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Short Story by
Jeffrey Gibbs

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Recital by author.
Art by Melissa Stern
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The Monster in the Tower


Art by Melissa SternI had tightened the last screws as the skin finally dried, and then finished, the end. He was perfect, young, but not too young, and handsome, with thick brown hair streaked with silver and a dark-eyed expression so full of empathy and irony and intelligence that I knew no one, no one would be able to resist falling in love with him. When I finished I stood in the light coming through the tower window and watched the sun slide over him as it fell farther west, the reddening rays deepening the sharp angles of his cheeks and thick jaw and the strength of his hands and then I moved him over beside her, where she leaned in the shadowy corners with the spider webs that grew every night between her open fingers and between her arms and the floor. I leaned him against the wall and then stepped over to kiss her, as I always did, full on her lips, closing my eyes into the warmth and softness there and into the hot living breath.

I adored her, adored her beyond anything else I had created, beautiful long black hair and black eyes that seemed filled with creatures swarming in their depths. She could be anything I needed. She would tell stories that would have me sliding out of my chair with laughter, she would invent new alchemical formulas and scribble them feverishly on the chalkboard as I stood amazed, she would look with secret-filled eyes at the empty dunes beyond the tower window when I needed secrets, and when I wanted to be sucked, she sucked, and when I wanted to be thrown to the floor and taken violently, she wanted that, too, and when I wanted to do the throwing, well, then, she would surrender and want me to do it more. But the most perverse thing I made her do, or let her want to do, rather, was when I was on top of her and lost inside her and all the shadows of the walls fell on us so that our sight was lost to us and all I could feel was the heat moving between us and then she would lean her head back and with tears in her eyes, sigh, whisper, let her voice be drained out of her into "I love you so much" and then there would be a silence in which she seemed tangled inside something, and static noises would gurgle out of her throat, and then the smell of wires burning.

I almost felt guilty for building this into her.

I liked to stand against her from time to time and feel her body there, its warm surface, its topography like a border between me and some hidden nation, my skin tingling, electric, aware of every hair and pore. And next to her, on his first day, I set the man I had made and I looked at him as well and thought of what I would do with him the next day. How I’d make him talk! At some point he'd grab me by both shoulders and with eyes full of tears and disbelief exclaim that he has at long last met a kindred soul.

I had such plans for the three of us! I thought all the time of building the cafe, the little night cafe from the painting in my studio. I had drawn the blueprints long before making the woman. She, and the man, were in a sense, created to sit at that outdoor table with me, under that churning Prussian blue sky with the murky ochre stars, the yellow light from the windows casting our shadows long into the street, the three of us as eternal as the colors on the canvas. We'd sip our drinks together, talking earnestly about ourselves and life, about the possibility of God, the shape of the exponentially expanding Universe, quantum entanglement, and love.

I had long been experimenting with the drinks--the perfect drinks to match the mood, of melancholy and intellect, of wit and longing, of loneliness finally answered--not exactly wine, not exactly absinthe, not exactly scotch or mead or ale or whiskey. I had scoured the desert for rare flowers to brew the juice, and used every tool in the tower, every scrap of precious metals, to construct a variety of alcohols, none quite right, and disposed of the failures upon those wretched mice in the cage under my work table. And they resisted. They always resisted.

The mice and the liquor, God, that was a trial in itself! It was difficult getting them to drink it at first. They did not take to the taste of alcohol and I had to start off light, mixing it with their water and slowly increasing the amount until at last all they could do was waddle drunkenly about their cage silent, mercifully silent after all the horrid shrieking. Of all the things in that room, in this tower, the mice were the only things I had not created myself. Even the spiders I had pieced together from scraps around the office. But the mice! They first appeared while I was making the woman, scurrying across rafters and over window sills and into corners. Always little blurs of white. I never saw them clearly, but I heard them, scratching in the walls and behind me and in the attic above my head. Their shit was everywhere. I was terrified of them. They hissed at me from the roof beams and dropped things on me as I worked. At night I dreamed of them chewing on my body, and in the morning I found bits of flesh missing from my legs and blood stains on the sheets. It was imperative to capture them so work on the woman would move smoothly along, and I knew it would be difficult, as I never saw them clearly for more than a second, and I would have to have something special, something clever, and so I put off finishing the woman and began creating the perfect mouse-bait, a new species of cheese that they would not be able to resist.

I gathered the chemicals and equipment from the store room and improvised with various odds and ends around the tower, laboring long into the night for days on end. I drew and redrew blueprints, painted, scribbled and erased, hammered, nailed, twisted and welded. It is a terrible thing to make something from the beginning, even something as simple as cheese. You must do everything, the welding, the hammering, the soldering, the sculpting, the engineering, the painting, and in the process something happens to your soul, something horrible and irreversible. It leaves you, vanishing out into the desert dunes beyond the tower walls and there undergoes a wrenching torsion that twists and warps it out of its proper shape and when it returns, it comes a stranger, ill fit to your body. For everything you produce, there is some sort of scar or deformity left behind. In me, in me, the making of the cheese warped my left eye, made it balloon out of its socket like the eye of some hideous, deepwater fish, but I had to have the cheese and when I finished it, I laid it carefully in the open cage and sure enough the mice came running, racing out of the corners and out of the shadowed rafters and into the cage where they gorged ravenously, frenzied, salivating gulps and slurps bubbling out of their pink throats, and while they were thus engrossed, I slammed shut the cage door, sealing them in, and resumed my work on the woman, in peace, in quiet, triumphant, or so I thought.

When the cheese was gone, the mice began to shriek, so loudly and violently that they sometimes managed to propel their cage across the stone floor. I could not concentrate of course, could not be attentive to my work and as a result, to this day, the woman has several flaws I missed, a green ring around the navel, a delight in using extreme profanity in prayers, and a taste for rancid meat. What was worse was that the mice shrieks had a generative power of their own. They created things, were fertile sound, as if some wild seed were buried in that noise, something demonic and alien. Every squeal that touched the wall of my workroom brought, right out of the smooth stone, clawing vines and branches with strange colored blossoms covered in thorns. The vines writhed and slithered across the floor as they grew, their bodies bulging like feeding anacondas, their petals snapping like mouths. They crowded the walls with their violent green, made the air hot and stifling, buds rupturing along their bodies and bursting into hideous blooms of every color imaginable, black, silver, gold, purple, blue; blooms that grew bigger and bigger as the mice shrieked and shrieked. And at night, when the voices of the mice were at their most intense, the plants would grow violent and attempt to murder me. The vines would wind around my feet and arms like huge hands as the thorns slashed at my clothes, all the while a ripping, salivating sound gurgling from the snapping petals and I would have to hurt them to get them to stop, biting through a branch or ripping the flowers apart with my hands. And so I had to stop the mice from screaming. I tried to kill them simply at first. I took out one tentatively by the tail and hurled it against the wall and while it was dazed, smashed it with a sledge hammer I had been using to smooth out the woman's digestive system. It did not die though. It flattened out at the hammer blow and was still and bloody for only a moment and then the blood began to flow back into the body and the fur and flesh began to fill out until the mouse was restored and staring back at me with black eyes and a wide, pink mouth, shrieking. Oh the shrieking! And so I decided to get them all drunk, to drug them, using one failed experiment to solve another, and it worked at first. I still felt their presence, though, like a menace in the cage and sometimes I awoke at night, shaking in a cold sweat, remembering how the plants used to attack me, but in general it was quiet and I could work. Once the shrieking of the mice had ceased, the plants that it had spawned gradually began to die as well until after a week I had my own empty tower room again free of mice and vine, only me and the woman I had just completed. Quiet, quiet, still.

I spent whole days just leaning next to her against the wall. At sunrise I would let her stand naked by the window as all that new light fell over her and I would crawl to her on my knees and bury my face in her white belly. I am not sure I can articulate a rational reason. Maybe it was for the beauty of the morning and for the cool air that flowed in off the bronzed desert and into the window and for this peace in which only she and I existed. And once she was made, as always, as always, I was not satisfied, oh no, and had to have something else. And so I started making the man. I envisioned him looking like me and sitting with me and the woman at the window at sunset, admiring us, talking and being quiet in turn, and I made him as beautiful as I had made her, like a statue of a temple god.

I kept notes this time, to avoid mistakes. Oh if you only saw my stacks and stacks of notebooks! I wrote down everything I thought as my hands hammered and nailed and painted and sketched and stretched the flesh over bone thinking to show him maybe, read from them to him and reveal him to himself or perhaps simply let him know they existed and withhold them. I labored over them as hard as I labored over my other works and was only distracted by the constant feeding of the alcohol to the mice. Some of them were starting to develop a resistance. As I was assembling the man’s arms, making the hands wide and thin like bird wings, one of the mice started squealing again, that pregnant squeal, and a huge black bird formed in the window and blocked out the light so that I couldn't see what I was making or doing. I increased the alcohol I gave them and there was no more squealing for a while and no more birds but there is a flaw in the man's hand still, a strength I did not put in it and when it grabbed my shoulder so he could call me his kindred soul it hurt, hurt me so badly that I started to black out from the pain.

Art by Melissa SternI worried sometimes about the man and the woman, worried that he would be nude for her, and she, his kindred soul, and so I worked hard at their boundaries, the invisible little touches that would keep everything just right, everything in place, but again the mice started to interfere. I don't know how, but one escaped from the cage. I found it squatting on the man's shoulder, chewing on something in the man's ear, and the man's face was working, all these contorted expressions, eyes bulging, mouth gaping and nose flaring, his skin burning a furious red and when I set him out to talk that night as had become my habit after making love to the woman, nothing went as designed. I raised my cup of brandy, looked into his intelligent eyes and started to talk about invention and the soul when his mouth fell open and he began to scream. His voice was high, like a mouse shriek, and he cried over and over again "Make Make Make Make Make" until I had to put him back in the corner, quiet, his lips still moving against my will, but quiet.

I checked the cage the next morning for any holes or a fault in the lock that any of the mice could have used to escape but I could find nothing. I heard the free one, scuttling behind the walls, sometimes scratching beneath the floor or even in the ceiling. I don't know much about the tower‘s innards. I didn't build it, and I am afraid to venture anywhere outside the lighted room at the top, though I am forced, from time to time, to search around for materials. The staircase leading from the desert floor winds through absolute darkness and I must crawl around on my knees and feel for things with my hands, all the while keeping the light of the door at the top of the stairs in view or else risk getting lost. I don't remember much before I found it. Confusion, heat. I think I had a different name. I remember the smooth marble finger appearing over the dunes and I remember the door hanging open, every floor dark and full of debris except for the empty top room, and I set myself up there where the only window in the whole tower looked west, over the sands--the rolling hills of gold sand that never ever end. There was nothing but the painting on the wall, and so I had to make everything myself. I started with a bed and chairs and a work table and then the machines and food, and I never finished, I always made more, needed to make more, and when I made the woman, I wanted the man, too and now I find I want--and this is hard to explain--I wanted something so big I couldn't fit it into my imagination. Only pieces of it could appear at a time in any one thought. More precisely, I wanted more but could not think of what else to make.

I digress. My point is that once the mouse was out and hiding I had no idea what to do about it. I thought of making the cheese again but decided it would be too much work for the capture of one mouse which would most likely come about of its own accord in a few days or so. And then I noticed the woman was getting larger in the stomach. Pregnant? I asked myself. I wasn't sure. I had done nothing, no preparation to make a child inside her, gathered none of the materials. I knew she could not make a child independent of my design because I had made her that way. If I wanted a child, I would make one myself and yet there she was, her belly round and growing huge as the days passed by and in the walls and somehow connected to it all, the sound of the pattering mouse feet.

I tried sharing my worries and anxieties with the man but the responses he gave seemed to come out of my own head and were nothing more than hollow echoes and when he put his arm around me I felt more lonely and desolate than I had in a long time. I asked the woman herself but she did not seem to know and even in the silence of our kisses there was no answer, only her huge smooth belly pressing against mine and, yes, there could be no mistaking it, movement underneath that bulging skin, warping the green circle around her navel. I kissed her breast and came away with drops of milk. Despondent and unable to take comfort in either him or her, I braved the staircase through the lower floors and took to wandering the desert during the day, unable to watch this thing happening, this thing that was separating us all. It frightened me somehow. I thought of how her belly felt when I ran my fingers over it, like the outer shell of something altogether unknown, and I saw myself falling in it and being twisted beyond repair, stretched and pulled and yanked like a piece of gum until there was no resemblance to me at all (Ah, the scars and deformities I bore from creating the man and the woman! My insides are all twisted about, my heart beats in my skull) and I worried for the woman too, that this would happen to her, that she would be lost.

And so it was one day as I was walking in the desert that I heard the cry of a child. I whirled toward the tower, and saw it standing there in the distance, a sliver of cold, white stone, like some fang that had risen up out of the sands of its own accord and I was seized with the awful fear that I would return and find her gone or dead or worse. I ran back, feeling many things at once, a love for the woman and a desire to save her, a love for the man and a desire to be with him and not talk at all, and even a certain fascination with the mice. But mostly it was the woman's stomach I thought of and the thing inside, that opening into another world, a fall into something.

I reached the tower entrance and stormed up the stairs. The emptiness of the place seemed loud, absolute. I was already up a hundred steps when I heard the door at the top of the tower slam shut, its echo thundering through the empty stairwell. I ran up, gasping, breath burning the back of my throat. The door was locked against me, vines climbing out of it and winding down the wall. I kicked it open with a cry and found what I'd knew I'd find, the woman gone, and the man slumped on the floor. I ran over to him and shook his shoulder. "Where did she go?" I shouted and his face turned red and his mouth twisted into a grin, teeth clenched, and then opened, all pink tongue and tonsil, "Makemakemakemakemakemakemakemakemake". It was rage that seized me then. I ran over to the mouse cage and dragged it out from under my desk into the middle of the floor, and then I grabbed an axe and chopped the beasts into little pieces. Blood and bone and fur scattered and when I had finished, I leaned against the wall, panting. Then, suddenly enraged again, I started kicking the mouse parts about the room, tossing some of them out the window, and then I slumped to the floor this time and asked the man, calmly now, my voice soft, where the woman had gone, and he, with his eyes still wide, screamed "makemakemakemakemakemakemakemakemake" until I had to cover my ears. I watched the little mouse parts start to move back together, slowly sliding across the floor and joining with the other parts. A full mouth formed on one of them. I watched it, panting, as it opened up, showing its teeth, and began to shriek.

I fled. I escaped with the man out of the tower, for we had to find the woman. We left at sunrise, when the sky was brilliant orange and red like the juice of a gutted peach, falling over the desert in thick sticky waves and I felt a pang of loneliness go through me and turned to say something to the man but stopped short. There were no footsteps to follow, no trail. I guessed the direction, guessed she would go toward the East and started walking. The man walked behind me, whispering "makemakemakemakemakemake." He never stops. He never says anything else. The word "make" is like these dunes, they come one after the other and never vary.

I don't know how long we have been walking. There is only the empty gold sand of the desert during the day, and at night, in my dreams, the same. The man follows me, and has started to stutter. It's like he’s losing the ability to even say the one word he was repeating the day we left and I have since been trying to repair him. All he does now is bare his teeth, snarl and tear at my clothes. We keep a sensible distance. He has begun to eat sand. There’s no sign of the woman yet, though sometimes at night, over the dunes, as if it's coming up out of the earth itself, I smell something sweet like gardenias and the wild scent of green, and when I dream, I hear, from a great distance, the cry of a child. I move toward it as if hypnotized. The desert is wide, but the sunrise is still beautiful and I live for it each night when the man and I sit on the dunes and listen for that infant wail.

 

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Jeffrey GibbsJeffrey Gibbs is a writer from the South currently living in Istanbul where he is working on a memoir comparing Turkey with the American South. He grew up in rural Florida and received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. He has been published in several online and print magazines including 3am, Word Riot, The Istanbul Review, and Blood Lotus. Visit his website.

 

Melissa SternMelissa Stern is a seminal figure in American letters. Emily Dickinson wrote of Stern, "Brothers and sisters, she has none, Melissa Stern's father is my father's son." She lives in New York City with her dog, Max. Stern is married but does not like to talk about it. Stern began her drawing career as a graffiti artist on the New York City subway system. Struck down by an F train running uptown on the downtown tracks, she now paints with one foot and her tongue. "I love poetry," she says. "Just not poetry in motion..." Visit her website for more information.

 

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