It started with his ears: the sound of a circling fly was like a knife smashed across violin strings, louder and louder with each lazy revolution until Baron killed it. He didn’t want to. Bad men hurt animals and he was-
well, he was OK. He let the fly lie where it fell, as a warning to the others. Some ants tried to take his grisly message away, so he killed them too. Later, more came. Their little feet were loud on the damp wooden floor: tschoop tschoop tschoop.
The house had never seen better days, though it would be hard to imagine worse ones. The leak in the basement had gone critical months back and now the room was a well-caged swamp, complete with a yellowy fungus growing in the corners. Baron called it ‘wall puke’. It tasted OK.
He’d been a bigshot grifter once. Well, that was a lie. He’d been a two-bit conman once, but he’d scratched out a living. Good smile: lotsa teeth, big eyes. The punters liked big wobbly eyes and a sad story to go with ’em, and all the better if that same grief could be their gain. Baron’d lost count of how many ‘funerals’ he’d had to attend, how many times he’d said no sir real diamond but you know the cost of plane tickets these days and I just have to say goodbye to my dear ole mum with very-nearly-real tears in his eyes, because his stomach was growling and so was his landlord.
If he concentrated, Baron could swear he heard his nosehairs growing. He imagined them curling inwards, longer and longer, burrowing through the nose cartilage and nesting around his brain like seaweed strangling a jetty, or pubes smothering a limp prick.
His head thrummed with blood. It made him want to touch his eyelids. They were leathery. There were bone nubs growing downwards from his brow, a little frill of horns. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel them stretching his skin from beneath. The thing inside him wanted to burst out and dance naked in the rain of gore, body all slick and red: timeless, tailless, pristine. He shouted his name and heard the echo prang back. “Still here,” he said, then wondered who he was talking to.
He didn’t miss Elle. Well, that was a lie. She’d made him want to be a better person, and goddam he’d tried. Sometimes, we strive for some greater ideal and we find the true measure of our potential. Unfortunately, potential -like bank balance- is best left unchecked.
Tschoop tschoop tschoop. Bone nubs, wall puke and feet sounds; remnants of the man he’d once been that had lurked in his yellow belly for god knows how long and metastasizing at the worst moment.
There had been picnics, and half-asleep drunk fucking, and arguments over hairs in the drain: a domesticity that had been comforting in its all-ness. For two endless years, Baron had believed with all his heart that he could be normal, that he could halt the twitching in his hands and the petty social violence that sat like a splinter through his eye.
It had actually begun to work, until the little voices bouncing around the cavern of his skull pranged off the twisty nosehairs and found themselves front and center again. Three little words that made the gears lurch back into motion.
“It’s a boy,” the doctor had said.
He hadn’t said I’m sorry Mister Baron, but you’re a complete bastard. It’s not terminal, but it should be, but it had the same effect. Baron got home calm-as-you-like, then packed a single small bag. Running was easy; animal. Total physical lockout: body said goodbye to brain and got the legs going mile on mile. Baron eventually found himself on his knees, on a twist of tarmac broken by puslike yellow roots. His mouth moaned, his eyes twitched and his nerves jangled, all trying to break away from a body that could barely hold them. It was then that Baron found the house. He did not come out for some time.
There was a pile of mirror dust and splintered wood in the back yard. The wind wouldn’t touch it, nor would Baron any more. Bad luck to smash a mirror, so he’d smashed them all. No point breaking the rules just a little bit. A is for Anarkee said the writing on the wall. Right on, man.
Every day while he’d gone shopping for vegetables or run on the treadmill, Baron had told himself that he was becoming a good person. Every night while his wife lay asleep beside him, he’d fought with the fishhooks in his soul that wanted to breach him, to take him in godlike hands and tear his guts out. Bad man bad man bad man he’d told himself, as if dreaming the words hard enough would broadcast the warm inches between and she would know how much work it took him just to sit still, to quiet the violent whispers of his heart.
We are what we tell ourselves we are, and Baron knew he was an animal wearing a man’s skin. Well, that’s a lie. He wanted to be better, but the world made it so hard. His fingernails were harder now, and longer. He’d cut himself on them a few times before he’d figured it out. He tried to chew them off, and screamed as a stiletto tooth tore the flesh of his finger.
His clothes kept snagging on the new bone that jutted from his angles, so he tore them apart and walked the house naked, spitting, slobbering, playing a game of good man bad man good man bad man and letting the sound of his voice get lost in the big corners. The sound bounced back, and he felt briefly like he wasn’t alone.
“Good man,” he said, and touched the ring, which kept slipping off his too-long fingers. He’d had so much practice with fake rings, he had no idea how to treat a real one. “Bad man,” he said, then wept.
His stomach rumbled, as it had in the bad old days. He shuddered his way to the basement stairs, and took them one at a time, as if too heavy a tread would tear the rubber sheet of sanity. His feet went under the water. It was a relief not to see them any more. The toes stuck out at odd angles now, bones warped to fit a new frame.
He caught his reflection in the dark basement water, then tried to pretend he hadn’t. Big eyes, lots of teeth. Just what the punters love. There’s always profit in someone else’s desperation. He tossed the word ‘man’ into the water. It did not echo back. “Well,” he said, “that’s that then.”
He ate some wall puke, then fell back on his haunches and screamed. It was easy; animal.
He did not stop for some time.
Baron drooled, and dragged his knuckles and knives-of-bone across the floor. Where the spurs snagged, he grunted and pushed forward, tearing at the walls and floor. Outside called to him, pregnant with possibility. Grand Guignol for most, but a playground the reckless and violent. His muscles were stretched so tight that the sun played harmonies across them, little shivering arpeggios. He was hungry.
He could not be a man, but he could still do the good thing.
Baron went home.