Jul 11 2011 1:00pm
This story has a unique genesis. Read the short explanation here.
i. All Saint’s Eve in Tokyo
Eleven-year-old Big D had four years on me, and I wanted his approval. I joined his trick-or-treat posse in the American housing enclave there in Tokyo.
He and his same-age pals wore cowboy outfits and packed low-slung six-shooters, as did I. Instead of a red bandana, though, Big D sported a flamboyant polka-dot bowtie. I grabbed his shirt and showed him my scrawled hold-up note:
“Give me all you Babby Rooths.”
“It’s ‘your,’ not ‘you,’” he said. “And Babby Rooths make me puke.”
But he let me tag along and later allotted me a generous portion of our Halloween haul.
* * *
ii. A Lesson outside Seville
You next meet him in a dependent high school outside Seville, Spain, in art class, where everyone calls him Degas for his depictions of ballet dancers and racehorses. Despite his nickname, though, he eschews that artist’s colorful palette for sketches in various shades of blue, using pencil lead or chalk.
Mrs. Clytemnestra Samaras, your art teacher, likes Degas so much that she makes him class monitor, almost an instructor’s aide. You, and others, assume that she esteems his suave looks and gaudy lavender scarf as much as she does his sketches—but you still don’t really mind that, after bringing in a pewter stein of blue pencils, he ceases to apply himself so obviously to his own art and goes from table to table correcting your and your classmates’ efforts.
“Rub out this grackle,” he says of one of your studies, making a blue mark beside the ugly bird.
“Rub it out?”
“If you concur, I mean.”
“And then what?”
Degas makes a blue check elsewhere. “Put a peacock in full display here. You’ll create balance and greater interest.”
After brief doubt, you do as he says, and your peacock stares out at the onlooker with a bleak enchanting ferocity.
* * *
iii. Renovations in Chautauqua
Dai had always wanted his own house, perhaps one that he built himself from the ground up—but not necessarily. After all, he’d built many structures in the past, either storage sheds or warehouses, each with its own purposes and symmetries, its own architectural eloquences and enduring specific satisfactions. Even the neighbors in nearby dwellings had noticed and praised these efforts, either after standing at their doors and peering in or during thorough guided tours of their open or labyrinthine premises.
He had a knack for visualizing a full-grown red maple from the imaginary winged seed containing it, and he could share this vision with others through such basic but vital tasks as spading, manuring, watering, and pruning: the essential, down-and-dirty work of cultivation.
Still, he wanted his own house—not a metaphorical tree for gilded nightingales to croon in, but a dwelling that would shelter, nurture, and solace him, a retreat for the body, intellect, and spirit. He found such a habitation in Chautauqua, New York, already intact but in welcome need of renovations that would reshape it to the uncompromising dictates of his desires.
Where some builders would have used gypsum board or oak, he used clothbound books and manuscripts of antique linen-based paper.
Where some decorators would have used caladiums or ferns, he used woodcuts from books or shiny dust jackets, stripped out, or off, and twisted into origami fans and foliage uncannily akin to flourishing plants.
So of course Dai tore out the stairs going from the foyer to his second-floor study and replaced them with steps made of encyclopedia volumes, sets of the complete works of Seneca, Dante, Shakespeare, and Stapledon, and multivolume indices to all the science fiction magazines printed before the advent of electronic periodicals and e-books. These had solidity. A person could stand upon them. Or a person could kneel on them, unlatch a higher step, and peruse at sweet leisure an alternate metaphysics and the secret mechanics of metamorphosis.
For these reasons, Dai lived on the stairs, which seemed to him beaches, steppes, terraces, foothills, mesas, and mountaintops all at once. They lifted him up. They ferried him down. They grounded his every climb and every descent. One day he’d remove them for a chair lift, an elevator cage, or a swami’s lariat, as the spirit led. For in this house, he and only he decreed every change of needful validity.
* * *
iv. Enraged Red Octopi on Mars
Moist, tentacle-bearing red aliens of daunting height and strength fell upon Mars because they liked the climate and the camouflaging dust. Its surgically adapted human colonists at first meant little to these invaders because their shelters were hidden crevice dwellings indistinguishable from the terrain, and because the bipedal settlers gave off so little heat or luminescence that the octopi—a stupid but inevitable name for them, even if they had only seven appendages—couldn’t detect them with their bio-mechanical octopi-specific sensors. Only when actively roaming the red planet’s surface did the aliens finally savvy that they weren’t alone: an outrage that ramped up their ire and led to the first earthling-octopi skirmishes and, eventually, all-out war.
DiCorso, the colonists’ foremost surgeon, had equipped his people with gill-like slits for filtering the Martian air and with lungs as large as industrial bellows to distil and distribute its oxygen throughout the settlers’ systems. A few other doctors aided DiCorso, who specialized in those cases requiring greater diagnostic expertise and surgical skill—until all of them had to treat laser burns and/or sucker-inflicted hickeys that only the most hardened physicians could contemplate without revulsion and utter self-dissociation from their victims. Even DiCorso, who often tended to suction-cupped patients, would return to his rock hovel seeing phantom victims but grateful for his lack of appetite. Unhappily, the longer the octopi remained on Mars the more attuned they grew to human spoor and the more adept at tracking down, flushing out, engaging with, and mutilating the gone-to-ground settlers.
At length, a battle on the nether slopes of Olympus Mons, the tallest and largest volcanic peak in the solar system, ensued, principally because so many of the colonists’ warrens honeycombed these foothills and had seemed to afford such reliable shelter from dust storms, meteor showers, and every other imaginable disaster, except perhaps titanic eruptions of the dormant volcano and epic floods of magma, lava, and other superheated igneous slurries. After all, Olympus Mons had not been active for millennia, and no one could have foreseen the advent of these land-crawling cephalopods of colossal physique and hateful disposition.
Anyway, on this peak the enraged red octopi took the offensive, not with the laser tubes, now exhausted, that they had initially used but with rocks that they snatched from the ground and hurled with devastating accuracy into the settlers’ hidey-holes. The aliens projected these rocks like David, or like Dizzy Dean, Rapid Robert Feller, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, or even Reezy Faludin, the all-time strikeout medalist of the first Interplanetary League—except that every cephalopod warrior seemed to encompass each of these storied human cowhide hurlers in its seven-limbed body and Mars’s thin air offered minimal resistance to their dumbfounding pitches.
These pitches enlarged the settlers’ burrows and ricocheted about inside them like spit-spun shrapnel, meanwhile beheading, disemboweling, or delimbing the crevices’ inhabitants, who fought back with plasma hoses that bowled over and quasi-fricasseed many of their assailants.
At the end of that dreadful day, hostilities ceased—unaccountably, unless outright fatigue and despairing nausea had interposed—and DiCorso ventured from his unscathed lair to assess the damage to friends and foes alike. He took a giant breath and scrutinized the landscape.
Many wounded colonists had left their dens and sprawled about in various states of impact trauma, including dismemberment and, if yet alive, psychic fragmentation. The octopi reclining on the slope had fared little better, resembling mutant boiled tomatoes or prodigious copulating polyps in a burnt marinara sauce. The dead required burial and the living treatment.
When able if bemused settlers emerged to help, DiCorso instituted a program of triage for all combatants. He organized grave-digging teams. Other human techs pushed halogen trees about the battlefield to throw light upon it, and DiCorso got busy. He used beaucoups of anodynes, mastics, and reels of invisible nylon fishing line to treat both his human and his cephalopod patients. Despite unalloyed looks of disgust or horror, he used detached alien tentacles as surrogates for human limbs, and vice versa. And, at the end of that Martian night, he did litter checks on his surviving patients and pronounced them fit for additional future living, if the goddamned octopi would only take their antagonism in tentacle, so to speak, and convert it into unmitigated amity.
A gigantic wounded cephalopod spidered up the hillside and grinned at DiCorso, problematically. “Your name for us isn’t our name,” it squeaked in an accented brogue. “But even in your barbaric tongue, the proper plural for us isn’t octopi, but octopuses or octopodes, the latter of which derives from the Greek oktō, ‘eight,’ plus pous or pod-, ‘foot.’”
“Thank you for that helpful redaction,” DiCorso said, and he and the cephalopod shook hands and shook hands and
* * *
v. Adventures in Time and Space
an author with whom Dai had been working at Simon & Schuster flew in from Atlanta, Georgia, at the publisher’s expense, to reside with Dai in his house in Chautauqua, New York, while they took the visitor’s manuscript in hand (in the early 1980s, many literary persons still used typewriters to compose their works) and turned it this way and then that to see how best to sculpt from it a commercially viable title. M——, a novelist with four other flawed books behind him, settled into the guestroom but soon emerged for a tour of Dai’s house.
The stairway of books that M—— had seen in passing but not closely examined now captured his full attention. He marveled at its construction, its constituent “bricks”—in reality, books with latches that one could flip to access their contents—, and the rarity of many of the volumes skillfully incorporated therein.
Dai watched as M—— opened a copy of the American hardcover edition of J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, a printing that the outraged publisher had had pulped in its presumed entirety rather than release it to the world to his company’s eternal scandal. (Later, another firm issued it as Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.)
“Incredible,” M—— said.
“I call that one a wonder,” Dai said. “A wonder it survived at all.”
Dai led M—— into the kitchen, opened the box containing his fifth novel, and set it out on the table in piles of several chapters each. Its story alternated between chapters in the present and others in the past, with a coda set in the future, but Dai didn’t think that the arrangement of these chapters worked as well as it might, and he had put tabs on them so that he and M—— could juxtapose them in ways lending greater urgency to M——’s storytelling.
Rearranging the chapters proved time- and space-consuming. Both men wound up on the linoleum floor shuffling and reshuffling the chapters like big, floppy playing-card decks. A hunting scene in 1958 now preceded a hunting scene in the Pleistocene; a scene of graphic eroticism in modern Spain followed one between the protagonist and a female hominid 1.5 million years ago.
Later, both Dai and M—— had cricks in their backs and smudges on their knees, but M——’s manuscript felt much more supple and compelling, and both men slept well in their beds.
* * *
vi. A Perfect Game in the Keeler Dome
Despite never having heard of the “Interplanetary League,” you now “hurl cowhide” for the “Titans” on a moon of Saturn in Huygens City in the Keeler Dome, an inflated bubble with o- and g-levels akin to those occurring naturally in the “Houston Astrodome.”
After the Battle of Lower Olympus Mons, an “intern” named Degas admires your rock-tossing prowess at a “peace gala,” an event celebrating the end of hostilities between hole-humans and your own noble cephalopod clan. He then “touts” you to his brother in Huygens City as a “virtually infallible prospect.” This “touting” leads to your “drafting” by his “franchise,” your “engaging” Degas as your “agent,” and your “signing” with the “Titan Titans.”
You owe Degas. He saved your life after the hole-humans plasma-hosed you. He put gunk on your burns, disposed of your dead striding tentacles, gave you human “legs,” and reconditioned your catapulting appendages with cephalopod-adapted “Thomas John procedures.” A work of Degas’ art, you are a talented “Frankenstein” “monster.” An hour ago, you threw a “perfect game” for him in the Keeler Dome.
Degas ties a purple “paisley” “cravat” below your beak and hugs you hard. “My boy,” he chortles: “You’re absolutely one of us now.”
* * *
vii. Goodbye to All That
In Tokyo, I appear on a writer’s panel—“Editing Yourself for Readability and Profit”—whose other members include a romance editor, a fantasy editor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and a scarlet cephalopod named Big D.
Big D wears a bowtie—like a flesh-colored orchid with measles—and talks for ten minutes about the need to create for one’s readers a continuous vivid dream using simple but colorful language.
I counter that sometimes it’s OK to make the reader work to parse the meaning of a fictive dream, but when Big D lifts a tentacle and rumbles, “DELETE!” I immediately dematerialize—
—for David G. Hartwell, on his seventieth birthday
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes copyright © 2011 Michael Bishop
Art copyright © Scott Brundage 2011