, a natural soldier before he ever became one.
One evening, as Mother was serving up the pickled cabbage heads whose smell I’d grown to loathe, Marcik came bursting in, nearly stripping the door from its rotting hinges. He had a paper and was waving it like a captured flag. For a minute, I thought it might be an exam from primary. I felt a twinge of annoyance: there were already ten or twelve such exams plastering the walls—Satisfactories mostly. My Outstandings were received with a pat on the head and shoved in a drawer to mold. I was set to be a doctor, while he was still engaged in boyish games. I watched Mother to see if she would scold him for being late.
“Carnival’s coming,” Marcik said. “May we go, Kristina? May we?”
“Let me see.” I grabbed for the leaflet, but he ducked behind the sewing table. I struck a spool of thread and it went unraveling across the floor. Mother bent and gathered it up. She laid her hand on Marcik’s shoulder. He grinned at me.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible.”
He pouted. “But it’s only five pence.”
“Unless . . .” She turned to me. “I know you were saving for that watch, Nikolas.”
“It would mean so much to him.” She gave me her adult look, the one that said Humor him. For me. Marcik studied a crack in the ceiling. He wanted to say something, but knew it would not be to his advantage. I swallowed and nodded yes.
“What do you say to your brother, Marcik?”
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
She drew him around to face her. “Look him in the eye.”
“Thank you, Nikolas.” His glance slid off me with an oily quickness, and he went to the bedroom looking for all the world as if he had been punished. Mother squeezed my hand and smiled at me.
The next morning, we were off in our Sunday best. The carnival was ten blocks away in an overgrown cricket field. The ticket-taker seemed unsurprised to see boys our age, though I did detect a strange, carnivorous glint in his one good eye when I asked directions to the Puppet Palace. The other eye was made of glass, a milky thing that wandered in a dark socket. Marcik stared dry-mouthed and refused to give him the ticket until I pinched his arm. He hit me and I elbowed him off.
Marcik wanted to test out the firing range, so we did that, taking aim at targets no bigger than teaspoons. He could barely shoulder the rifle. We were out another five pence, and for our troubles were awarded a second-rate inkstand. Then he wanted to see the Mermaid Lady, who turned out to be an ordinary, not even pretty, woman in a sequin dress with papier-mâché fins. Wearying of these gaudy amusements, as well as the pretence that Marcik was in charge, I told him we were going to the Puppet Palace.
But at the door to the Puppet Palace, he hesitated. The grinning maw of the Puppeteer hung over an archway draped with strings, so that it seemed we might become actors in the grisly drama.
I grabbed him by the ear. “Don’t be a baby.”
I was determined to enjoy myself. We’d spent over half the money I’d saved that summer, and the puppet show had been the chief attraction for me when I saw the leaflet. I silenced Mother’s voice in my head. I pushed him down a shadowy corridor into a crowded, musty room. Rows of rickety chairs were set up before a box-frame stage. The light was dim but not menacing, and the Puppet-Box was unimposing. I prepared to be bored. The lights dropped off and a cavernous voice filled the stands.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” the announcer began. “Creatures big and small! What you are about to witness will shock and amaze, horrify and thrill! It is not for the faint of heart. Those without courage are advised to leave.”
Marcik was gripping the arm of his chair. A red glow emanated from the cracks between the floorboards of the stage. Despite myself, a cool track of nerves ran along my arms and back. The sensation was pleasant, this mild fear I knew to be unattended by actual danger. The question of why people would pay for this sort of entertainment struck me briefly. It didn’t come to me in those terms, of course, but now I marvel at the price people are willing to pay in order to be scared, to be reminded of their imminent and perhaps horrific deaths.
The Puppet Master appeared, a stooped figure in a robe and pointed black hood like an executioner’s mask. He addressed the audience in a hiss, his mantis-like head swiveling in its hood. Marcik was halfway out of his seat, looking around toward the exit.
“Sit down,” I whispered. “I’m not leaving.”
Marcik hunkered back in his seat.
“It is said by races older than ours,” the Puppet Master was saying, “races who possess a knowledge beyond the reach of our feeble science, that the Puppet Master may control more than what lies at the end of his strings . . . that he may, in his tugging manipulations, get at something in the very soul of man—a Puppet soul within us all—and in doing so wield absolute control.”
I enjoyed Marcik’s palpable terror. It served him right, acting like my better. Some man of the house he was. Couldn’t even watch a puppet show without pissing his britches.
The Puppet Master ripped off the hood. It was the ticket-taker from earlier. The eye had been removed and all that was left was the socket. He stared directly at us, and there was a dizzy moment when I felt I would be sucked down into that hole. His head swiveled on to other audience members, but the image of that meaty absence was seared in my imagination.
“Does he tug at you?” the announcer asked. I had nearly forgotten he was in the room. Marcik made a sad little spasm at the sound of his voice. I put my hand on his arm to reassure him, though I ought to have let him suffer alone. He recoiled and made for the exit. He stumbled out, trying to retain some composure.
I considered following him, already envisioning the real dangers outside. At the same time, I was pleased in a way I almost didn’t want to admit to myself. It was the pleasure of seeing everything go according to plan—as if I had known Marcik would bolt and I would have the slow joy of being alone with the Puppet show, as if I’d known he might be kidnapped or lost in the carnival forever when I didn’t go out after him. I forced the image of Mother from my head and watched the Puppet master manipulate his puppets into a wonderful play.
I found Marcik sitting on a discarded plank of wood just outside the entrance to the Puppet Palace. He was no longer crying, but his face was streaked and his eyes puffy. When he saw me, he came lunging in a fury of snivels and balled fists. We fell back against a tent post, and something metal scraped down the side of my face. I curled up on the ground and eventually he tired of hitting me. He stood and wiped his nose. He looked at the gash down my face and at the blood I could feel warmly pouring forth. But I looked back in perfect calm. His tears proved who was who between us.
“I’ll hate you,” he said. “I’ll always hate you.”
He kicked me one last time and then ran off, into that city of bells and whistles, drunk bodies, and light. I stood and brushed myself off, wondering how I would to explain all of this to Mother.
After my behavior, I worry that Katya is still angry with me, but I know she will forgive me even this. I held a meeting with the others to properly introduce them to our newest member, the seventh head to make the body complete. It seems fitting that his name is Slug. We are all less and more than human here: the Seven-Headed Lions, Slug slithering in his gutter, and now most dreaded creature of all, the Puppet Master. A shadow to keep the children awake at night, a special message to my brother. We will not lie down, and neither will anyone else—not while soldiers walk the streets, not while the lepers are herded into the backs of wagons. I knew nothing of Slug, but that did not stop me from telling his life story, which if not strictly true, ought to have been. Katyana stood in the back, her expression inscrutable beneath her mask.
“My brothers,” I began, “carriers of the torch of New Jerusalem, tonight we welcome a new member. What you see before you, this sad sack of fear and downtroddeness, was not always this way. Once he stood proud, walked the streets with bright and clever eyes, son of two, brother of six, comrade of all. But his house was ravaged, his family snatched up and taken to the leproseries – General Schmidt’s so-called treatment centers. Well, what is a good citizen? One who looks away or one who stares suffering straight in the eye? After today, they will not be able to look away any longer. I present to you, the Puppet Master.”
Slug, who had learned his cue well, slipped on his holocaust cloak. Black from head to toe, his face buried in the hood, he presented an awesome spectacle. Even I forgot for a moment his pathetic flesh. He ducked behind the curtain of the puppet box, began manipulating two dolls—a dapper devil and a beautiful, pale angel.
The devil beckoned to the angel, but she had already turned her back. She sat in a corner of the puppet box, her shoulders slumped in sad reproof. Katyana stepped forward and grabbed Slug’s wrist. He shrank from an imagined blow.
“Nikolas,” Katya said to me.
I followed her into the antechamber and grabbed her roughly. “You are always free to leave,” I said. “You know that, don’t you?”
She pushed me away. “I wasn’t hurting him. I can’t say the same for you.”
“You like me like this.” I pulled her against me. I kissed her on the lips of her mask, then lifted the mask and ran my finger over her perfect chin. “You can’t get me out of your blood.”
She grabbed her studded whip. I bent over the table, raised the shirt on my back. “Whip me.” The sharp heat spread from my ribs to my spine. “Whip me,” I said. “Make me warm.”
In a dark corner of the room, I thought I saw a pair of watching eyes.
I might have written more yesterday, but from Katya’s shifting and sighing, I sensed that the candle was keeping her awake. We’d established a delicate truce, and I was loath to disturb it. I set down my notepad and stood over the cot, watching her sleep. She’d removed her mask and her eye glowed in the moonlight. Her cheeks were a jungle of scars. I liked her best like this—uncovered and unprotected. I went into hall, threading around the slumbering bodies on the floor. As I passed the pump room where I had installed Slug, I noticed light angling out. I eased back the door.
Slug hunched over the puppet box, talking in a low voice. Yes, talking, though I couldn’t make out the words. His back was to me, but there was a warped mirror leaning against the wall. I could see the angel and devil. Slug’s whisper grew distinct.
“‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ Not ‘ladies and men.’” On the table was a rusty straight razor; I often used the room to shave. He picked up the Puppets and rubbed them against each other, in a wild, copulating dance.
“‘Yes, pretty Katya. Whip me. Make me warm.’” He looked around nervously. “Nikolas will be mad. ‘Dumb Slug,’ he’ll say. ‘Can’t learn his lines.’ ‘Ladies and men.’ No, ‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ Puppet men. Dumb Slug.”
He picked up the razor and before I could stop him, drew it slowly, almost lovingly across his tongue. I stepped inside and grabbed him by the shirt collar.
“So you talk, do you?” He shook his head fiercely, and he shrank from expected blows. “Come outside.”
He followed me up the ladder, whining like a sick dog, and I felt a rush of sympathy for him nearly sufficient to stop me. I raised the manhole cover and when I was satisfied no one was watching, I pushed him out. It was not dark. In recent years, the night sky of Joshua City has gone a washed-out, chemical green—a sickly, unearthly color set to hem us in, to smother us in the quietest way. Slug shivered in the glow. “Nikolas,” he said.
“Go home,” I said. He didn’t move. A cold wind blew over me, and I wondered if this was right after all. “You heard me. Leave.”
He stood and took two steps forward, his arms outstretched, palms first. In his hands was the razor. He offered it to me. “Nikolas,” he said, “Slug love.”
On the ground was a length of metal, something from the old railroad bridge, and I picked it up and swung it at him. He turned and walked away, stopped, looked back at me. He moved on, bare feet dragging in the dust. I dropped the railroad tie and ran after him. But he was scampering through the foundation of an old building, over a mound of bricks and used vials, on all fours, into the shadows. After a while, I made my slow way home, to what I call home, not looking up from the ground.
I recognized Slug’s shuffling gait behind me and smiled. I slowed to allow him to keep up with me. I left the manhole cover half-open after I entered the Underground. Hiding in the shadows, I was pleased to watch Slug make his way down the ladder and back to his small quarters where Katya had ordered his bedroll to be made. I wondered how I would explain myself to her.
Aleksandr Tuvim is widely recognized as the foremost author of Joshua City, indeed of all the Seven Cities and Outer Provinces. Formerly the Municipal Poet Laureate and the head of the Academy of Arts, Tuvim is the author of numerous books, including The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, We Are Messenger, and From the Dread Gospel. Imprisoned for crimes of opinion, Tuvim spent time doing forced labor. He was later pardoned by General Schmidt and returned to prominent status.