Where does it go? Moses wonders. All that motion, all that force. It must be released, invisible, into the world. If you could only catch it – then we would be as a civilization again instead of lost, lonely children wandering a wreckage of man.
He takes care of the other two slugs, first an old man with spectacles and then the one without teeth.
There is no grace in his motions, he knows. No elegance. It is not a dance. It is a labour, a hewing of wood, a digging of stone. He is a labourer, has always been. His hands have no delicacy. They are rough from use, prone to clumsiness, but also forceful. There are sniper hands and shotgun hands, and his are shotgun hands. If you give them an approximate mark, they are bound to do big and unsubtle damage.
Across the way, he sees his brother Abraham rising from a pile of inanimate corpses. They have survived again – and it is no victory.
There is one remaining slug, a man in overalls, stumbling to and fro, choking on a fistful of plastic knives jammed into the back of his throat. As Moses watches, Abraham moves slowly, as though exhausted, to where the last slug stands. With a thoughtfully tilted head, Abraham considers the dead man for an extended space of seconds, pushing aside the slug’s grasping fingers. Then he seems to glance around him, searching for a tool to finish the job.
Moses steps over the pile of slugs before him and walks to where his brother is. He reaches out and offers Abraham the adze. His brother takes it, looks wearily once more at the slug with the mouthful of plastic, and then uses the adze to get shut of the business.
Then the world comes back, the sound of their own deafening heartbeats fading into the background. And above them they hear the cackle of the man.
Couple of gladiators, ain’t they? his voice says, half through the megaphone and half not as he is distracted from its use. It’s my own personal coliseum. You could get to be a rich man in the wasteland, couldn’t you? Games of chance – you ante up your life. So it goes, ain’t it?
That way, Moses says to his brother, pointing to the collection of debris piled on the escalator to the mezzanine. Abraham goes first, delicately beginning the climb upwards, balancing against the shifting objects on the escalator. It is a slow climb, one they could not have accomplished with a passel of the dead behind them. But they will make it.
Hey, says the little man on the balcony. Hey! It is not permitted! You ain’t guessed my name yet!
They ignore him and continue to climb. Moses, a heavy bull of a man, makes a misstep and sends a deckful of chairs crashing down below, and for a second the whole assemblage threatens to collapse beneath them. But it holds, and they continue up. When Abraham gets to the top, he reaches a hand for his brother and helps him the rest of the way.
Then they see the man himself. He is dressed like a harlequin in an outfit of patches sewn together from a hundred different items of clothing. It is a wonder to behold because of its purposeless grandeur. There are clothes everywhere – the world full of clothes to be had whole and for free to anyone who wants to claim them. There is no need to construct new ones – sewing a science for times of luxury that are long past. But here, on this man, is an outfit of loving craftsmanship – a bricolage of textiles in a spectrum of colours. He wears a hat, too, stitched together in the same way – a triangular cap with a brim that comes to a point in front and makes him look like a degraded Robin Hood.
The little man does not retreat as they move towards him, so distracted is he by the intrusion into his kingdom. He drops the megaphone to the ground and shakes his fists at the brothers, stomping his feet against the hard tile.
I gave no permission! he cries. It is mine, ain’t it? All of it is mine. Rounded them up, I did, and set them as a trap for those who would assail me. It ain’t yours to take. You ain’t guessed my name yet!
Rumple f**kin stiltskin, Moses says to the little man and uses one big hand to push him backwards.
The little man goes flying as though he has no weight at all, collapsing to the ground and rising instantly to a seated position, supporting his upper body on one hand and using the other to wipe the spittle from his mouth. Suddenly he is quiet and looks at Moses askance as though reconsidering the nature of his adversary. Then he smiles and cackles again, picking himself up and raising his hands to show he is no combatant worthy of beating. Then he says:
Man of erudition, ain’t he? Man of book learning or just memories of mama stories? Who can tell? Bear with the voice of a man, at least. The sideshow’s come to town.
Where do you domicile? Moses asks. Tell us, or it’ll go hard with you.
The little harlequin raises his hands again.
I’ll tell, won’t I? Take you there myself. Spoils to the victor. No harm done. Nothing that can’t be rebuilt.
Then the little man turns and walks down the long wide corridor of the terminal without turning to see if the brothers follow. Moses and Abraham look briefly at each other and then go after him. The sun comes through the tall windows to their left, and it is a majestical fortress indeed. Fortress of glass and silence. Plenty of space to feel your aloneness, Moses thinks. Plenty of room for madness to seed itself and grow. A stadium of space, he knows from experience, invites grief to fill it in every corner and niche. This little man has been here on his own for five years, according to his own word. And alone who knows how long before that. As Moses walks through the terminal, his heels resounding echoes to the vast ceilings above, he feels like he is wandering through the caverns of a mind dizzied by castaway isolation.
Eventually, the harlequin turns to the right and passes through a smaller corridor to a door marked VIP Lounge.
Very important person, ain’t I?
Then he opens the door and they enter the little man’s sanctum. It is no longer recognizable as a lounge, having more in common, instead, with an elf’s workshop. Along all the walls are tables covered with bits of detritus from all over the airport. Pieces of planes, unrecognizable splinters of metal bent and repurposed to some other function, motors from vacuum cleaners, computer circuit boards, aluminium chair legs, kitchen utensils, monitor screens unseated from their plastic shells, fasteners of all sorts culled from a world falling to pieces anyway.
In one small corner of the room there is a bare mattress and an oil lamp sitting on the floor – as though sleep were the least worthy of the projects that take place here.
The harlequin, seeming no longer bothered by the presence of his visitors, marches purposefully over to a stool, sits down, takes up an object that looks like a mechanical spider and begins to tinker with it, gazing at it every now and then through a big magnifying glass suspended on a metal arm over the workbench.