Gaul doesn't go into town too often. He sees no reason to mingle
with these tissue paper people, see-through folk who crumble in
your hand like pollen. Even the towers, rooted deep, muscular
with cement and marble, don't impress Gaul. Any field has its
He belongs, he feels, among snouts of rock nuzzling shore. He
belongs beside the insinuations of the inlet, peering through
conifers to the sea. Hills bunched up at his back, knotting their
knuckles, bristling with pinetops. Nights, he can see his tent
as if from years away, a firefly against a cliff face. It is necessary,
Gaul believes, to sleep on the same dirt that heaves itself up
into mountain ranges, that slinks from him and goes submarine.
But today he must endure the frailty of town. Already he's been
jostled by two thugs, thick with glottal noise like strangled
deer. They were laughing or something, demanding some kind of
surrender, and he swept them aside with arm and blade as if he
were wading kelp. Where do these apparitions come from? Why do
their switchblades puncture nothing?
Already he's been chased and harangued by a whore pocked crimson.
Kicked aside rattled coin tins, spraying copper. Predawn pried
a door with his knife, taking what he found: two cans salmon and
a silver watch. He will never use a watch. He throws it into traffic.
He doesn't need the fish, either. Back where he belongs, he plucks
coho from torrent, bites through their necks.
Gaul has been impatient this trip. Here makes him restless; he
needs a substantial rind of earth to stand on. He has strode ferocious
and what he needs eludes him.
It is after dusk on the third day, and he thinks the town may
finally dissolve, grey and white and falling intact before implosion.
But he knows it won't happen, because the town is still there,
every time, whenever he comes to sate his need.
Slowing, he reaches a quiet intersection and widens his pupils.
Everything here is so damn faint. Nothing you could kick and hurt
your foot on. All slush and shadow. Suggestion without voice.
Gaul stands where one streetlamp ray nudges another. At his feet
is a manhole cover.
And there it is: substance. This isn't what he came for; this
isn't the urge that propelled him into town. He gets plenty of
substance back home, where grizzlies ripple with it and eagles
snatch it from tall grass. But here's something completely new.
A new solidity.
The manhole cover bears a grid-work of raised squares. Letters
encircle the grid, denoting town property. It's an iron disk probably,
but it seems more. Dense as a newborn, but afloat on this hint
of road. It heralds; of that Gaul is certain. It is herald, and
something must emerge from it.
So something does, and it is a man. Not much of one: the usual
tissue paper. Thin, ribbed with balsa. Skin you could pinch between
two fingers and slice open with a breath. Yet this man has pushed
aside a manhole cover which, for its unearthly heft, might belong
to a buffalo herd, and he has hauled himself up on to the road.
He drips; perhaps it is sewage. A doe could shit more in a day
than this town does in a week. There is no smell, and the fluid
turns vapor before it lands.
"What the fuck were you doing in there?" says Gaul.
He hasn't used his voice in several years, so it emerges cobwebbed.
He tries again: coughs, rustles up his best holler: "What
the fuck were you doing in there?"
The man has a voice of molten titanium. "I was foraging
in the sewer," he says, and angles away.
Gaul peers down the open manhole. Something courses beneath,
and he can tell, without seeing it, or hearing its current, or
smelling its breath, that it seethes. Its atoms mock mountains;
its tide undercuts them, and one day they'll collapse. Here is
a stream to absorb all rivers, erode all earth, swallow the Tantalus
and the ladder that descends whole.
Gaul unsheathes his hunting knife. Earlier this week he used
it to skin an elk. It has done combat with bucks and carved calendars
into granite. But he knows he cannot penetrate the underwater
river with this blade. He hurls it at a skyscraper; it passes
through and vanishes.
Only Gaul himself, unadorned, can enter. He sheds his clothes,
even the buckskin sheath, and lowers himself enclosed.
Here, submarine, are others. Even those who left for town and
stayed, or found other cities down coast, or up north, further
into the bush. And all of them gleam with solidity. They are legions,
Gaul realizes, and together they will wend past the snouts of
rock, under the knuckled hills, diving fathoms, wrapping themselves
around the world's core, from which volcanoes feed.
Elk are here, too, and grizzlies and salmon and pine. Other creatures
he hasn't seen or hunted. Everything has substance, and all substance
thickens in the water's thrust. Tugged, firmly tugged, Gaul lets
his eyes close. His need flows from him, dissipating into the
tide like orphaned milt.
Norman is down stream.