by Christopher Johnstone
For most people the name Gnostromo conjures images of the play-act death of a monster. Not for me. I knew the señor too well. I remember it all too well. I remember how it began. I remember how it ended. Most of all, I remember the carnival. I suppose, on the day in question, I might have called it a freakstall or sideshow but now I prefer carnival. It is the Latin that appeals to me: carnem levare--the putting away of flesh…a farewell to flesh. Of course, by flesh was meant merely food, but names hold to their own truths. Names echo, they redefine themselves in time, they nudge at unknowns. There is a power in names, and secrets sometimes too, but always power.
I get ahead of myself.
The carnival. Let us see, the place where flesh is farewelled, the carnival, was encamped in four squat tents, tattered and threaded with cloth-of-gold and sparkled with dew from a nearby surf beach. It was the fifth year of an eleven-year drought, and the whole of the plains of Vallado were dust from the ocean to the Sierra Umbrãos. Endless red-brown dust, it bled in ribbons on the air that evening. It soaked everything with ochre rust, including me, my hair, my clothing, the food I ate, the wine I drank. And during that month, while I lived at the castle of Avelino, the dust dominated everything. Every breath. Every smell. It was like God, only more pervasive.
The bird-whited, salt-crusted towers of Avelino were the home of Señor Gnostromo, and I was his guest. He was landlord, tyrant and terror of the neighboring districts. You will have heard of The Gnostramãro, but I will tell you about the other Gnostromo, Señor Jacobo de Douro le Gnostromo. He was an elderly man, seventy at least, but wiry, fit, with eyes full of the sparkle of hate and a mouth full of curses and cracked, yellow teeth. At an age when most men are looking grandfatherly, the Señor Gnostromo still had the look of a world-weary picaroon about him. He liked no-one and nothing, I think. His only joy was hunting, and he would ride over field and through corn-patch without remorse, hounding whatever poor small thing had caught his eye, trampling crops, battering peasants aside, leaving injury, fear, and wonder in his wake.
He found me at the only innhouse in the small town that clung to the skirts of his desolate family castle. The man pounced on me with a battering of hateful, welcoming words, and offered me an invitation the way most men would offer a challenge to a knife-fight. He confronted me without any introduction, and without pause he growled out a request that I 'kindly' stay with him and enjoy his 'hospitality.' He said both of those words quite clearly, but twisted them in his throat so that I thought for a moment that he meant the opposite, that the invitation was a façade, a sham, a sarcastic indulgence, and that I had somehow, unknowingly and bitterly, insulted this iron-faced old stranger.
For some days I did not understand at all why he had invited me to stay in his castle atop the crag. He was silent, even truculent at our evening meals. He ignored me most of the time and openly seethed at my presence for the rest of it. I offered on several occasions to leave, but always he insisted, through gritted teeth, that I stay. My reputation as a practitioner of medicine was already well established, and I thought that he was perhaps ill, in need of attention, but too proud and too misanthropic to admit it cleanly. So, I stayed by him, I ran out a long line of patience, and I waited for the fish, eventually to find its way to me.
Two weeks went by before he arrived at my rooms in a sudden, agitated temper and asked me to accompany him to a beachside carnival. And so I did.
All told, the travelling circus consisted of just four tents, one camel, an Arab with a monkey, two painted men, a cobra (sans fangs), a lion (also sans fangs) and, as advertised in an embroidery of letters above the entrance, several 'inhumanaries.'
We stood among the thin crowd, and I cast about, looking at the faces that dared not look back, lest they catch the eye of the old, mad lord of Avelino who stood beside me. They moved like ghosts around us, the peasantry and middle-classes, their blue and white cotton caught up in phantom tangles by the bloody colored dust-winds.
"Dr. Vole." He very nearly spat his words, as if they hurt his lips, as if the vowels were not air but bile that he had to choke up each time he wanted to speak. He had trouble with the name, and frequently called me 'Volo' instead.
"The carnival." He moved a hand across the scene. "I require you. Follow."
And again, I followed Señor Gnostromo, past the monkey and Arab, past the cage with its doleful, slack-lipped and drooling lion, and then to the last of the tents. A man with bright white teeth and diseased eyes took money from us, a few pesos, and we entered the gloom of the canvas-lined cave. The interior was lit dimly, but sparklingly, with candles that were the color of summer fireflies. Within, reclining or flexing in various attitudes were the show's freaks--the 'inhumanaries' of the advertorial banner.
There was a man who had no arms or legs to speak of, only flat, flipper-like spikes of flesh which he used to paddle around a small tank like a seal. There was a woman who claimed to be a hundred and fifty and was so ruinously and cancerously aged that both her skin and meat looked dead. There was no life in her at all except for her eyes, which were wet, and her tongue, which was red and darting. There was a boy whose entire face and chest was covered with drooping, fleshy growths the shape and color of bunches of the sour red grapes they grow for wine all along that coast. A man with seven fingers on each hand and light downy coat of fur. A woman with three breasts, which she revealed completely for the price of a half-peso, or a packet of cigarettes, or a bar of good carbolic soap. To grope cost a full peso.
But Señor Gnostromo went past these shadows in the half-light, striding in his furious, particular way, and to the last of the displays, a tall man, seven foot or more, hugely built, with muscles piled on muscles.
"Him," said Gnostromo. "Him. I want your opinion on him."
The giant was half-in-gloom, but the candles caught his eyes and made it look as though there were scraps of fire in each globe. He put down the weights he had been hefting around, ponderously slow, and looked at us with those glinting eyes.
"Well, the devil tear out me innards and string me up by 'em. It's Señor Gnosto. Back to see me feats of fearingly powerful strength?" The voice rumbled from the darkness, issuing from a face that was blanked out by the shadows. He might as well have not had any mouth at all. As he spoke, he rubbed his hands, each a knotted mass of bone and sinew. "Wanna see me lift and carry, wanna see me pound, and tear, and kill?"
"Dogs," spat Gnostromo, to me evidentially. "Dogs. He wrings the necks of dogs with his bare hands. Kills them." He snapped a finger. "Kills them like that."
"No thank you," I said.
"Is quick," said the strongman. "Gouge my eyes if I lie, they don't feel nothing."
"And impressive." Gnostromo's voice was touched with greedy enjoyment. "Very impressive."
I told them that I didn't think it was necessary. "I can see your strength well enough, sir."
"You hear that, Gnostro? You hear that? The señor, he calls me sir. Sir? I ain't no sir. I ain't no nothing but a heap of filthy, powerful dog-killing angry. You can cut my tongue in two down the middling if I ain't."
I did not know what to say, so I cleared my throat, rocked on my heels and hoped that Señor Gnostromo would tire of this odd obsession with a circus freak. But he did not. Instead he leaned closer to me, and tried I think to whisper. He was not capable of it. He had a voice too used to the holler and soho of the hunt, and his whisper was like the whisper of a kettle--harsh, clawing, and impossible to ignore. I can't believe that the strongman did not hear every word quite clearly.
"What I want to know," he licked his lips, "what I need to know from you is do you think it is dangerous?"
"The procedure. Would a man of my age survive?"
I looked again at the strongman, at his dead-leaf colored skin, at the shadows and hollows of his muscles, and I saw, dimly at first, then more clearly, the tiny and snaking lines of scars. They were suture-marks, thousands of them, a lace of scar-tissue as delicate and fibrous as the web of the most ethereal of spiders. The dawning was followed by a sudden lurch in my gut. "Procedure," I said, dumbly. I tilted my head, the way one does automatically when presented with a very good work of art. "Procedure…" I stepped closer, but the strongman stepped back so that his eyes fell into complete shadow and the whole of his face was engulfed and gone.
"Not so close," said the strongman. "Not so close. I don'ts like no one getting so close."
"He is older than that aged wretch in the corner," said Gnostromo. "So he claims. So the surgeon claims. Older, and yet fitter and more powerful than anyone else for a hundred, hundred miles. Except for the surgeon."
I could only answer like an idiot. "Surgeon?"
"But you, Dr. Vole, you are a fine and world class doctor. I would want a doctor of your standing there too…if I were to…engage such services. I would want someone who can put things right, if they go wrong."
"Who is this surgeon?"
Gnostromo shot me a scouring glance. "He is here. About. It does not matter." A pause. "What do you think? Would it be too much for me? Would my heart take it? Would I survive?"
"I've no idea, sir, no idea at all." It was all I could think to say. "I've no experience with anything of the sort. And…so…consequently, I don't know what to advise, except to not even consider it. All surgery carries a risk." I fell back on worn adages. "People have died during tonsillectomies." I waved a finger, as if warning a five-year old. "There is infection, gangrene, bed-fever. It's not worth it, not for something so…so…superficial. And whoever this bone-saw is, this man is in all probability lying to you."
I tried to speak in a whisper myself, unsure if I was succeeding. "The man has found some natural monstrosity of birth and has cut fake stiches and scars to make a freak of nature look like a freak of science." I paused. "I cannot fathom why." Then, making no effort to hide the suspicion in my voice, and suddenly thinking that I understood, I added, "What has he proposed to charge you for this alleged surgical procedure? I presume that you would have to pay ahead of time, in case you didn't survive the surgery." I left no question in my voice that I thought that the intention would be to ensure that he did not in any way survive the surgery.
Señor Gnostromo was wordless for a time. The air that was sucking in and out of his windpipe made snickering sounds. "I thought you were a man of the world, Volo. I thought that you were open to the new advantages of medicine. I thought you were of an open mind. But, I see…I think," he said, and waited for a good seven or eight sucks of breath to noisily come and go. "I think that our acquaintance is at an end. Return to Avelino. Gather your things. Go."
I did not try to argue with him. I had no interest in remaining anywhere near the man now. I was right, after all. He was sick, and too proud to admit it, but he was sick in the mind. It was delirium tremens perhaps, for though he showed none of the usual symptoms of unsteadiness, the señor drank a great deal, morning, dusk, and night. How many times had I sat through the ritual of his deep and hungry sniffing of the cork from some ancient bottle or other? How many times had I watched him sluice the liquor, glass after glass, into his throat? But I was no expert in the matters of the cognitive disturbance and decided to let the matter rest.
A year passed and another winter forgot to rain. A hot red-colored spring edged away into a waterless summer. The dry brown leaves that once were so heavy in the trees blew like angry birds through the world. The drought dragged on.
I remained for much of this year in the capital, attending to the health of Honorary Consuls, Viceroys, attachés, and other various ambassadorial hangers on. But I did not forget the mad lord of Avelino. I asked occasionally after him when I met a government official who had come recently from the coast but got only garbled and strange replies. In a fit of charity I wrote a letter to the mayor of the Avelino town, letting it be known that there was a colleague of mine in the capital with a good reputation who was also well schooled in matters of delusional disturbance. I left it politely undisclosed at to why this information should be of interest to the mayor. I heard no reply.
Towards the end of that year business called me again out upon the road. There were rich who were sick, and there were poor who I thought I could help along the way.
But I was soon dissuaded of any hopes I had of offering much help to anyone who was not of the wealthiest class. Things were different now in the countryside. The peasants, blank faced and anonymous, were thinner than they had ever been when last I rode the dusty ways. There were skeletons walking the desolate earth now, banditry was rife, and on the advice of the Civil Guard I soon took on an armed man, Pardo, a lanky sort who had to keep his wiry storm of hair either smothered under a hat or pasted into place with frequent splashes of oil.
Between visits to rich, well-fed men, we saw dead villages, Pardo and I. We camped in the looted skeletons of old casinos, where once the walls were a riot of gilt, and where the ghosts of the night were the dead hulks of roulette tables and grand pianos.
Of course, there were still towns where people clung to life, eeked out crops, turned a living, but even here, in the lucky places, the only truly fat, sleek things were the dogs that ran semi-feral on the outskirts of each village.
Pardo asked me how the dogs could be so fat and plump when the people were so thin, and I was shocked at the naïvety of my knife-fighting, gun-toting hired man. I told him that I did not know. Then he asked why the people did not eat the dogs, all I could only answer, haltingly, was that perhaps it had something to do with what the dogs were eating. Perhaps the dogs' flesh was irreligious now.
It was only when we passed a graveyard and looked out across the shallow graves and ragged dug-up holes that I think Pardo understood. He was silent for an hour afterwards and the first dog we saw after that he took aim on and shot, remorseless.
Avelino came on me as a surprise. It was hidden behind a rambling bluff of stone for much of way along the coastal road that led to it, and it was only as we rounded a crest of sandstone, as the sky plummeted away to the horizon, as the world unfurled that the castle and town leapt like a fairytale goblin-man into view. It did not look very changed to me. There was smoke in the chimneys, traffic in the streets. Even from afar we could see that the town was alive. I wondered if the same was true of its elderly hellion lord.
The traffic on the streets, however, turned out to be something of an illusion. A couple men pushed wheelbarrows of stones for no apparent reason, a few others wandered aimlessly, most chose to hide from the sun in doorways or within the cool dark of houses. The carnival, I noticed, was gone.
I found the innhouse I'd stayed in those long months before. The outside of the building was as blindingly whitewashed as I remembered and the innards were just as dark. Fragments of shadow and darker black tore up the room, and sunk all the tables with their knots of men into a jigsaw of confusion. The owner recognized, me, so too did a few others I think, and Pardo and I were soon sitting down to bowls of soup that seemed to have been made out of potatoes and sand. We had not had long to eat when one of the men in the room detached himself from his huddle and approached.
"I am Dr. Vole, yes."
"My name is El Enzo. I am the son of Demero El Enzo. He was mayor, when you were here last."
"Has your father retired?" I asked.
El Enzo shook his head, crossed himself and did not reply. He took a chair and sat. "Will you help us, Señor Volo? Have you come to help us? He hates you, you know? He thinks that if you had stayed things would have been different…better. He curses you."
Before I had time to reply the door banged open and men entered. Their faces were scarred terribly, raked by blunt knife-cuts or claws, it was unclear which. They were haggard, hollow-eyed, and moved with a furious laziness.
"Someone has told him," said El Enzo. "A spy." He spoke now with a fearful speed. "If you let us in, Señor Volo, we will see to him. The castle is locked up tight, but if you let us in…" Then he crab-scurried away backwards.
As the men came towering towards us, Pardo stood and put a hand on his gun. "What is this? Who are you?"
I was not expecting the shot, and Pardo certainly wasn't. He flew backwards like a ragdoll on strings, crushed and crumpled as he hit the floor. The shot went straight through his forehead I think, though I cannot be sure. His face was thankfully turned away from me, and all I saw were the few twitches of death and a spreading of wine-dark wet on the floor.
"With us," said one of the men, and another took me by the arm. They led me out of the innhouse and into the blinding sun. I heard the same man say, "Bring his doctoring things." We waited on the doorstep, me feeling as if I was going to melt in the heat, before finally the remaining men emerged from the innhouse carrying all my medicines and clothing, books, papers, and journals. It was not so much a march as an amble, the pace that took us along the streets, first packed earth, then cobbled, then steeper and steeper, and then to the gates of Avelino Castle itself.
One of the men knocked on the door, an inscrutable signal was passed, and we were admitted.
I was not taken to Señor Gnostromo, not at first. I was shown to a room like a valued guest, I was given my possessions and told to dress for a formal dinner, told that the Señor of the House was expecting me. I did so, I saw no other choice. I washed the dust from my hair, the grit from my eyes. My teeth were scrubbed and my hair rinsed. In the end I had nothing to do for an hour or more except think about what El Enzo had said. I spent some time distracting myself, preparing for dinner, very carefully picking through my boxes of medicaments, correctives, restoratives, linctures and opiates, then I carefully choose a bottle of coñac from my meagre supply. I was waiting, ready, bored, and nearly nodding off to sleep when finally the knock came at my door and I was ushered out.
The dining room was much as I remembered it, still full of the old fashioned finery of an old family. Modern gewgaws and fashions had never dared to tread here. But the most startling thing about the room was the sheer weight of food that was heaped on the table. Roast mutton upon mutton, piles of out-of-season grapes, olives, spiced tomatoes, cornmeal pressed into cakes, sardines, soups and rich, steaming hanks of bread, white as snow and just as delicate.
Shut within this room, alone, I found myself again waiting, and again I grew tired with the boredom and the creeping sense of uneasy terror. This bounty was a mad waste. There were but two chairs at the table, mine and presumably his…was the food meant to show off his power? Wealth? Disregard for the suffering of the people? I could not fathom the meaning of it. I simply put the coñac down on the table and sat and did not eat a thing.
How much time passed? I do not know. Time did not stop, I know that. I could hear the click-click-click of an unseen clock for the duration of my solitude. I waited, alone and wondering. I grew steadily hungrier and still, I dared not eat. It was perhaps drawing away from evening and into night when a door opened and my host finally entered.
It was at once clear that Señor Gnostromo had undertaken the procedure, I saw it in the shadow that chased before him before the man even came into full view. It was also clear that this was not the procedure that had built the strongman--the surgeon had undertaken a different work and he had outdone himself.
Señor Gnostromo could no longer be called human. He entered the room in silence, stood as if to show himself off and watched for my reaction. I worked hard to give him none, and I think I succeeded. Sneering, the señor took his seat and eyed me over the long-cooled bounty.
"Good evening, doctor. You must excuse me." It surprised me that he had no difficulty speaking with his teeth reshaped so large and sharp. It amazed me that he could handle a fork with his fingers tapering in those strange, curled claws. He began piling food onto his plate. "Ever since the surgery, I am hungry." A shank of mutton. "So hungry." Piles of figs. "For flesh." A whole chicken. "And I am hungry for other flesh too. Young, squirming flesh. It surprised me, I did not expect it." An eel. Piles of bread. "What do you think? A man of my age suddenly wants that. I take them from the town. I take them, and I sate myself on them, and then, when I am done, I am still hungry." Gravied beef. Tuny. Crabs. "So I sate myself a second time."
Then he forked strips of another meat and he looked at me meaningfully with his staring, burning eyes…I had thought before that it was perhaps some sort of cured pork…
"But you are not hungry I see. Good. All for me, then."
He ate savagely, and he ignored me while he gulped and chewed, tore and mangled the food that went into him.
What does one do when faced with such a thing? My mind wandered. I became detached. I tried to keep my sanity. I tried not to think of the thousands of suture marks that patterned his skin, the animal tangles of fur, the teeth, the nocturnal eyes.
I thought of rational things. Of Pliny the Elder who wrote of the cynocephali, of Alexander the Great who met the dogheaded men on his conquests, of how the Christian's Saints, Andrew and Bartholomew, met a creature that had the face of a dog, and boars tusks, teeth and nails of a lion and a mane like a lion's too. Hairy. Shaggy. Inhuman. And later to be converted into another saint, Christophoro.
I thought of all the medieval philosophy spent on the topic. Are the cynocephali human? Do they have souls? Can they be redeemed? The Christians held that the dogmen were the descendants of Noah's grandson, Nimrod the Hunter. The Mohammedeans believed that the creatures were the descendants of another of Noah's son, Japhet, who used a she-dog to suckle his own son. I am not a religious man. I do not remember a great deal of my Talmudic readings, nor do I actively practice, not much. I do recall that there is a word in the Apocryphal writings for a creature that was not made by God, but which exists now. Like the ass or the mule…made by man, not by divinity. Such things are not inherently evil, but they are not inherently divine either, they--
I jumped in my seat, and Gnostromo laughed, deep and bellyful. He tore into some more meat, swallowed and snatched the bottle of coñac. "Risks in all surgery. You remember, Volo? Risks in all surgery. You said that. And then you ran away. You could have prevented this. You might have fulfilled your duty. But you did not." He sniffed the cork of the coñac, deeply, shoving it nearly into a nostril, the way he always used to…old habits. A skein of confusion appeared in the lines of his face. He dropped the cork, looked at the bottle. "This is not mine." The bottle left his hand, arced and smashed bloodily across a wall. "You think you can poison me? You think that it is so easy? Look at me. Look at me, you whore-son, you filthy, sanctimonious Pharisee. Look at my nose? You think I wouldn't smell it?"
He had detected it then, on the cork, the narcotic I had removed from my box and so carefully applied. I remained where I was sitting, afraid that if I moved he would pounce, shred, tear.
"Poison?" he screamed. Laughter rung in the room, and his eyes were alight with the madness of it. "How could you not think that I would not smell it? Me? Look at me. Look at me!"
He got up from his seat and threw it across the room, but as he did so, Señor Gnostromo wavered, trembled and nearly fell. His eyes widened, and I sat calmly. One step towards me, another, then one more faltering attempt and he fell, scrambling for purchase. It was much like the world had been tipped sideways on him, and he could not find up or down any longer. I decided that it was safe to get up from my own seat, and I moved towards him, even as he thrashed and made small, terrified sounds.
"I did not poison the coñac, señor. I poisoned the cork. The narcotic is one that is transmissible by contact with exposed membranes, such as those in the nostrils."
It was not, however, the sort of poison that has a long lasting effect and I had no means or inclination to attempt to kill the señor myself. I rummaged quickly about his person, found a massive set of keys and let myself out by a side-door while the señor threshed and fought against the effects of the drug. I had found a side-postern to the castle by the time that the first clinkering of alarm bells rose on the air.
On the other side of the castle I found myself at the mercy of a high and bitterly dry night-wind. It bit me with sharp, hot teeth, and chewed at my eyes. Down in the village streets I could see lines of burning lanterns casting puddles of light and striking sparks from guns and knives. The people of the town had trusted me then it seemed. El Enzo had trusted that the odd foreigner would find some way to get a castle door unshackled. I called out to them, my voice sailing on that endless hot wind, and somewhere down below a hundred voices called back, angry and joyful.