And what more natural than that, at last, the old people come to Mars, following in the trail left by the loud frontiersmen, the aromatic sophisticates, and the professional travelers and romantic lecturers in search of new grist.
And so the dry and crackling people, the people who spent their time listening to their hearts and feeling their pulses and spooning syrups into their wry mouths, these people who once had taken chair cars to California in November and third-class steamers to Italy in April, the dried-apricot people, the mummy people, came at last to Mars. . . .
"'During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback. through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. . . .'"
Mr. William Stendahl paused in his quotation. There, upon a low black hill, stood the House, its cornerstone bearing the inscription 2005 A.D.
Mr. Bigelow, the architect, said, "It's completed. Here's the key, Mr. Stendahl."
The two men stood together silently in the quiet autumn afternoon. Blueprints rustled on the raven grass at their feet.
"The House of Usher," said Mr. Stendahl with pleasure. "Planned, built, bought, paid for. Wouldn't Mr. Poe be delighted?"
Mr. Bigelow squinted. "Is it everything you wanted, sir?"
"Is the color right? Is it desolate and terrible?"
"Very desolate, very terrible!"
"The walls are—bleak?"
"The tarn, is it 'black and lurid' enough?"
"Most incredibly black and lurid."
"And the sedge—we've dyed it, you know—is it the proper gray and ebon?"
Mr. Bigelow consulted his architectural plans. From these he quoted in part: "Does the whole structure cause an 'iciness, a sickening of the heart, a dreariness of thought'? The House, the lake, the land, Mr. Stendahl?"
"Mr. Bigelow, it's worth every penny! My God, it's beautiful!"
"Thank you. I had to work in total ignorance. Thank the Lord you had your own private rockets or we'd never have been allowed to bring most of the equipment through. You notice, it's always twilight here, this land, always October, barren, sterile, dead. It took a bit of doing. We killed everything. Ten thousand tons of DDT. Not a snake, frog, or Martian fly left! Twilight always, Mr. Stendahl; I'm proud of that. There are machines, hidden, which blot out the sun. It's always properly 'dreary.'"
Stendahl drank it in, the dreariness, the oppression, the fetid vapors, the whole "atmosphere," so delicately contrived and fitted. And that House! That crumbling horror, that evil lake, the fungi, the extensive decay! Plastic or otherwise, who could guess?
He looked at the autumn sky. Somewhere above, beyond, far off, was the sun. Somewhere it was the month of April on the planet Mars, a yellow month with a blue sky. Somewhere above, the rockets burned down to civilize a beautifully dead planet. The sound of their screaming passage was muffled by this dim, soundproofed world, this ancient autumn world.
"Now that my job's done," said Mr. Bigelow uneasily, "I feel free to ask what you're going to do with all this."
"With Usher? Haven't you guessed?"
"Does the name Usher mean nothing to you?"
"Well, what about this name: Edgar Allan Poe?"
Mr. Bigelow shook his head.
"Of course." Stendahl snorted delicately, a combination of dismay and contempt. "How could I expect you to know blessed Mr. Poe? He died a long while ago, before Lincoln. All of his books were burned in the Great Fire. That's thirty years ago—1975."
"Ah," said Mr. Bigelow wisely. "One of those!"
"Yes, one of those, Bigelow. He and Lovecraft and Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce and all the tales of terror and fantasy and horror and, for that matter, tales of the future were burned. Heartlessly. They passed a law. Oh, it started very small. In 1950 and '60 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religions prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves."
"Afraid of the word 'politics' (which eventually became a synonym for Communism among the more reactionary elements, so I hear, and it was worth your life to use the word!), and with a screw tightened here, a bolt fastened there, a push, a pull, a yank, art and literature were soon like a great twine of taffy strung about, being twisted in braids and tied in knots and thrown in all directions, until there was no more resiliency and no more savor to it. Then the film cameras chopped short and the theaters turned dark. and the print presses trickled down from a great Niagara of reading matter to a mere innocuous dripping of 'pure' material. Oh, the word 'escape' was radical, too, I tell you!"
"It was! Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air. So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 1975; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose—oh, what a wailing!—and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More! And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; they filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists' Ball! The Beanstalk died in a bramble of red tape! Sleeping Beauty awoke at the kiss of a scientist and expired at the fatal puncture of his syringe. And they made Alice drink something from a bottle which reduced her to a size where she could no longer cry 'Curiouser and curiouser,' and they gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow to smash it and every Red King and Oyster away!"
He clenched his fists. Lord, how immediate it was! His face was red and he was gasping for breath.
As for Mr. Bigelow, he was astounded at this long explosion. He blinked and at last said, "Sorry. Don't know what you're talking about. Just names to me. From what I hear, the Burning was a good thing."
"Get out!" screamed Stendahl. "You've done your job, now let me alone, you idiot!"
Mr. Bigelow summoned his carpenters and went away.
Mr. Stendahl stood alone before his House.
"Listen here," he said to the unseen rockets. "I came to Mars to get away from you Clean-Minded people, but you're flocking in thicker every day, like flies to offal. So I'm going to show you. I'm going to teach you a fine lesson for what you did to Mr. Poe on Earth. As of this day, beware. The House of Usher is open for business!"
He pushed a fist at the sky.
The rocket landed. A man stepped out jauntily. He glanced at the House, and his gray eyes were displeased and vexed. He strode across the moat to confront the small man there.
"Your name Stendahl?"
"I'm Garrett, Investigator of Moral Climates."
"So you finally got to Mars, you Moral Climate people? I wondered when you'd appear."
"We arrived last week. We'll soon have things as neat and tidy as Earth." The man waved an identification card irritably toward the House. "Suppose you tell me about that place, Stendahl?"
"It's a haunted castle, if you like."
"I don't like. Stendahl, I don't like. The sound of that word 'haunted.'"
"Simple enough. In this year of our Lord 2005 I have built a mechanical sanctuary. In it copper bats fly on electronic beams, brass rats scuttle in plastic cellars, robot skeletons dance; robot vampires, harlequins, wolves, and white phantoms, compounded of chemical and ingenuity, live here."
"That's what I was afraid of," said Garrett, smiling quietly. "I'm afraid we're going to have to tear your place down."
"I knew you'd come out as soon as you discovered what went on."
"I'd have come sooner, but we at Moral Climates wanted to be sure of your intentions before we moved in. We can have the Dismantlers and Burning Crew here by supper. By midnight your place will be razed to the cellar. Mr. Stendahl, I consider you somewhat of a fool, sir. Spending hard-earned money on a folly. Why, it must have cost you three million dollars—"
"Four million! But, Mr. Garrett, I inherited twenty-five million when very young. I can afford to throw it about. Seems a dreadful shame, though, to have the House finished only an hour and have you race out with your Dismantlers. Couldn't you possibly let me play with my Toy for just, well, twenty-four hours?"
"You know the law. Strict to the letter. No books, no houses, nothing to be produced which in any way suggests ghosts, vampires, fairies, or any creature of the imagination."
"You'll be burning Babbitts next!"
"You've caused us a lot of trouble, Mr. Stendahl. It's in the record. Twenty years ago. On Earth. You and your library."
"Yes, me and my library. And a few others like me. Oh, Poe's been forgotten for many years now, and Oz and the other creatures. But I had my little cache. We had our libraries, a few private citizens, until you sent your men around with torches and incinerators and tore my fifty thousand books up and burned them. Just as you put a stake through the heart of Halloween and told your film producers that if they made anything at all they would have to make and remake Earnest Hemingway. My God, how many times have I seen For Whom the Bell Tolls done! Thirty different versions. All realistic. Oh, realism! Oh, here, oh, now, oh hell!"
"It doesn't pay to be bitter!"
"Mr. Garrett, you must turn in a full report, mustn't you?"
"Then, for curiosity's sake, you'd better come in and look around. It'll take only a minute."
"All right. Lead the way. And no tricks. I've a gun with me."
The door to the House of Usher creaked wide. A moist wind issued forth. There was an immense sighing and moaning, like a subterranean bellows breathing in the lost catacombs.
A rat pranced across the floor stones. Garrett, crying out, gave it a kick. It fell over, the rat did, and from its nylon fur streamed an incredible horde of metal fleas.
"Amazing!" Garrett bent to see.
An old witch sat in a niche, quivering her wax hands over some orange-and-blue tarot cards. She jerked her head and hissed through her toothless mouth at Garrett, tapping her greasy cards.
"Death!" she cried.
"Now that's the sort of thing I mean," said Garrett. "Deplorable!"
"I'll let you burn her personally."
"Will you, really?" Garrett was pleased. Then he frowned. "I must say you're taking this all so well."
"It was enough just to be able to create this place. To be able to say I did it. To say I nurtured a medieval atmosphere in a modern, incredulous world."
"I've a somewhat reluctant admiration for your genius myself, sir." Garrett watched a mist drift by, whispering and whispering, shaped like a beautiful and nebulous woman. Down a moist corridor a machine whirled. Like the stuff from a cotton-candy centrifuge, mists sprang up and floated, murmuring, in the silent halls.
An ape appeared out of nowhere.
"Hold on!" cried Garrett.
"Don't be afraid," Stendahl tapped the animal's black chest. "A robot. Copper skeleton and all, like the witch. See?" He stroked the fur, and under it metal tubing came to light.
"Yes." Garrett put out a timid hand to pet the thing. "But why, Mr. Stendahl, why all this? What obsessed you?"
"Bureaucracy, Mr. Garrett. But I haven't time to explain. The government will discover soon enough." He nodded to the ape. "All right. Now."
The ape killed Mr. Garrett.
"Are we almost ready, Pikes?"
Pikes looked up from the table. "Yes, sir."
"You've done a splendid job."
"Well, I'm paid for it, Mr. Stendahl," said Pikes softly as he lifted the plastic eyelid of the robot and inserted the glass eyeball to fasten the rubberoid muscles neatly. "There."
"The spitting image of Mr. Garrett."
"What do we do with him, sir?" Pikes nodded at the slab where the real Mr. Garrett lay dead.
"Better burn him, Pikes. We wouldn't want two Mr. Gasretts, would we?"
Pikes wheeled Mr. Garrett to the brick incinerator. "Goodby." He pushed Mr. Garrett in and slammed the door.
Stendahl confronted the robot Garrett. "You have your orders, Garrett?"
"Yes, sir." The robot sat up. "I'm to return to Moral Climates. I'll file a complementary report. Delay action for at least forty-eight hours. Say I'm investigating more fully."
"Right, Garrett. Good-by."
The robot hurried out to Garrett's rocket, got in, and flew away.
Stendahl turned. "Now, Pikes, we send the remainder of the invitations for tonight. I think we'll have a jolly time, don't you?"
"Considering we waited twenty years, quite jolly!"
They winked at each other.
Seven o'clock. Stendahl studied his watch. Almost time. He twirled the sherry glass in his hand. He sat quietly. Above him, among the oaken beams, the bats, their delicate copper bodies hidden under rubber flesh, blinked at him and shrieked. He raised his glass to them. "To our success." Then he leaned back, closed his eyes, and considered the entire affair. How he would savor this in his old age. This paying back of the antiseptic government for its literary terrors and conflagrations. Oh, how the anger and hatred had grown in him through the years. Oh, how the plan had taken a slow shape in his numbed mind, until that day three years ago when he had met Pikes.
Ah yes, Pikes. Pikes with the bitterness in him as deep as a black, charred well of green acid. Who was Pikes? Only the greatest of them all! Pikes, the man of ten thousand faces, a fury, a smoke, a blue fog, a white rain, a bat, a gargoyle, a monster, that was Pikes! Better than Lon Chaney, the father? Stendabi ruminated. Night after night he had watched Chaney in the old, old films. Yes, better than Chaney. Better than that other ancient mummer? What was his name? Karloff? Far better! Lugosi? The comparison was odious! No, there was only one Pikes, and he was a man stripped of his fantasies now, no place on Earth to go, no one to show off to. Forbidden even to perform for himself before a mirror!
Poor impossible, defeated Pikes! How must it have felt, Pikes, the night they seized your films, like entrails yanked from the camera, out of your guts, clutching them in coils and wads to stuff them up a stove to burn away! Did it feel as bad as having some fifty thousand books annihilated with no recompense? Yes. Yes. Stendahl felt his hands grow cold with the senseless anger. So what more natural than they would one day talk over endless coffeepots into innumerable midnights, and out of all the talk and the bitter brewings would come— the House of Usher.
A great church bell rang. The guests were arriving.
Smiling he went to greet them.
Full grown without memory, the robots waited. In green silks the color of forest pools, in silks the color of frog and fern, they waited. In yellow hair the color of the sun and sand, the robots waited. Oiled, with tube bones cut from bronze and sunk in gelatin, the robots lay. In coffins for the not dead and not alive, in planked boxes, the metronomes waited to be set in motion. There was a smell of lubrication and lathed brass. There was a silence of the tomb yard. Sexed but sexless, the robots. Named but unnamed, and borrowing from humans everything but humanity, the robots stared at the nailed lids of their labeled F.O.B. boxes, in a death that was not even a death, for there had never been a life. And now there was a vast screaming of yanked nails. Now there was a lifting of lids. Now there were shadows on the boxes and the pressure of a hand squirting oil from a can. Now one clock was set in motion, a faint ticking. Now another and another, until this was an immense clock shop, purring. The marble eyes rolled wide their rubber lids. The nostrils winked. The robots, clothed in hair of ape and white of rabbit, arose: Tweedledum following Tweedledee, Mock-Turtle, Dormouse, drowned bodies from the sea compounded of salt and whiteweed, swaying; hanging blue-throated men with turned-up, clam-flesh eyes, and creatures of ice and burning tinsel, loam-dwarfs and pepper-elves, Tik-tok, Ruggedo, St. Nicholas with a self-made snow flurry blowing on before him, Bluebeard with whiskers like acetylene flame, and sulphur clouds from which green fire snouts protruded, and, in scaly and gigantic serpentine, a dragon with a furnace in its belly reeled out the door with a scream, a tick, a bellow, a silence, a rush, a wind. Ten thousand lids fell back. The clock shop moved out into Usher. The night was enchanted.
A warm breeze came over the land. The guest rockets, burning the sky and turning the weather from autumn to spring arrived.
The men stepped out in evening clothes and the women stepped out after them, their hair coiffed up in elaborate detail.
"So that's Usher!"
"But where's the door?"
At this moment Stendahl appeared. The women laughed and chattered. Mr. Stendahl raised a hand to quiet them. Turning, he looked up to a high castle window and called:
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
And from above, a beautiful maiden leaned out upon the night wind and let down her golden hair. And the hair twined and blew and became a ladder upon which the guests might ascend, laughing, into the House.
What eminent sociologists! What clever psychologists! What tremendously important politicians, bacteriologists, and neurologists! There they stood, within the dank walls.
"Welcome, all of you!"
Mr. Tryon, Mr. Owen, Mr. Dunne, Mr. Lang, Mr. Steffens, Mr. Fletcher, and a double-dozen more.
"Come in, come in!"
Miss Gibbs, Miss Pope, Miss Churchil, Miss Blunt, Miss Drummond, and a score of other women, glittering.
Eminent, eminent people, one and all, members of the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy, advocators of the banishment of Halloween and Guy Fawkes, killers of bats, burners of books, bearers of torches; good clean citizens, every one, who had waited until the rough men had come up and buried the Martians and cleansed the cities and built the towns and repaired the highways and made everything safe. And then, with everything well on its way to Safety, the Spoil-Funs, the people with mercurochrome for blood and iodine-colored eyes, came now to set up their Moral Climates and dole out goodness to everyone. And they were his friends! Yes, carefully, carefully, he had met and befriended each of them on Earth in the last year!
"Welcome to the vasty halls of Death!" he cried.
"Hello, Stendahl, what is all this?"
"You'll see. Everyone off with their clothes. You'll find booths to one side there. Change into costumes you find there. Men on this side, women on that."
The people stood uneasily about.
"I don't know if we should stay," said Miss Pope. "I don't like the looks of this. It verges on—blasphemy."
"Nonsense, a costume ball!"
"Seems quite illegal." Mr. Steffens sniffed about.
"Come off it." Stendahl laughed. "Enjoy yourselves. Tomorrow it'll be a ruin. Get in the booths!"
The House blazed with life and color; harlequins rang by with belled caps and white mice danced miniature quadrilles to the music of dwarfs who tickled tiny fiddles with tiny bows, and flags rippled from scorched beams while bats flew in clouds about gargoyle mouths which spouted down wine, cool, wild, and foaming. A creek wandered through the seven rooms of the masked ball. Guests sipped and found it to be sherry. Guests poured from the booths, transformed from one age into another, their faces covered with dominoes, the very act of putting on a mask revoking all their licenses to pick a quarrel with fantasy and horror. The women swept about in red gowns, laughing. The men danced them attendance. And on the walls were shadows with no people to throw them, and here or there were mirrors in which no image showed. "All of us vampires!" laughed Mr. Fletcher. "Dead!"
There were seven rooms, each a different color, one blue, one purple, one green, one orange, another white, the sixth violet, and the seventh shrouded in black velvet. And in the black room was an ebony clock which struck the hour loud. And through these rooms the guests ran, drunk at last, among the robot fantasies, amid the Dormice and Mad Hatters, the Trolls and Giants, the Black Cats and White Queens, and under their dancing feet the floor gave off the massive pumping beat of a hidden and telltale heart.
A monster with the face of Death stood at his elbow. It was Pikes. "I must see you alone."
"What is it?"
"Here." Pikes held out a skeleton hand. In it were a few half-melted, charred wheels, nuts, cogs, bolts.
Stendahl looked at them for a long moment. Then he drew Pikes into a corridor. "Garrett?" he whispered.
Pikes nodded. "He sent a robot in his place. Cleaning out the incinerator a moment ago, I found these."
They both stared at the fateful cogs for a time.
"This means the police will be here any minute," said Pikes. "Our plan will be ruined."
"I don't know." Stendahl glanced in at the whirling yellow and blue and orange people. The music swept through the misting halls. "I should have guessed Garrett wouldn't be fool enough to come in person. But wait!"
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing. There's nothing the matter. Garrett sent a robot to us. Well, we sent one back. Unless he checks closely, he won't notice the switch."
"Next time he'll come himself. Now that he thinks it's safe. Why, he might be at the door any minute, in person! More wine, Pikes!"
The great bell rang.
"There he is now, I'll bet you. Go let Mr. Garrett in."
Rapunzel let down her golden hair.
"Mr. Garrett. The real Mr. Garrett?"
"The same." Garrett eyed the dank walls and the whirling people. "I thought I'd better come see for myself. You can't depend on robots. Other people's robots, especially. I also took the precaution of summoning the Dismantlers. They'll be here in one hour to knock the props out from under this horrible place."
Stendahl bowed. "Thanks for telling me." He waved his hand. "In the meantime, you might as well enjoy this. A little wine?"
"No, thank you. What's going on? How low can a man sink?"
"See for yourself, Mr. Garrett."
"Murder," said Garrett.
"Murder most foul," said Stendahl.
A woman screamed. Miss Pope ran up, her face the color of a cheese. "The most horrid thing just happened! I saw Miss Blunt strangled by an ape and stuffed up a chimney!"
They looked and saw the long yellow hair trailing down from the flue. Garrett cried out.
"Horrid!" sobbed Miss Pope, and then ceased crying. She blinked and turned. "Miss Blunt!"
"Yes," said Miss Blunt, standing there.
"But I just saw you crammed up the flue!"
"No," laughed Miss Blunt. "A robot of myself. A clever facsimile!"
"But, but . . ."
"Don't cry darling. I'm quite all right. Let me look at myself. Well, so there I am! Up the chimney. Like you said. Isn't that funny?"
Miss Blunt walked away, laughing.
"Have a drink, Garrett?"
"I believe I will. That unnerved me. My God, what a place. This does deserve tearing down. For a moment there . . ."
Another scream. Mr. Steffens, borne upon the shoulders of four white rabbits, was carried down a flight of stairs which magically appeared in the floor. Into a pit went Mr. Steffens, where, bound and tied, he was left to face the advancing razor steel of a great pendulum which now whirled down, down, closer and closer to his outraged body.
"Is that me down there?" said Mr. Steffens, appearing at Garrett's elbow. He bent over the pit. "How strange, how odd, to see yourself die."
The pendulum made a final stroke.
"How realistic," said Mr. Steffens, turning away.
"Another drink, Mr. Garrett?"
"It won't be long. The Dismantlers will be here."
And for a third time, a scream.
"What now?" said Garrett apprehensively.
"It's my turn," said Miss Drummond. "Look."
And a second Miss Druxnmond, shrieking, was nailed into a coffin and thrust into the raw earth under the floor.
"Why, I remember that," gasped the Investigator of Moral Climates. "From the old forbidden books. The Premature Burial. And the others. The Pit, the Pendulum, and the ape, the chimney, the Murders in the Rue Morgue. In a book I burned, yes!"
"Another drink, Garrett. Here, hold your glass steady."
"My lord, you have an imagination, haven't you?"
They stood and watched five others die, one in the mouth of a dragon, the others thrown off into the black tarn, sinking and vanishing.
"Would you like to see what we have planned for you?" asked Stendahl.
"Certainly," said Garrett. "What's the difference? We'll blow the whole damn thing up, anyway. You're nasty."
"Come along then. This way."
And he led Garrett down into the floor, through numerous passages and down again upon spiral stairs into the earth, into the catacombs.
"What do you want to show me down here?" said Garrett.
"Yes. And also something else."
"The Amontillado," said Stendahl, going ahead with a blazing lantern which he held high. Skeletons froze half out of coffin lids. Garrett held his hand to his nose, his face disgusted.
"Haven't you ever heard of the Amontillado?"
"Don't you recognize this?" Stendahl pointed to a cell.
"Or this?" Stendahl produced a trowel from under his cape smiling.
"What's that thing?"
"Come," said Stendahl.
They stepped into the cell. In the dark, Stendahl affixed the chains to the half-drunken man.
"For God's sake, what are you doing?" shouted Garrett, rattling about.
"I'm being ironic. Don't interrupt a man in the midst of being ironic, it's not polite. There!"
"You've locked me in chains!"
"So I have."
"What are you going to do?"
"Leave you here."
"A very good joke."
"Where's my duplicate? Don't we see him killed?"
"There's no duplicate."
"But the others!"
"The others are dead. The ones you saw killed were the real people. The duplicates, the robots, stood by and watched."
Garrett said nothing.
"Now you're supposed to say, 'For the love of God, Montresor!'" said Stendahl. "And I will reply, 'Yes, for the love of God.' Won't you say it? Come on. Say it."
"Must I coax you? Say it. Say 'For the love of God, Montresor!'"
"I won't, you idiot. Get me out of here." He was sober now.
"Here. Put this on." Stendahl tossed in something that belled and rang.
"What is it?"
"A cap and bells. Put it on and I might let you out."
"Put it on, I said!"
Garrett obeyed. The bells tinkled.
"Don't you have a feeling that this has all happened before?" inquired Stendahl, setting to work with trowel and mortar and brick now.
"What're you doing?"
"Walling you in. Here's one row. Here's another."
"I won't argue that point."
"You'll be prosecuted for this!"
He tapped a brick and placed it on the wet mortar, humming.
Now there was a thrashing and pounding and a crying out from within the darkening place. The bricks rose higher. "More thrashing, please," said Stendahl. "Let's make it a good show."
"Let me out, let me out!"
There was one last brick to shove into place. The screaming was continuous.
"Garrett?" called Stendahl softly. Garrett silenced himself. "Garrett," said Stendahl, "do you know why I've done this to you? Because you burned Mr. Poe's books without really reading them. You took other people's advice that they needed burning. Otherwise you'd have realized what I was going to do to you when we came down here a moment ago. Ignorance is fatal, Mr. Garrett."
Garrett was silent.
"I want this to be perfect," said Stendahl, holding his lantern up so its light penetrated in upon the slumped figure. "Jingle your bells softly." The bells rustled. "Now, if you'll please say, 'For the love of God, Monstresor,' I might let you free."
The man's face came up in the light. There was a hesitation. Then grotesquely the man said, "For the love of God, Montresor."
"Ah," said Stendahl, eyes closed. He shoved the last brick into place and mortared it tight. "Requiescat in pace, dear friend."
He hastened from the catacomb.
In the seven rooms the sound of a midnight clock brought everything to a halt.
The Red Death appeared.
Stendahl turned for a moment at the door to watch. And then he ran out of the great House, across the moat, to where a helicopter waited.
"There it goes!"
They looked at the great House, smiling. It began to crack down the middle, as with an earthquake, and as Stendahl watched the magnificent sight he heard Pikes reading behind him in a low, cadenced voice:
"'. . . my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.'"
The helicopter rose over the steaming lake and flew into the west.
They came to the strange blue lands and put their names upon the lands. Here was Hinkston Creek and Lustig Corners and Black River and Driscoll Forest and Peregrine Mountain and Wilder Town, all the names of people and the things that the people did. Here was the place where Martians killed the first Earth Men, and it was Red Town and had to do with blood. And here where the second expedition was destroyed, and it was named Second Try, and each of the other places where the rocket men had set down their fiery caldrons to burn the land, the names were left like cinders, and of course there was a Spender Hill and a Nathaniel York Town. . . .
The old Martian names were names of water and air and hills. They were the names of snows that emptied south in stone canals to fill the empty seas. And the names of sealed and buried sorcerers and towers and obelisks. And the rockets struck at the names like hammers, breaking away the marble into shale, shattering the crockery milestones that named the old towns, in the rubble of which great pylons were plunged with new names: IRON TOWN, STEEL TOWN, ALUMINUM CITY, ELECTRIC VILLAGE, CORN TOWN, GRAIN VILLA, DETROIT II, all the mechanical names and the metal names from Earth.
And after the towns were built and named, the graveyards were built and named, too: Green Hill, Moss Town, Boot Hill, Bide a Wee; and the first dead went into their graves.
But after everything was pinned down and neat and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the "atmosphere"; they came to study and apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to plan people's lives and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and ruled and pushed about.
And it was inevitable that some of these people pushed back. . . .
"Them leaving, pulling out, going away; did you hear?"
"What you mean, pulling out? How can they do that?"
"They can, they will, they are."
"Just a couple?"
"Every single one here in the South!"
"I got to see that. I don't believe it. Where they going— Africa?"
"You mean the planet Mars?"
The men stood up in the hot shade of the hardware porch. Someone quit lighting a pipe. Somebody else spat out into the hot dust of noon.
"They can't leave, they can't do that."
"They're doing it, anyways."
"Where'd you hear this?"
"It's everywhere, on the radio a minute ago, just come through."
Like a series of dusty statues, the men came to life.
Samuel Teece, the hardware proprietor, laughed uneasily. "I wondered what happened to Silly. I sent him on my bike an hour ago. He ain't come back from Mrs. Bordman's yet. You think that black fool just pedaled off to Mars?"
The men snorted.
"All I say is, he better bring back my bike. I don't take stealing from no one, by God."
The men collided irritably with each other, turning.
Far up the street the levee seemed to have broken. The black warm waters descended and engulfed the town. Between the blazing white banks of the town stores, among the tree silences, a black tide flowed. Like a kind of summer molasses, it poured turgidly forth upon the cinnamon-dusty road. It surged slow, slow, and it was men and women and horses and barking dogs, and it was little boys and girls. And from the mouths of the people partaking of this tide came the sound of a river. A summer-day river going somewhere, murmuring and irrevocable. And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one. From various and uncountable tributaries, in creeks and brooks of color and motion, the parts of this river had joined, become one mother current, and flowed on. And brimming the swell were things carried by the river: grandfather clocks chiming, kitchen clocks ticking, caged hens screaming, babies wailing; and swimming among the thickened eddies were mules and cats, and sudden excursions of burst mattress springs floating by, insane hair stuffing sticking out, and boxes and crates and pictures of dark grandfathers in oak frames— the river flowing it on while the men sat like nervous hounds on the hardware porch, too late to mend the levee, their hands empty.
Samuel Teece wouldn't believe it. "Why, hell, where'd they get the transportation? How they goin' to get to Mars?"
"Rockets," said Grandpa Quartermain.
"All the damn-fool things. Where'd they get rockets?"
"Saved their money and built them."
"I never heard about it."
"Seems these niggers kept it secret, worked on the rockets all themselves, don't know where—in Africa, maybe."
"Could they do that?" demanded Samuel Teece, pacing about the porch. "Ain't there a law?"
"It ain't as if they're declarin' war," said Grandpa quietly.
"Where do they get off, God damn it, workin' in secret, plottin'?" shouted Teece.
"Schedule is for all this town's niggers to gather out by Loon Lake. Rockets be there at one o'clock, pick 'em up, take 'em to Mars."
"Telephone the governor, call out the militia," cried Teece. "They should've given notice!"
"Here comes your woman, Teece."
The men turned again.
As they watched, down the hot road in the windless light first one white woman and then another arrived, all of them with stunned faces, all of them rustling like ancient papers. Some of them were crying, some were stern. All came to find their husbands. They pushed through barroom swing doors, vanishing. They entered cool, quiet groceries. They went in at drug shops and garages. And one of them, Mrs. Clara Teece, came to stand in the dust by the hardware porch, blinking up at her stiff and angry husband as the black river flowed full behind her.
"It's Lucinda, Pa; you got to come home!"
"I'm not comin' home for no damn darkie!"
"She's leaving. What'll I do without her?"
"Fetch for yourself, maybe. I won't get down on my knees to stop her."
"But she's like a family member," Mrs. Teece moaned.
"Don't shout! I won't have you blubberin' in public this way about no goddamn—"
His wife's small sob stopped him. She dabbed at her eyes. "I kept telling her, 'Lucinda,' I said, 'you stay on and I raise your pay, and you get two nights off a week, if you want,' but she just looked set! I never seen her so set, and I said, 'Don't you love me, Lucinda?' and she said yes, but she had to go because that's the way it was, is all. She cleaned the house and dusted it and put luncheon on the table and then she went to the parlor door and—and stood there with two bundles, one by each foot, and shook my hand and said, 'Good-by, Mrs. Teece.' And she went out the door. And there was her luncheon on the table, and all of us too upset to even eat it. It's still there now, I know; last time I looked it was getting cold."
Teece almost struck her. "God damn it, Mrs. Teece, you get the hell home. Standin' there makin' a sight of yourself!"
"But, Pa . . ."
He strode away into the hot dimness of the store. He came back out a few seconds later with a silver pistol in his hand.
His wife was gone.
The river flowed black between the buildings, with a rustle and a creak and a constant whispering shuffle. It was a very quiet thing, with a great certainty to it; no laughter, no wildness, just a steady, decided, and ceaseless flow.
Teece sat on the edge of his hardwood chair. "If one of 'em so much as laughs, by Christ, I'll kill 'em."
The men waited.
The river passed quietly in the dreamful noon.
"Looks like you goin' to have to hoe your own turnips, Sam," Grandpa chuckled.
"I'm not bad at shootin' white folks neither." Teece didn't look at Grandpa. Grandpa turned his head away and shut up his mouth.
"Hold on there!" Samuel Teece leaped off the porch. He reached up and seized the reins of a horse ridden by a tall Negro man. "You, Belter, come down off there!"
"Yes, sir." Belter slid down.
Teece looked him over. "Now, just what you think you're doin'?"
"Well, Mr. Teece . . ."
"I reckon you think you're goin', just like that song—what's the words? 'Way up in the middle of the air'; ain't that it?"
"Yes, sir." The Negro waited.
"You recollect you owe me fifty dollars, Belter?"
"You tryin' to sneak out? By God, I'll horsewhip you!"
"All the excitement, and it slipped my mind, sir."
"It slipped his mind." Teece gave a vicious wink at his men on the hardware porch. "God damn, mister, you know what you're goin' to do?"
"You're stayin' here to work out that fifty bucks, or my name ain't Samuel W. Teece." He turned again to smile confidently at the men in the shade.
Belter looked at the river going along the street, that dark river flowing and flowing between the shops, the dark river on wheels and horses and in dusty shoes, the dark river from which he had been snatched on his journey. He began to shiver. "Let me go, Mr. Teece. I'll send your money from up there, I promise!"
"Listen, Belter." Teece grasped the man's suspenders like two harp strings, playing them now and again, contemptuously, snorting at the sky, pointing one bony finger straight at God. "Belter, you know anything about what's up there?"
"What they tells me."
"What they tells him! Christ! Hear that? What they tells him!" He swung the man's weight by his suspenders, idly, ever so casual, flicking a finger in the black face. "Belter, you fly up and up like a July Fourth rocket, and bang! There you are, cinders, spread all over space. Them crackpot scientists, they don't know nothin', they kill you all off!"
"I don't care."
"Glad to hear that. Because you know what's up on that planet Mars? There's monsters with big raw eyes like mushrooms! You seen them pictures on those future magazines you buy at the drugstore for a dime, ain't you? Well! Them monsters jump up and suck marrow from your bones!"
"I don't care, don't care at all, don't care." Belter watched the parade slide by, leaving him. Sweat lay on his dark brow. He seemed about to collapse.
"And it's cold up there; no air, you fall down, jerk like a fish, gaspin', dyin', stranglin', stranglin' and dyin'. You like that?"
"Lots of things I don't like, sir. Please, sir, let me go. I'm late."
"I'll let you go when I'm ready to let you go. We'll just talk here polite until I say you can leave, and you know it damn well. You want to travel, do you? Well, Mister Way up in the Middle of the Air, you get the hell home and work out that fifty bucks you owe me! Take you two months to do that!"
"But if I work it out, I'll miss the rocket, sir!"
"Ain't that a shame now?" Teece tried to look sad.
"I give you my horse, sir."
"Horse ain't legal tender. You don't move until I get my money." Teece laughed inside. He felt very warm and good.
A small crowd of dark people had gathered to hear all this. Now as Belter stood, head down, trembling, an old man stepped forward.
Teece flashed him a quick look. "Well?"
"How much this man owe you, mister?"
"None of your damn business!"
The old man looked at Belter. "How much, son?"
The old man put out his black hands at the people around him, "There's twenty-five of you. Each give two dollars; quick now, this no time for argument."
The money appeared. The old man fingered it into his hat and gave the hat to Belter. "Son," he said, "you ain't missin' no rocket."
Belter smiled into the hat. "No, sir, I guess I ain't!"
Teece shouted: "You give that money back to them!"
Belter bowed respectfully, handing the money over, and when Teece would not touch it he set it down in the dust at Teece's feet. "There's your money, sir," he said. "Thank you kindly." Smiling, he gained the saddle of his horse and whipped his horse along, thanking the old man, who rode with him now until they were out of sight and hearing.
"Son of a bitch," whispered Teece, staring blind at the sun. "Son of a bitch."
"Pick up the money, Samuel," said someone from the porch.
It was happening all along the way. Little white boys, barefoot, dashed up with the news. "Them that has helps them that hasn't! And that way they all get free! Seen a rich man give a poor man two hundred bucks to pay off some'un! Seen some'un else give some'un else ten bucks, five bucks, sixteen, lots of that, all over, everybody!"
The white men sat with sour water in their mouths. Their eyes were almost puffed shut, as if they had been struck in their faces by wind and sand and heat.
The rage was in Samuel Teece. He climbed up on the porch and glared at the passing swarms. He waved his gun. And after a while when he had to do something, he began to shout at anyone, any Negro who looked up at him. "Bang! There's another rocket out in space!" he shouted so all could hear. "Bang! By God!" The dark heads didn't flicker or pretend to hear, but their white eyes slid swiftly over and back. "Crash! All them rockets fallin'! Screamin', dyin'! Bang! God Almighty, I'm glad I'm right here on old terra firma. As they says in that old joke, the more firma, the less terra! Ha, ha!"
Horses clopped along, shuffling up dust. Wagons bumbled on ruined springs.
"Bang!" His voice was lonely in the heat, trying to terrify the dust and the blazing sun sky. "Wham! Niggers all over space! Jerked outa rockets like so many minnows hit by a meteor, by God! Space fulla meteors. You know that? Sure! Thick as buckshot; powie! Shoot down them tin-can rockets like so many ducks, so many clay pipes! Ole sardine cans full of black cod! Bangin' like a stringa ladyfingers, bang, bang, bang! Ten thousand dead here, ten thousand there. Floatin' in space, around and around earth, ever and ever, cold and way out, Lord! You hear that, you there!"
Silence. The river was broad and continuous. Having entered all cotton shacks during the hour, having flooded all the valuables out, it was now carrying the clocks and the washboards, the silk bolts and curtain rods on down to some distant black sea.
High tide passed. It was two o'clock. Low tide came. Soon the river was dried up, the town silent, the dust settling in a film on the stores, the seated men, the tall hot trees.
The men on the porch listened.
Hearing nothing, they extended their thoughts and their imaginations out and into the surrounding meadows. In the early morning the land had been filled with its usual concoctions of sound. Here and there, with stubborn persistence to custom, there had been voices singing, the honey laughter under the mimosa branches, the pickaninnies rushing in clear water laughter at the creek, movements and bendings in the fields, jokes and shouts of amusement from the shingle shacks covered with fresh green vine.
Now it was as if a great wind had washed the land clean of sounds. There was nothing. Skeleton doors hung open on leather hinges. Rubber-tire swings hung in the silent air, uninhibited. The washing rocks at the river were empty, and the watermelon patches, if any, were left alone to heat their hidden liquors in the sun. Spiders started building new webs in abandoned huts; dust started to sift in from unpatched roofs in golden spicules. Here and there a fire, forgotten in the last rush, lingered and in a sudden access of strength fed upon the dry bones of some littered shack. The sound of a gentle feeding burn went up through the silenced air.
The men sat on the hardware porch, not blinking or swallowing.
"I can't figure why they left now. With things lookin' up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? Here's the poll tax gone, and more and more states passin' anti-lynchin' bills, and all kinds of equal rights. What more they want? They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go."
Far down the empty street a bicycle came.
"I'll be goddamned. Teece, here comes your Silly now."
The bicycle pulled up before the porch, a seventeen-year-old colored boy on it, all arms and feet and long legs and round watermelon head. He looked up at Samuel Teece and smiled.
"So you got a guilty conscience and came back," said Teece.
"No, sir, I just brought the bicycle."
"What's wrong, couldn't get it on the rocket?"
"That wasn't it, sir."
"Don't tell me what it was! Get off, you're not goin' to steal my property!" He gave the boy a push. The bicycle fell. "Get inside and start cleaning the brass."
"Beg pardon?" The boy's eyes widened.
"You heard what I said. There's guns need unpacking there, and a crate of nails just come from Natchez—"
"And a box of hammers need fixin'—"
"Mr. Teece, sir?"
"You still standin' there!" Teece glared.
"Mr. Teece, you don't mind I take the day off," he said apologetically.
"And tomorrow and day after tomorrow and the day after the day after that," said Teece.
"I'm afraid so, sir."
"You should be afraid, boy. Come here." He marched the boy across the porch and drew a paper out of a desk. "Remember this?"
"It's your workin' paper. You signed it, there's your X right there, ain't it? Answer me."
"I didn't sign that, Mr. Teece." The boy trembled. "Anyone can make an X."
"Listen to this, Silly. Contract: 'I will work for Mr. Samuel Teece two years, starting July 15, 2001, and if intending to leave will give four weeks' notice and continue working until my position is filled.' There." Teece slapped the paper, his eyes glittering. "You cause trouble, we'll take it to court."
"I can't do that," wailed the boy, tears starting to roll down his face, "If I don't go today, I don't go."
"I know just how you feel, Silly; yes, sir, I sympathize with you, boy. But we'll treat you good and give you good food, boy. Now you just get inside and start working and forget all about that nonsense, eh, Silly? Sure." Teece grinned and patted the boy's shoulder.
The boy turned and looked at the old men sitting on the porch. He could hardly see now for his tears. "Maybe—maybe one of these gentlemen here . . ." The men looked up in the hot, uneasy shadows, looking first at the boy and then at Teece.
"You meanin' to say you think a white man should take your place, boy?" asked Teece coldly.
Grandpa Quartermain took his red hands off his knees. He looked out at the horizon thoughtfully and said, "Teece, what about me?"
"I'll take Silly's job."
The porch was silent.
Teece balanced himself in the air. "Grandpa," he said warningly.
"Let the boy go. I'll clean the brass."
"Would you, would you, really?" Silly ran over to Grandpa, laughing, tears on his cheeks, unbelieving.
"Grandpa," said Teece, "keep your damn trap outa this."
"Give the kid a break, Teece."
Teece walked over and seized the boy's arm. "He's mine. I'm lockin' him in the back room until tonight."
"Don't, Mr. Teece!"
The boy began to sob now. His crying filled the air of the porch. His eyes were tight. Far down the street an old tin Ford was choking along, approaching, a last load of colored people in it. "Here comes my family, Mr. Teece, oh please, please, oh God, please!"
"Teece," said one of the other men on the porch, getting up, "let him go."
Another man rose also. "That goes for me too."
"And me," said another.
"What's the use?" The men all talked now. "Cut it out, Teece."
"Let him go."
Teece felt for his gun in his pocket. He saw the men's faces. He took his hand away and left the gun in his pocket and said, "So that's how it is?"
"That's how it is," someone said.
Teece let the boy go. "All right. Get out." He jerked his hand back in the store. "But I hope you don't think you're gonna leave any trash behind to clutter my store."
"You clean everything outa your shed in back; burn it."
Silly shook his head. "I'll take it with."
"They won't let you put it on that damn rocket."
"I'll take it with," insisted the boy softly.
He rushed back through the hardware store. There were sounds of sweeping and cleaning out, and a moment later he appeared, his hands full of tops and marbles and old dusty kites and junk collected through the years. Just then the old tin Ford drove up and Silly climbed in and the door slammed. Teece stood on the porch with a bitter smile. "What you goin' to do up there?"
"Startin' new," said Silly. "Gonna have my own hardware."
"God damn it, you been learnin' my trade so you could run off and use it!"
"No, sir, I never thought one day this'd happen, sir, but it did. I can't help it if I learned, Mr. Teece."
"I suppose you got names for your rockets?"
They looked at their one clock on the dashboard of the car.
"Like Elijah and the Chariot, The Big Wheel and The Little Wheel, Faith, Hope, and Charity, eh?"
"We got names for the ships, Mr. Teece."
"God the Son and the Holy Ghost, I wouldn't wonder? Say, boy, you got one named the First Baptist Church?"
"We got to leave now, Mr. Teece."
Teece laughed. "You got one named Swing Low, and another named Sweet Chariot?"
The car started up. "Good-by, Mr. Teece."
"You got one named Roll Dem Bones?"
"And another called Over Jordan! Ha! Well, tote that rocket, boy, lift that rocket, boy, go on, get blown up, see if I care!"
The car churned off into the dust. The boy rose and cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted one last time at Teece: "Mr. Teece, Mr. Teece, what you goin' to do nights from now on? What you goin' to do nights, Mr. Teece?"
Silence. The car faded down the road. It was gone. "What in hell did he mean?" mused Teece. "What am I goin' to do nights?"
He watched the dust settle, and it suddenly came to him.
He remembered nights when men drove to his house, their knees sticking up sharp and their shotguns sticking up sharper, like a carful of cranes under the night trees of summer, their eyes mean. Honking the horn and him slamming his door, a gun in his hand, laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old's, driving off down the summer-night road, a ring of hemp rope coiled on the car floor, fresh shell boxes making every man's coat look bunchy. How many nights over the years, how many nights of the wind rushing in the car, flopping their hair over their mean eyes, roaring, as they picked a tree, a good strong tree, and rapped on a shanty door!
"So that's what the son of a bitch meant?" Teece leaped out into the sunlight. "Come back, you bastard! What am I goin' to do nights? Why, that lousy, insolent son of a . . ."
It was a good question. He sickened and was empty. Yes. What will we do nights? he thought. Now they're gone, what? He was absolutely empty and numb.
He pulled the pistol from his pocket, checked its load.
"What you goin' to do, Sam?" someone asked.
"Kill that son of a bitch."
Grandpa said, "Don't get yourself heated."
But Samuel Teece was gone around behind the store. A moment later he drove out the drive in his open-top car. "Anyone comin' with me?"
"I'd like a drive," said Grandpa, and got up.
Grandpa got in and slammed the door. Samuel Teece gutted the car out in a great whorl of dust. They didn't speak as they rushed down the road under the bright sky. The heat from the dry meadows was shimmering.
They stopped at a crossroad. "Which way'd they go, Grandpa?"
Grandpa squinted. "Straight on ahead, I figure."
They went on. Under the summer trees their car made a lonely sound. The road was empty, and as they drove along they began to notice something. Teece slowed the car and bent out, his yellow eyes fierce.
"God damn it, Grandpa, you see what them bastards did?"
"What?" asked Grandpa, and looked.
Where they had been carefully set down and left, in neat bundles every few feet along the empty country road, were old roller skates, a bandanna full of knicknacks, some old shoes, a cartwheel, stacks of pants and coats and ancient hats, bits of oriental crystal that had once tinkled in the wind, tin cans of pink geraniums, dishes of waxed fruit, cartons of Confederate money, washtubs, scrubboards, wash lines, soap, somebody's tricycle, someone else's hedge shears, a toy wagon, a jack-in-the-box, a stained-glass window from the Negro Baptist Church, a whole set of brake rims, inner tubes, mattresses, couches, rocking chairs, jars of cold cream, hand mirrors. None of it flung down, no, but deposited gently and with feeling, with decorum, upon the dusty edges of the road, as if a whole city had walked here with hands full, at which time a great bronze trumpet had sounded, the articles had been relinquished to the quiet dust, and one and all, the inhabitants of the earth had fled straight up into the blue heavens.
"Wouldn't burn them, they said," cried Teece angrily. "No, wouldn't burn them like I said, but had to take them along and leave them where they could see them for the last time, on the road, all together and whole. Them niggers think they're smart."
He veered the car wildly, mile after mile, down the road, tumbling, smashing, breaking, scattering bundles of paper, jewel boxes, mirrors, chairs. "There, by damn, and there!"
The front tire gave a whistling cry. The car spilled crazily off the road into a ditch, flinging Teece against the glass.
"Son of a bitch!" He dusted himself off and stood out of the car, almost crying with rage.
He looked at the silent, empty road. "We'll never catch them now, never, never." As far as he could see there was nothing but bundles and stacks and more bundles neatly placed like little abandoned shrines in the late day, in the warm-blowing wind.
Teece and Grandpa came walking tiredly back to the hardware store an hour later. The men were still sitting there, listening, and watching the sky. Just as Teece sat down and eased his tight shoes off someone cried, "Look!"
"I'll be damned if I will," said Teece.
But the others looked. And they saw the golden bobbins rising in the sky, far away. Leaving flame behind, they vanished.
In the cotton fields the wind blew idly among the snow dusters. In still farther meadows the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted, striped like tortoise cats lying in the sun.
The men on the porch sat down, looked at each other, looked at the yellow rope piled neat on the store shelves, glanced at the gun shells glinting shiny brass in their cartons, saw the silver pistols and long black metal shotguns hung high and quiet in the shadows. Somebody put a straw in his mouth, Someone else drew a figure in the dust.
Finally Samuel Teece held his empty shoe up in triumph, turned it over, stared at it, and said, "Did you notice? Right up to the very last, by God, he said 'Mister'!"
The boys would hike far out into the Martian country. They carried odorous paper bags into which from time to time upon the long walk they would insert their noses to inhale the rich smell of the ham and mayonnaised pickles, and to listen to the liquid gurgle of the orange soda in the warming bottles. Swinging their grocery bags full of clean watery green onions and odorous liverwurst and red catsup and white bread, they would dare each other on past the limits set by their stem mothers. They would run, yelling:
"First one there gets to kick!"
They biked in summer, autumn, or winter. Autumn was most fun, because then they imagined, like on Earth, they were scuttering through autumn leaves.
They would come like a scatter of jackstones on the marble flats beside the canals, the candy-cheeked boys with blue-agate eyes, panting onion-tainted commands to each other. For now that they had reached the dead, forbidden town it was no longer a matter of "Last one there's a girl!" or "First one gets to play Musician!" Now the dead town's doors lay wide and they thought they could hear the faintest crackle, like autumn leaves, from inside. They would hush themselves forward, by each other's elbows, carrying sticks, remembering their parents had told them, "Not there! No, to none of the old towns! Watch where you hike. You'll get the beating of your life when you come home. We'll check your shoes!"
And there they stood in the dead city, a heap of boys, their hiking lunches half devoured, daring each other in shrieky whispers.
"Here goes nothing!" And suddenly one of them took off, into the nearest stone house, through the door, across the living room, and into the bedroom where, without half looking, he would kick about, thrash his feet, and the black leaves would fly through the air, brittle, thin as tissue cut from midnight sky. Behind him would race six others, and the first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the outer covering of black flakes. A great skull would roll to view, like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs, plangent as a dull harp, and then the black flakes of mortality blowing all about them in their scuffling dance; the boys pushed and heaved and fell in the leaves, in the death that had turned the dead to flakes and dryness, into a game played by boys whose stomachs gurgled with orange pop.
And then out of one house into another, into seventeen houses, mindful that each of the towns in its turn was being burned clean of its horrors by the Firemen, antiseptic warriors with shovels and bins, shoveling away at the ebony tatters and peppermint-stick bones, slowly but assuredly separating the terrible from the normal; so they must play very hard, these boys, the Firemen would soon be here!
Then, luminous with sweat, they gnashed at their last sandwiches. With a final kick, a final marimba concert, a final autumnal lunge through leaf stacks, they went home.
Their mothers examined their shoes for black flakelets which, when discovered, resulted in scalding baths and fatherly beatings.
By the year's end the Firemen had raked the autumn leaves and white xylophones away, and it was no more fun.