Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer. The recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010, his work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine, and L’Allure des Mots. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His Web site is grahamtugwell.com.
It comes through the pipe in a clear liquid retch; a strong shot sends it far, then wastes in dismal dribble.
From across the room, laid flat in bed, he watches the thing weakly twist in juice—paws in bubbles, a tail a-swish amidst the spawn, body hidden under light blue leaves.
It makes a kittenish cry and is still.
Early today, the man thinks, regarding a room made stark by creamish light, Unless today is just dull and it’s later than it looks.
(Nothing but the quality of light to tell the time of day.
Nothing at all to measure lengths beyond that.)
Blanket aside reveals two legs and that is the extent of the movement for now. Fresh-woken eyes linger on familiar things—
The glowing rectangle of cream.
The crowded desk underneath it.
A long plastic droplet soundless from the mouth of the tube.
And the thing mewling upon the floor.
Expelling a sigh he rises and sits on the side of the bed, cracking ever limb to order, feeling the strain of every muscle dull.
He steps over this morning’s thing, going for ablutions in the second room and returns, barely awake but ready to work.
He picks the creature from the floor, feeling the familiar oily thickness of fluid between fingers. Gently he lays the thing upon the worktable, holding it down and in place with clips padded with soft felt.
He spreads it out—blue wrappings unfold, revealing them as serrated wings, cabbage-veined and glossy. From the body he cuts fibrous cords, letting arms and legs unbend and splay. He undoes the knots that hold tail against body—it whips against his wrist.
The thing arches its back against the board and hisses.
The man smiles.
“Ah,” a soft admonishment, “None of that.”
First, the cleaning: he dries the creature with a towel and with a cotton bud clears plugs of fluid from each nostril and from the slant of its cleft lip. With a dentist’s probe he scrapes the crust of yellow stuff from the corners of pinched-closed eyes and between the pads of its paws.
When he is done it looks at him with wide green eyes and tries to restore some order to itself, licking with a cat’s uncloven tongue the purple gloss of scale, the electric manic of drying fur.
But the clips are tight and hold it in place.
Enough time later to make the thing presentable.
In the corner of the room, where wall meets floor, the wallpaper has been ripped away. Plaster has been broken. Three bricks beaten through.
Revealing the dark beyond.
Through the gap there comes a draft.
Through elsewhere comes the pipe.
(Once, when it was all new and terrifying, he’d gotten down on hands and knees. Between the bricks he’d put his hand, stretching out as far as he could go. Scraped fingers traced the outer surface of brick and tapped along the metal-cool length of pipe, but save for them could feel nothing beyond.
No room, no floor.
He placed his mouth against the dark and screamed for help.
Thinking: Someone will hear. Someone will come to help.
And if not, someone should come to make him stop.
But no one came.
Each day in the gaps between sleeps he called, but time spent searching lessened, shouts grew weaker, fists fell against walls with less and less force.
Things had started to come down the pipe.
Things that needed someone.)
Cleaning the creatures was easy work. It required no real thought, just practiced motions, hands mechanically picking the right tool from table or tray.
Harder was the reconstruction, making sure that the creatures were fit to live. Sometimes they emerged from the tube broken or with missing parts. Sometimes they came down cold, stillborn.
(In the early days there had been terrible monstrosities, awful things screaming into life down the pipe. In the early days there had been things that looked like him, that needed nothing but a heel to the throat.)
Creatures had long since fallen into the same shape: fur on face and feet, scales on body and tail. A horny beak. Wings of light-blue flesh. Now there was only ever one change: for one in a hundred maybe, the great green eyes were silver or gold.
On one side of the table old tools gather dust unused—when was the last time he’d slit open a stomach? When was the last time there’d been a polyp to extract or a brain-case to sever or a liver-pouch to reverse?
Today’s creature only needs its nails clipped, a bone reset in the base of a foot, webbed skin cut away from arm and neck.
A slice and crack and clip and all is done.
Prettying next—the creature purrs as fur is teased in curls; it quivers as wax is applied to its scales and wings and buffed to shine with a soft rag. A pale maroon bow graces the point of its tail.
It struggles under mascara but finally submits to the flick of sticky black.
The man takes a step back and regards it.
He purses his lips.
Almost...but something not quite...
A darting step forward to tease the fringe imperceptible—
A pipe leads into the room and a pipe leads out, but as the things grow while in his care, the pipe by which they leave is larger, six bricks broken where wall meets ceiling.
Standing on the bed he can put his mouth and eyes to it—it leads outside, into fresh air and blinding light, but he can only look down for a second or two.
Carefully, he places the creature on the lip of outside. He strokes fur, runs a nail along its fat little belly. “Ah, you’re a lovely little thing, aren’t you?” he says, “A strong little thing. You’ll go so high in the sky, won’t you?”
It rubs against the underside of his hand and clacks its beak.
“Oh yes you will.”
It stares with emerald eyes. The man shakes his head, “I can’t let you stay. Go on. You have to do the last bit by yourself.”
Nostrils flair to smell the air and the creature turns and soft mewls. A tail swishes across the curve of the pipe. A gentle but forceful shove sends the creature on. It feels the vacuum of bright outside. Not looking back it trots down the pipe and disappears into the white.
Turning, the man sees a shadow flit across the frosted glass of the window, in an instant gone.
He sits on the bed.
Another one done.
Another day rescued from the nothing.
Later, something gurgles in the depths of the pipe and he is quick to grab the black cup by his bed. Something thick comes through and slops into his vessel. It smells like coffee but the taste... A sweet hint there of the liquid that bears the creatures along.
He drinks it quickly, trying not to taste.
It will be out of him again within the hour.
Here is the man:
Old scars mar the backs of his hands. A bite of beak or teeth along the length of his arm. Two marks of a swipe under his right eye.
He wears glasses that have grown too weak for him.
He squints at things, permanently pained.
Patches of skin not covered by hair or beard are very pale.
From the closet each day he takes a set of well-worn clothes. Navy, light-blue, pinstripe grey.
His bare feet are red-ankled.
Time and confinement have worked upon him.
He has forgotten so much.
When he first started he kept a creature. He told himself it was because it couldn’t fly on its own. He’d never seen wings like that on a creature before.
During the day he worked on it, tool after tool, feeding it, grooming it, trying new waxes and polishes. At night it slept on a folded uniform in the corner.
He grew accustomed to it, something to share the solitude with.
It grew grey and tired. One day it perished, giving no sign, making no fuss, just softly, silently, failing to live. He had worked on it for hours without noticing it had died.
The sweet smell of it coming apart drove him at last to dispose of it.
And here is the place where he finds himself. Here is the extent of his world: Two rectangular rooms, joined together by an arm-span of corridor. A bed and table and closet in the first and a light that is controlled elsewhere. A bath and toilet and sink in the second, a light that he controls but takes forever to warm.
(He can stand in the second room for hours.
“Let it be dark.”
And it is dark.
“Let there be light.”
And, in time, there is light.
In the second room each morning he sent off little packages of himself.
Down washing tubes, out into elsewhere unregarded.
Done, he stands and washes the smell off his hands.
The first room has a window of frosted glass, a single tall piece set in a white metal frame. You can tell, roughly, the time of day and the weather from the sound that rain and sleet and hail make against it.
The window in the second room is bricked up with graceless blocks of cement, left unplastered, a cold square recess.
Under the frosted window stands a brushed metal desk, and on it are tools to shape and clean and prise, arranged around the soft mat where each creature is pinned and levered open.
On the floor on either side of the desk are piles of papers of various hues and sizes, all bundled up in rough twine. Buried somewhere in there is a title page:
It is a record of his thoughts and practices. He knows he will not be here forever. He knows that the creatures will continue to come with him gone.
The sharper the knife the quicker the cut.
Make good what you’ve been given.
Make it strong enough to fly unaided.
Rescue what you can.
Always, always, rescue what you can.
Any guidance he will give.
Anything to keep them flying.
To keep them beautiful and free.
He puts down the pen and finishes the stuff staining the cup. The light is fading, ratcheting down through white, cream, yellow, umber.
It is time to curl for sleep.
Someone knocks on the glass.
Someone knocks on the glass.
Shout “I’m happy here.”
“I’m happy now.”
Palm against glass.
Palms against glass.
Fill fists with implements.
Scream “I’M HAPPY!”
Scream until the window cracks.
Waking into clinical alpine whiteness.
Too bright, too sharp...
Have we entered the final part of the year?
He is unsure what woke him; nothing has come through in the night, nothing is lying on the stain on the floor.
And then he hears it—a choked retching from the tube.
He knows what it is.
He swings legs out of bed in an instant.
Something is caught.
One of the things is stuck.
Rescue what you can.
A hand a sprawl amidst implements, finding one dusty, spattered in rust where the fluid dropped in days gone by.
Not the skewer.
Not the brashing jools.
The pinching pole.
He tests its leather and chrome grip, making sure the mouth still moves.
Slowly, gently he guides it into the opening, the steady grace of his movements belied by the sweat drops standing stark on his forehead.
A faint cry echoes up the pipe, obscured by a glottal lurch of backed-up fluid. He guides the pinching pole. “I’ve got you,” tense words leaked between teeth. “Come on. I’ve got you.”
He gasps a spit onto his lips and slowly...
Unblocking, the pipe sends a spurt of viscous liquid across his bended legs, spattering his neck and chin and leaving a taste to be licked. Out it comes, the creature, bent and misshapen on the end of the pinching pole, its soft jaws gripping just behind the ears. He lays it down on the table, careful not to squeeze too hard.
The creature is smaller than normal but in its contortions enough to block the passageway. He must be tender when clipping the fragile extremities in place, drying and cleaning must be slow and exact.
Once, when he was still new and unsure of what to do the soft click of something breaking and the sudden bulge of a sternum haunted him for weeks.
He looks at what the tube has given him.
This one is a shock of bent disordered ribs, puncturing through a lopsided belly of shedding scales. It is missing a hand and an eye. No fur upon its twisted face.
There is much to reconstruct. Gaps to fill and obstructions to remove.
The window goes through a day of colours.
Rain announces itself and unregarded, slants away.
He’s done all he can but it’s not quite right—it limps from a bone misplaced, one eyelid is so heavy it obscures, one wing is crumpled and stiff. It can’t quite close its beak.
But time has run out. The day is almost over.
Exhausted and aching he sends the rescued thing out into the red and orange blaze of sunset. Slowly it stumbles down the pipe. Every second step it stops to look back at him, to make a little hoarse uncertain noise.
“Go on,” whispers the man.
And slowly, so slowly, the creature goes.
It is lost in the blaze.
And there—tumbling like a leaf, like a rag torn from a washing line, the silhouette of the creature flopping down to land outside the window.
With mismatched paws it softly taps against the glass.
Then the other.
The man bangs a fist against clouded glass, making it shake in its metal frame. “Go,” he shouts, “Go.”
In a clatter of blurred wings the creature is gone.
And he tells himself it was ascending.
He tells himself it was strong enough.
He sits on the bed. Tired and cold and slowly, slowly being put away into dark. No strength to undress. He will sleep in these clothes.
Let the day’s slop dirty the floor uncollected.
And then there was sleep.
And then there was the next morning.
That noise again.
Two days in a row?
Down onto knees where the dark stuff was left to cool last night.
He brings an eye to the mouth of the pipe and sees it, squirming in the depths. Staring through black is the tormented face of the thing, distorted by the squeeze; a bulging eye the colour of brass, a tongue torn to ribbons on shattered teeth.
A mess of formless meat and limbs.
Scale and hair and half a beak.
Coarse cuttings and detritus.
He reaches again for the pinching pole, squeezing its handle, ensuring the mouth can open and close.
In it goes, slowly deeper, opening and closing, but unable to grasp—he tries, tries again but there is nothing to hold, no purchase to get. The pinching pole is not working.
In desperation, he places lips to the pipe, sucking, sucking, and tasting.
Mouth raw and cut he gasps, sits back.
It is caught. It will not come free.
Too big. Too wrong.
Screaming in pain.
“I’m sorry,” says the man, “I’m sorry. Nothing I can do.”
He places the pinching pole on the floor beside him.
With the heaviest heart, his hand closes over the longest, cruellest thing. It has no name. It has not been used for a long, long time. A stainless steel starfish of gears and serrated teeth on a jointed neck of moving spikes.
It goes in.
The jointed handle he turns and turns.
The thing shrieks.
He turns the handle. The teeth catch on something, some fold or ligament, and caught, will not turn. Throwing all his might against the handle he forces it around.
Something gently cracks.
Something softly tears.
Still it resists.
“Don’t do this,” says the man, “Please. Don’t make it suffer. Don’t make it suffer.”
With a wrench it is free and a scream is slashed in two.
In the terrible silence that follows there is only the noise of meat.
The squeak of the freely working tool.
Metal scraping the inner black of the tube, whisking the thing to pieces.
Out they come on a surge of colourless liquid, an awful disgrace of offal, of pink and grey and plastic translucence. Careful he leaves the cutter down and sweeps with a side of cardboard the bits into his hand.
Held there for a long time, until any trace of heat has left the pieces.
Then down the toilet and flushed. Pieces of a thing he failed to save.
It lingers, the beautiful perfume of the destroyed thing. He tries to wash it away but sitting on his bed, face held in palms, still he can smell it.
And the morning.
The morning when nothing ever came again.
And all the mornings after stretch into days of utter nothing.
The sudden stinging fear that this is life.
Who is he if not the work?
What is there but rooms and tubes and things coming through?
What is he if he is not needed?
Mouth to pipe.
“Send me more.”
An ear to silence.
“Send me one. Just one.”
Listening for reply.
“A little one and I’ll be grateful.”
Nothing, save the sound of breath and blood.
“It doesn’t have to be anything good.”
Sounds his own body make.
“Please, I’m sorry.”
“I’ll be better.”
If not the work...
“I’ll learn to be better.”
What is he?
What is he?