Prism, Mirror, Lens
to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you've held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.
A whole minute he squatted, pebbles clutched with his left foot (the bare one), listening to his breath sound tumble down the ledges.
Beyond a leafy arras, reflected moonlight flittered.
He rubbed his palms against denim. Where he was, was still. Somewhere else, wind whined.
The leaves winked.
What had been wind was a motion in brush below. His hand went to the rock behind.
She stood up, two dozen feet down and away, wearing only shadows the moon dropped from the viney maple; moved, and the shadows moved on her.
Fear prickled one side where his shirt (two middle buttons gone) bellied with a breeze. Muscle made a band down the back of his jaw. Black hair tried to paw off what fear scored on his forehead.
She whispered something that was all breath, and the wind came for the words and dusted away the meaning:
"Ahhhhh . . ." from her.
He forced out air: it was nearly a cough.
". . . Hhhhhh . . ." from her again. And laughter; which had a dozen edges in it, a bright snarl under the moon. ". . . hhhHHhhhh . . ." which had more sound in it than that, perhaps was his name, even. But the wind, wind . . .
Motion rearranged the shadows, baring one breast. There was a lozenge of light over one eye. Calf and ankle were luminous before leaves.
Down her lower leg was a scratch.
His hair tugged back from his forehead. He watched hers flung forward. She moved with her hair, stepping over leaves, toes spread on stone, in a tip-toe pause, to quit the darker shadows.
Crouched on rock, he pulled his hands up his thighs.
His hands were hideous.
She passed another, nearer tree. The moon flung gold coins at her breasts. Her brown aureoles were wide, her nipples small. "You. . . ?" She said that, softly, three feet away, looking down; and he still could not make out her expression for the leaf dappling; but her cheek bones were Orientally high. She was Oriental, he realized and waited for another word, tuned for accent. (He could sort Chinese from Japanese.) "You've come!" It was a musical Midwestern Standard. "I didn't know if you'd come!" Her voicing (a clear soprano, whispering . . .) said that some of what he'd thought was shadow-movement might have been fear: "You're here!" She dropped to her knees in a roar of foliage. Her thighs, hard in front, softer (he could tell) on the sides-a column of darkness between them-were inches from his raveled knees.
She reached, two fingers extended, pushed back plaid wool, and touched his chest; ran her fingers down. He could hear his own crisp hair.
Laughter raised her face to the moon. He leaned forward; the odor of lemons filled the breezeless gap. Her round face was compelling, her eyebrows un-Orientally heavy. He judged her over thirty, but the only lines were two small ones about her mouth.
He turned his mouth, open, to hers, and raised his hands to the sides of her head till her hair covered them. The cartilages of her ears were hot curves on his palms. Her knees slipped in leaves; that made her blink and laugh again. Her breath was like noon and smelled of lemons . . .
He kissed her; she caught his wrists. The joined meat of their mouths came alive. The shape of her breasts, her hand half on his chest and half on wool, was lost with her weight against him.
Their fingers met and meshed at his belt; a gasp bubbled in their kiss (his heart was stuttering loudly), was blown away; then air on his thigh.
They lay down.
With her fingertips she moved his cock head roughly in her rough hair while a muscle in her leg shook under his. Suddenly he slid into her heat. He held her tightly around the shoulders when her movements were violent. One of her fists stayed like a small rock over her breast. And there was a roaring, roaring: at the long, surprising come, leaves hailed his side.
Later, on their sides, they made a warm place with their mingled breath. She whispered, "You're beautiful, I think." He laughed, without opening his lips. Closely, she looked at one of his eyes, looked at the other (he blinked), looked at his chin (behind his lips he closed his teeth so that his jaw moved), then at his forehead. (He liked her lemon smell.) " . . . beautiful!" she repeated.
Wondering was it true, he smiled.
She raised her hand into the warmth, with small white nails, moved one finger beside his nose, growled against his cheek.
He reached to take her wrist.
She asked, "Your hand. . . ?"
So he put it behind her shoulder to pull her nearer.
She twisted. "Is there something wrong with your. . . ?"
He shook his head against her hair, damp, cool, licked it.
Behind him, the wind was cool. Below hair, her skin was hotter than his tongue. He brought his hands around into the heated cave between them.
She pulled back. "Your hands-!"
Veins like earthworms wriggled in the hair. The skin was cement dry; his knuckles were thick with scabbed callous. Blunt thumbs lay on the place between her breasts like toads.
She frowned, raised her knuckles toward his, stopped.
Under the moon on the sea of her, his fingers were knobbed peninsulas. Sunk on the promontory of each was a stripped-off, gnawed-back, chitinous wreck.
"You. . . ?" he began.
No, they were not deformed. But they were . . . ugly! She looked up. Blinking, her eyes glistened.
". . . do you know my . . . ?" His voice hoarsened. "Who I . . . am?"
Her face was not subtle; but her smile, regretful and mostly in the place between her brow and her folded lids, confused.
"You," she said, full voice and formal (but the wind still blurred some overtone), "have a father." Her hip was warm against his belly. The air which he had thought mild till now was a blade to pry back his loins. "You have a mummer-!" That was his cheek against her mouth. But she turned her face away. "You are-" she placed her pale hand over his great one (Such big hands for a little ape of a guy, someone had kindly said. He remembered that) on her ribs-"beautiful. You've come from somewhere. You're going somewhere." She sighed.
"But . . ." He swallowed the things in his throat (he wasn't that little). "I've lost . . . something."
"Things have made you what you are," she recited. "What you are will make you what you will become."
"I want something back!"
She reached behind her to pull him closer. The cold well between his belly and the small of her back collapsed. "What don't you have?" She looked over her shoulder at him: "How old are you?"
"You have the face of someone much younger." She giggled. "I thought you were . . . sixteen! You have the hands of someone much older-"
"-crueler than I think you are. Where were you born?"
"Upstate New York. You wouldn't know the town. I didn't stay there long."
"I probably wouldn't. You're a long way away."
"I've been to Japan. And Australia."
He laughed. His chest shook her shoulder. "One year at Columbia. Almost another at a community college in Delaware. No degree."
"What year were you born?"
"Nineteen forty-eight. I've been in Central America too. Mexico. I just came from Mexico and I-"
"What do you want to change in the world?" she continued her recitation, looking away. "What do you want to preserve? What is the thing you're searching for? What are you running away from?"
"Nothing," he said. "And nothing. And nothing. And . . . nothing, at least that I know."
"You have no purpose?"
"I want to get to Bellona and-" He chuckled. "Mine's the same as everybody else's; in real life, anyway: to get through the next second, consciousness intact."
The next second passed.
"Really?" she asked, real enough to make him realize the artificiality of what he'd said (thinking: It is in danger with the passing of each one). "Then be glad you're not just a character scrawled in the margins of somebody else's lost notebook: you'd be deadly dull. Don't you have any reason for going there?"
"To get to Bellona and . . ."
When he said no more, she said, "You don't have to tell me. So, you don't know who you are? Finding that out would be much too simple to bring you all the way from upper New York State, by way of Japan, here. Ahhh . . ." and she stopped.
"Well, if you were born in nineteen forty-eight, you've got to be older than twenty-seven."
"How do you mean?"
"Oh, hell," she said. "It isn't important."
He began to shake her arm, slowly.
She said: "I was born in nineteen forty-seven. And I'm a good deal older then twenty-eight." She blinked at him again. "But that really isn't im-"
He rolled back in the loud leaves. "Do you know who I am?" Night was some color between clear and cloud. "You came here, to find me. Can't you tell me what my name is?"
Cold spread down his side, where she had been, like butter.
He turned his head.
"Come!" As she sat, her hair writhed toward him. A handful of leaves struck his face.
He sat too.
But she was already running, legs passing and passing through moon-dapple.
He wondered where she'd got that scratch.
Grabbing his pants, he stuck foot and foot in them, grabbing his shirt and single sandal, rolled to his feet-
She was rounding the rock's edge.
He paused for his fly and the twin belt hooks. Twigs and gravel chewed his feet. She ran so fast!
He came up as she glanced back, put his hand on the stone-and flinched: the rock-face was wet. He looked at the crumbled dirt on the yellow ham and heel.
"There . . ." She pointed into the cave. "Can you see it?"
He started to touch her shoulder, but no.
She said: "Go ahead. Go in."
He dropped his sandal: a lisp of brush. He dropped his shirt: that smothered the lisping.
She looked at him expectantly, stepped aside.
He stepped in: moss on his heel, wet rock on the ball of his foot. His other foot came down: wet rock.
Breath quivered about him. In the jellied darkness something dry brushed his cheek. He reached up: a dead vine crisp with leaves. It swung: things rattled awfully far overhead. With visions of the mortal edge, he slid his foot forward. His toes found: a twig with loose bark . . . a clot of wet leaves . . . the thrill of water . . . Next step, water licked over his foot. He stepped again:
A flicker, left.
Stepped again, and the flicker was orange, around the edge of something; which was the wall of a rock niche, with shadow for ceiling, next step.
Beyond a dead limb, a dish of brass wide as a car tire had nearly burned to embers. Something in the remaining fire snapped, spilling sparks on wet stone.
Ahead, where the flicker leaked high up into the narrowing slash, something caught and flung back flashings.
He climbed around one boulder, paused; the echo from breath and burning cast up intimations of the cavern's size. He gauged a crevice, leaped the meter, and scrambled on the far slope. Things loosened under his feet. He heard pebbles in the gash complaining down rocks, and stuttering, and whispering-and silence.
Then: a splash!
He pulled in his shoulders; he had assumed it was only a yard or so deep.
He had to climb a long time. One face, fifteen feet high, stopped him a while. He went to the side and clambered up the more uneven outcroppings. He found a thick ridge that, he realized as he pulled himself up it, was a root. He wondered what it was a root to, and gained the ledge.
Something went Eeek! softly, six inches from his nose, and scurried off among old leaves.
He swallowed, and the prickles tidaling along his shoulders subsided. He pulled himself the rest of the way, and stood:
It lay in a crack that slanted into roofless shadow.
One end looped a plume of ferns.
He reached for it; his body blocked the light from the brazier below: glimmer ceased.
He felt another apprehension than that of the unexpected seen before, or accidentally revealed behind. He searched himself for some physical sign that would make it real: quickening breath, slowing heart. But what he apprehended was insubstantial as a disjunction of the soul. He picked the chain up; one end chuckled and flickered down the stone. He turned with it to catch the orange glimmer.
Some of them, anyway.
Others were round.
He ran the chain across his hand. Some of the round ones were transparent. Where they crossed the spaces between his fingers, the light distorted. He lifted the chain to gaze through one of the lenses. But it was opaque. Tilting it, he saw pass, dim and inches distant in the circle, his own eye, quivering in the quivering glass.
Everything was quiet.
He pulled the chain across his hand. The random arrangement went almost nine feet. Actually, three lengths were attached. Each of the three ends looped on itself. On the largest loop was a small metal tag.
He stooped for more light.
The centimeter of brass (the links bradded into the optical bits were brass) was inscribed: producto do Brazil.
He thought: What the hell kind of Portuguese is that?
He crouched a moment longer looking along the glittering lines.
He tried to pull it all together for his jean pocket, but the three tangled yards spilled his palms. Standing, he found the largest loop and lowered his head. Points and edges nipped his neck. He got the tiny rings together under his chin and fingered (Thinking: Like damned clubs) the catch closed.
He looked at the chain in loops of light between his feet. He picked up the shortest end from his thigh. The loop there was smaller.
He waited, held his breath even-then wrapped the length twice around his upper arm, twice around his lower, and fastened the catch at his wrist. He flattened his palm on the links and baubles hard as plastic or metal. Chest hair tickled the creasing between joint and joint.
From Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany. Copyright 1974 by Samuel R. Delany. Excerpted by permission of Random House.