Claw & Eye
By Dustin Monk
Worship of the ascendant eels begins beneath the city, in the Temple’s underground pools. Here is this man, Baldahlbrus, wearer of bowler hats, long coats, various beards (tonight is matted gray), with a limp he got fighting, and who dreams most every night of hiding in the thick, oily stalks of burningroot while around him the sounds of dying and short blasts of rifle fire carry on the wind, feeding an addict to the ascendant eels’ babies. The phosphorescent baby eels—who look like cold, white leaves and are sometimes called drifters because of the way they seem to float in the water when not eating: aimlessly, causeless—now nibble at the body like an angry mob, floating over him, illuminating his yellowy hair and knobby fingers and open, dead eyes with their phosphorescence. Their tiny, sharp teeth are stained ruby red.
The addict must’ve died in the morning. Already his body stinks. Or maybe the stink is from the luminescent nerves twisted and knotted and thick as tree roots pulsing, clinging to the walls. The nerves smell like curdled milk.
Baldahlbrus stinks too—he smells of gasoline and vomit—but he will not bathe in this pool. The drifters will eat the living as heartily as they eat the dead. He watches. After a time the baby eels drift away from the addict’s carcass. What is left—shreds of meat and gristle and bone—sinks beneath the muddy green waters. He does not want to think about the amount of bones littering the bottom of the pool or what sort of monster they have formed.
He has knelt throughout the feeding. Now, he stands, feels out the limp in his leg, pulls his bowler hat closer to his eyebrows, straightens his long coat. The nerves along the walls pulse messages in bluish-gray but he cannot decipher what is said. Perhaps the message is: not so long ago we left and we are not coming back because we are dead. It might say that.
His boots echo loudly on the stone tiles of the cavern dumb priests built to worship the ascendant eels in the bellies of their home. No one worships them anymore. He walks up the winding steps, click-clatter-clatter-click-clatter. Part of the roof of the grand chamber of the Temple has caved in. Large chunks of ceramic tiles lay scattered across the floor. Half-dead nerves—their ends the color of charred bodies, which Baldahlbrus has seen enough of—snap and fizzle like blown-out fireworks. Sister moonlight shines upon the gaping mouth of an ascendant eel painted on the floor. Once there were great sermons held in this chamber; a great many people knelt on the mouth of the eel. Now it glistens, lonely, as if mocking Baldahlbrus. I will devour what I please. Whatever was once treasured in this place is gone: chalices, painted windows, golden and gray curtains, the holy bowl.
He pushes open the large wooden doors of the grand chamber, exits into the inner chamber and washes his face and hands in cracked clay bowls he’s found abandoned in alleys and filled with river water, and limps through the Temple’s smaller entrance into—
Nerve City. Night. Argana a pinkish pearl in the sky, looking down upon her thrumming, bleeding city, the cruel crater of her heart shimmering in streetlamps and in the eyes of addicts. Her twin Argala hangs behind a cloud in the shape of a frown. You were always the forlorn moon. Baldahlbrus gets out in it. Buildings rise like stark, bluish-gray tendrils—like thickened, widened mirror-others of the same nerves that cling to their facades—almost as if they too long for the ascendant eels’ return. The cobbled streets bustle in the dark. Baldahlbrus steps around horse-pulled carriages, shit, and broken bottles. He averts his eyes from passersby: it is not good to know too many. Yet, he is not oblivious. Shadows stalk alleyways: half-illumined dealers form question marks against corners of buildings. Do you? Do you? Do you? Addicts get cold in the night too. In front of the brothel is Carakhi playing viola. Bevendraj’s eyes bulge as she looks at a huge clump of dirt in her hands. On the other side of the street, accosting passersby like the idiot he is is Galat, showing off his new silver tooth. A spiky-haired addict Baldahlbrus doesn’t recognize, shuffling back and forth in front of an abandoned grocery store, asks if he’s got it. He doesn’t.
In all the books he has read—and he hasn’t read that many—this is exactly what the end of the world looks like. It isn’t the end of the world, it is the beginning. It is the beginning of the world. That is a loop he gets easily caught in. The world spins as it sometimes does when he limps too fast and Baldahlbrus wishes Maj was here. He liked to lean on her and she let him sometimes. She hadn’t minded his limp either. Yes, I am in love with her. Almost as much as I am in love with getting so high the drifters talk to me. This isn’t how I find her. This isn’t my pining. She was a girl and I was a boy, once, and we were both soldiers and, hiding in the burningroot, we sometimes held each other. That is the kind of love I know.