Premiere Issue

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Black Dandy is pleased to present its premiere issue, featuring 10 tales of unsettling situations.

We’ve assembled writers who dwell in the sublime space between magic realism, surrealism, and the otherwise strange.

Read the first story below.

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The Second Skein

by George Salis

Thousands of birds formed the shape of a plane, ranging from ducks to parrots, geese to eagles, and headed toward the north tower. The fuselage was the feathered bellies of flamingos. Pelicans the vertical stabilizer. The span of the wings were swans, their feet extending and retracting in the manner of flaps and ailerons. Shrieking hawks were the turbine engines. The nose cone an amalgamation of woodpeckers and anhingas. From the point of view of pedestrians, the mass in flight was at best an ominous mirage and at worse a Boeing 757-200, one that the tower responded to with a giant’s moan of steel, a weep of glass, a cough of smoke, and a flatulence of fire. Singed feathers swaying, spinning, falling. The collision caused the inhabitants of the tower to stumble as though with sudden disorientation, a split-second fugue. When they regained their composure, they found that the hair on their heads had grown to twenty-one feet, trailing across the floor like tributaries. Not only this, but their fingernails had grown nine feet long, the thumbnails curling into keratin buns and the others twisting into corkscrews. With the passage of sixteen and a half minutes, a second plane composed entirely of crows, like a delayed shadow of the first, careened into the south tower. And now two, twin giants were afflicted with paroxysmal coughing, portions of their innards hundreds of degrees hot and rising.

Months later, in a one-by-one-foot cell in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a scarlet macaw named Abdul Rahman Abdullah Al Ghamdi would have its wings clipped with a pair of dull scissors, its talons extracted with rusty pliers, its eye burned with a cigar, its bottom beak removed with an adjustable wrench, and would be waterboarded for trauma-inducing lengths of time. On the night of a crescent moon, Al Ghamdi would expire in a hardened bed of its own feces, a vision of avian paradise glistening in its one good eye, knowing that the enemy only ever heard a squawking “fuck off” or “allahu akbar” and one personalized insult of “goatfucker” for the corpulent, cigar-branding official.

The hair and the nails, both parts of the body that allegedly grow within the coffin. Amid heat and smoke and screams, various people’s thoughts as to why this anomaly had occurred were subdued by an alarming instinct, a flight response. Charlotte, a secretary, was the first to move, chewing through her thumbnail. She remembered all the times her father admonished her for pathological grooming and the ways in which he tried to stop the compulsion. Back then, at the age of seven, in the throes of her parents’ venomous divorce, she’d make small cuts with her central incisors on one of the rounded corners of each nail, then she’d bite down on the nail flap of the free edge and peel away a moon-thin sliver. After feeling its smooth, curved shape and pointy ends against her tongue, she’d bring the sliver up to her central incisors again and bite down over the length of it, hearing a series of pleasurable spinal cracks, then push it back and grind away at it between her molars, finally ingesting the remains. She never spat out a nail, like she’d seen boys do at school, competing against each other in terms of distance. To spit a nail was a waste, she thought, when consuming it was like recycling, allowing for the others to regrow more quickly. With time, she went further, gnawing at the sheared nails until she had excavated portions of the pulpy nail beds, which she sucked away like the meat of a crab leg. Then she would gnaw the cuticle, picking off the shredded tendrils so that her lunulae were fully realized. She relished hangnails, too, twiddling them back and forth with a finger from the opposite hand and feeling a bit of pain, anticipating the rip that would send an electric shock through her finger, spreading across the palm, then, having done so, she would watch the blood begin to collect in the crevice between skin and nail, and just when that crevice could barely hold the flow of blood, she’d lick it away, something aluminum about the taste, and more blood would inundate the crevice, and she would continue this process of flood, almost-drip, and lick, the same way she’d stop ice cream from sliding down its cone while at the beach. But as far as her father was concerned, onychophagia had been the name of a demon who needed to be exorcised from his daughter’s mind. He started by hacking a syllable whenever he saw her fingers in her mouth—“Eh!”—but this only worked when he was keeping watch, and inevitably the business would get done, whether in the bathroom or bedroom. The more he expressed disapproval, the sweeter her nails tasted. Then, a week or so after her mother moved to another state with another man, her father scolded her outright, “The fingertips of a corpse, not my perfect daughter. You need to stop this childishness.” When of course she didn’t, and she had to have her father squeeze musky green pus from the lateral nail fold of her pinky, he went to the nearest pharmacy to purchase a small bottle of translucent yet brown-tinged liquid, which he applied to her fingernails like polish. It didn’t take her long to discover how bitter-tasting the veneer was, but she continued to bite her nails with such frequency that the foul taste was acquired rather than the habit abandoned. This infuriated her father, who told her how the money for the polish he kept buying could easily be spent elsewhere, and it caused him to make a small whipping stick from an old wicker chair they had on the porch. Every time he had seen her biting her nails, or thinking of biting her nails, he whipped her forearms, leaving red lines that raised like dough. But because he didn’t want to damage his daughter further, he ceased the whippings and fashioned gloves that tightened around her wrists with little locks. To ensure his investment worked, he occasionally whipped her bottom, which wouldn’t even have panties for protection. In her teenage years she had somehow replaced any compulsion for biting with smoking, something her father didn’t seem to be troubled by. In fact, before he died of lung cancer, one rarely found him without a cigarette or two or three wedged between his flawlessly manicured digits. In a way, he had probably considered the habit bequeathed. Now, after nearly two decades, she savored this fingernail indulgence, a rediscovered gratification, the cracks and pops of the masticating as satisfying as jumping on bubble wrap, the consistency of the nail itself almost like beef jerky. Others had already begun on their own nails while most were still in a stasis of panic. When Charlotte was free of her keratin encumbrance, she reached for the nearest pair of scissors and began rescuing those around her. On a deeper level, she was at a kind of fingernail orchard, picking the fragrant growths from human trees, but on a more conscious level, she was acting for her and her colleagues’ survival. The newly-freed joined her and the breaking of the nail-chains stimulated in them a grand and crucial sense of teamwork.

Years later, photographs would surface from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, the most famous of which depicted a barn owl plucked of its feathers, hooded and cloaked, with its fleshy wings attached to wires. Others included a desert-camouflaged guard holding a leash attached to the neck of a bloodied emu sprawled on its side, an avian pyramid of naked turkeys, a falcon smeared with mustard-colored feces, and a latex-gloved guard smiling over the corpse of a seagull, its eyes hidden by gauze, its beak agape, and its chest covered in ice bags.

“Cut your hair! Cut your hair!” said Norberto, a bald financial analyst.

Looking up from their broken fingernails, his colleagues seemed puzzled. Norberto patted the top of his clammy head. “Your hair!”

Somewhere in this building existed a colossal furnace, causing sweat to coagulate in the crevices of their bodies. The walls groaned with pain. It was only at this moment that they registered Norberto’s voice as something present. Their hearing seemed altered by the initial crash and subsequent far-off screams. Everything either sounded submerged in ocean or cast down from the fringe of the exosphere. Beneath the clutter of fingernails on the floor they saw swirls of overlapping hair, forming ampersands, lemniscates, and ourobori. After a few drawn-out seconds of study, they realized that portions of this floor-wide tangle were attached to their heads. Almost absent-mindedly, they ran their fingers through their hair.

Norberto nodded in rapid succession and cried, “Cut it!”

Although this repeated plea might have seemed the voice of an inferiority complex heightened amid the topography of hair, Norberto was subconsciously tapping into a childhood obsession with Rube Goldberg machines. It had started with dominoes, those slick white and black-dotted rectangles that evoked numerical encryptions. What purpose did they serve other than to be stacked over the floor of his bedroom, down the stairs, snaking beneath the couch of the living room, circling the television, into the kitchen, scaling the countertop by a series of makeshift planes, over the cutting board, and into the stainless steel sink to create a wonderfully awful echoing crash? The tinkle of the dominoes before the climax was like foreplay to him. But he had been forced to create other things once his mother, having come home early from work, mistook the booming finale for a burglar. Equal parts ashamed and embarrassed, Norberto had apologized to the police. This mishap proved to be epiphanic, though, for he realized that every object in existence had the potential to be a domino. Yet he stayed away from those reactions that culminated in cacophonies, because he learned his mother had a weak heart, and every startle she endured was akin to a flesh wound, opening larger and larger, until it would become a flesh maw and the stuff of her heart would pour into her body and leak from her mouth, or at least that’s how he pictured it. His most complicated invention at that young age of seven was what he called The Page Turner. His mother was a compulsive reader who had to lick her finger in order to turn a page. To remedy that, Norberto had invented a machine initiated by the reader spitting into a string-suspended cup. A generous enough glob would lower the cup and tilt a picture frame on the wall which caused a ball to roll down the length of the upper part of the frame—this repeated twice more with framed pictures above—then that third ball would roll through a hole in the side of a wall-hung set of shelves, into a spoon attached to a cup, tipping the cup which held the smallest drops of a secret liquid that dripped into a saucer filled with another secret liquid, combusting just enough to light a fuse that, once burned through, dropped an eight ball that rolled down a series of alternating ramps, finally falling into a basket attached by string to a lever that opened the gas valve of a Bunsen burner, which was then caught flame in conjunction with the previously sparked fuse, boiling water in a beaker, the evaporation of which lifted a sponge attached to a fly swatter, releasing an egg that rolled down a row of books, tripping a wire that made a book dangle in such a way that the pages blossomed and out rolled a green marble that fell on the reading table and disturbed a cup, which rolled in a half-circle, hitting the ON switch to a hairdryer that heated a hamster sitting on one end of a caged seesaw, causing the agitated creature to move to the other end, the tipping of which made a cue ball traverse the top of the cage and fall into a baking tin, and the rattle of the tin pushed a roll of tape whose sticky end attached to the edge of the finished page and turned it, and the momentum of the tape roll tumbling off the table detached the tape. Not only did it make too much noise for his mother to bear, but she had asked him why couldn’t she use the smallest portion of that machine-initiating saliva for the tip of her finger, and, if she used the machine, what would she do after she finished reading the turned page? Puzzled by this logic, Norberto made more and more machines with less and less purpose. At the age of fifteen, he created a system of rails on the ceiling of the living room, which allowed a mechanical smart arm to move freely during its hunts for a missing or out-of-reach TV remote. Using a kind of X-ray vision for identification, the arm would extend to retrieve the remote from any wedge, trench, precipice, or pillow avalanche. But, once retracted, the arm would let the remote dangle over the original spot, in carrot fashion, so that you had to either compromise with a subpar television show or get up and retrieve it, the televisual spell broken for a moment too long. Norberto could have easily programmed the searching arm to return home, over the open palm of a theoretical couch potato, but that would defeat the purposeless purpose. And if you lost the remote for the arm, well, then you had to activate a second, smaller smart arm that behaved in the same inconvenient way. The infinite potential of the machine had been halted by a lack of funding. Regardless of Norberto’s idiosyncratic tendencies, his mother had tried to gently blow on the ember of genius within his mind, encouraging him to participate in science and technology competitions at school. But he only ever received second place, never first place, and for each class project he received a B+, never an A. Every judge and teacher would tell him that if only he had done one simple thing, went the extra inch, he would have something truly great. He never told them that he did it, or didn’t do it, on purpose. Yet, without fail, his mother would call him “my little Einstein” and “my tiny Tesla” with only the most distant disappointment in her shining eyes. And maybe it was he who had projected that unspoken feeling in her, knowing that a fully loving and caring and believing mother had too much purpose, too much perfection. By happenstance, during research in pursuit of a college degree, Norberto discovered in a spume-smelling textbook a man named Rube Goldberg who was known for such similar inventions. With that, Norberto had experienced the disappointment and loss of potential that all inventors feel when they find out that their idea had already been implemented with success, even—or especially—when they themselves had no intention of patenting and promoting it. Looking over the faded schematics of Goldberg’s machines, Norberto had felt nostalgia above all else, because his studies and full-time job at a hardware store allowed no time for the creation of doohickeys, thingamajigs, or whatchamacallits. Even still, before he ceased designing his non-inventions, they had become less and less inspired, such as a mechanical hand that, when it sensed rain, turned the knob of an outside hose just enough to release a trickle of water upon the lawn or a jerry-rigged drinking bird that half-pushed the lever of a toaster at midnight. His last non-invention had been a half-assed attempt at a homeopathic shampoo concocted to stimulate the hair follicles to where he only felt a vague coolness in his balding scalp, and maybe the sprouting of one or two seedlings, but nothing that could actually cure his ailment. Yes, now that Norberto registered his own speech, the grumbles of the building causing his brain to swing like a clapper against the bell of his skull, he knew there really was an element of inferiority in his demand that his colleagues cut their freakishly long hair. He had never forgotten the shock and dismay of balding at age fifteen, finding masses the size of a cat’s hairball lodged in the tub’s drain or tufts that had peeled from his head and stuck to his brush.

He snatched a penknife from a nearby desk and waved it back and forth over his head. “Your hair, cut it!”

The first person Norberto approached did not resist when he began to saw through her golden tresses. “We have to make a rope, a really long rope!”

The inspiration behind this pileous invention was as mysterious as it was immediate.
More than ever, as he hacked at the trunk-thick hair, he wondered what purposeless purpose this terrifying situation served. What domino effect brought him and all of these other people into such circumstances?

Published in July of 2004, the following excerpt is from the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: “The first theory put forth from a dumbfounded group of experts, including ornithologists, meteorologists, and astrobiologists, was that the birds had ingested berries fermented by cycles of freezing and thawing, turning the berry juice into alcohol. Plants and seeds with a potential hallucinogenic or psychotic effect were also hypothesized. Although the birds’ behavior had been reckless and unpredictable, there was an undeniable amount of organization involved with the flights that could not be explained by intoxication alone. A subsequent theory, which could rationalize the diversity of the birds themselves, was that a kind of temporary tear had appeared in the earth’s magnetic field, and that the tear’s point surrounded Lower Manhattan. This vacuum had acted as a funnel of suction for the birds in question. Various experts shouted, ‘Radical! Pseudoscientific! Gobbledygook!’ After the critics had calmed, a German behavioral scientist half-whispered, ‘A zeitgeist of zugunruhe.’ Whether he had been literal or metaphorical in his supposed summation was never confirmed. Then, expressing a slight non sequitur, one expert pushed his horn-rimmed glasses flush against the bridge of his nose and said, ‘Think of a moth to the flame. Such creatures are not suicidal. They do not feel depression as humans do. Artificial lights and man-made fires were absent during the majority of their evolution, so goes one story. Transverse orientation. Constant angle to a distant light source. Think of it. Internal navigation system thrown off by so many terrestrial stars.’ Throughout the conference, a dead-eyed anthropologist continued to mention that the birds could be traced to a single terrorist group, Al-ash. At the publication of this report, any theoretical consensus by the scientific community remains to be reached. It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.”
From the height of a desk, Norberto shouted commands: “Use that…not that…this!”
Trying their best to follow, almost everyone had sheered their hair and was fastening a multitude of locks, constructing a massive rope. Those familiar with boating and climbing had tied weaver’s knots, figure eight knots, and double fishermans. Others attached ends of hair using scotch tape, stationary glue, and a plethora of paperclips. For the sake of efficiency, Norberto had mentally calculated that, from their floor, the hair of about seventy people was required for the rope to reach the ground. The smoke was becoming omnipresent, congealing the air, but only a few people took the time to create dust masks from removed shirts or ripped lengths of fabric. When the construction was finished and everyone’s lungs felt fumigated, they had a ceiling-scraping ball that could be rolled by ten pushing hands to whichever window Norberto indicated. The outside of the building was ringed with the smoke, but Norberto pinpointed where the wind was most prominent, loosely perforating a V-shape that they could descend through.

“Here!” he said, waving his arm.

While a group shattered the window using a copy machine as a battering ram, another group had been deciding what would be the most stable anchor for the rope. That group, which included Charlotte, started slapping and kicking one of the columns in the room to test its durability.

A muscular man, long black hair still intact and whose muscles were accentuated by his tight-fitting, janitorial coverall, approached Norberto, and said, “I am Dimitri. I am the anchor.”

As if in response to Norberto’s confusion, Dimitri positioned himself in The Crab pose and flexed, his upper trapezius muscles ripping as mountains from the shoulders of his outfit. With them emerged his biceps, triceps, deltoids and other upper body muscles.
Norberto gulped, the inside of his throat scoured with ash.

“In case of trouble. I am alive. Not that flimsy column.” Poking his seemingly sentient pectoral, Dimitri added, “I will act.”

The Crab, more commonly referred to as The Most Muscular, was the first pose Dimitri’s adoptive father, Osip, taught him, followed by a front double bicep pose, a front lat spread, a side chest, a rear double bicep, a rear lat spread, and an abdominal and thigh pose. Although Osip hadn’t been a bodybuilder, Dimitri had assumed he learned them by observing Dimitri’s biological father, whom Dmitri had never met. The only photograph Dimitri had of his father and mother was the one given to him by Osip. It showed a Russian politician standing in the middle of a ballroom beside two entirely white silhouettes. When Dmitri had asked, “Where are they?” Osip said, “It’s doctored.” Osip had never explained why, he had just handed the photograph to him, and the nod Osip gave told Dimitri that these white, human-shaped holes were his parents. Although he couldn’t tell what they looked like, he was able to discern their body types. His father was a broad mesomorph, clearly a famous bodybuilder. His mother, hand on hip, was a lithesome ectomorph, a beautiful trophy wife. This idea of his parents was fuel for a seven-year-old Dmitri who would pursue his true calling. From then on, the sum of his youth could have been compressed into a training montage with 80s pop music in the background. Conducted by Osip who, although ectomorphic to the extreme, appeared brawny in his bear pelt coat, Dmitri attempted to chop down a Russian larch with only the sides of his hands, each guarded by a length of metal. It had taken a year to fell his first. Other exercises included running marathons in the snow while nude, crushing blocks of ice with his head, and abducting bear cubs from their mothers, which was how he made his own bear pelt coat. Behind their cabin, Dimitri lifted weights made from the trunks of trees, the bar itself a strong wood that gave him splinters. At age ten, because Osip was a tiger-breeder by occupation, Dmitri was made to wrestle steroidal cubs and later full-grown Siberian tigers. Throughout, his diet consisted of chicken, egg whites, bark, and live fish from the Taz river, along with mystery meats and bizarre beverages that turned his urine solid and his feces liquid. Although it felt like he had been destroying his body, when it finally began to heal and thicken and broaden, his mindset changed. Among other revelations, benching became an act in which the bar was stationary and the world below was pushed downward. Any remaining doubts were squelched by worship at the altar of a ragged Arnold Schwarzenegger poster taped to the wall. Then, after over a decade, his time finally came. Osip had presented Dimitri with his biological father’s weightlifting belt, which was cracked, faded, and stank of sweat and leather. Dimitri ran his fingers across the stitched design of yellow teeth on the back support that belonged to a lion’s head. Osip also gave him a train ticket with a final destination of Moscow, where he would compete in the world championship of the International Weightlifting Federation. The final gift he gave him was a name. Taking a deep breath, Osip told him that he would use the name, and his voice crumbled as he said it, “Lev the Roar.” When the moniker was announced at the event, Dimitri was greeted by baffled awes from the crowd. He kneeled at the bar, a total of two hundred and thirty kilos he was meant to lift, and felt how it was softer than a newborn tiger’s bottom. When he positioned his hands and was about to raise it in the air, Kazimir the Krippler, who had been announced at the event’s beginning as the undefeated champion of two decades, winked at him. Dimitri registered many things in that ocular gesture: a betrayal of Dimitri’s father, a disgust for his entire bloodline, a ridicule of his abilities, and, so hidden yet so open, a brain-eating fear of him. He knew that this man was to blame for his parents turning into white, glowing beings. This coward clothed in a courageous man’s legacy. Dimitri breathed in, his chest tripling in size, and performed the clean and jerk, the bar high over his head. He imagined that this slim, soft bar was The Krippler’s body, and he squeezed it, tried to bend it, and a burst of neuro-electricity surged through his muscles and popped the bar clean in half, the sound a Kalashnikov’s discharge. He stumbled backward and the weights fell with him, one hundred and fifteen kilos crushing his elbow. After his stay in the hospital, Dimitri vaguely remembered The Krippler visiting him, smiling over the mangled arm, his medal dangling, infecting the air with his protein breath. The doctors told him that the arm would grow back deformed and the flexibility of the elbow would be greatly diminished. Making sure to hide his bandaged limb with his bear pelt coat, Dimitri returned home to find all the tigers gone, including his beloved Toni, the first one he ever wrestled. Osip, “sick from a smithereened heart,” as Dimitri would later put it, lay in bed, his eyes searching Dimitri as he entered. Dimitri told him that he had forgotten the medal on the train. “I wish I could say the same thing about my children,” Osip said as he cried, “but it was the militsiya who came and took them from me.” Dimitri had clenched his fists until his forearms bruised from burst blood vessels. Knowing his time was nigh, Osip told Dimitri to go to the Manhattan of the New York City of the U.S. of A. and stay with his family there. Dimitri’s future was not in the cold bosom of Mother Russia. As if for the last time, Osip studied Dimitri’s face, blinked one slow blink, and said, “I’ve loved you like a son. That is what you are to me.” Biting his tongue, Dimitri tasted blood, his own masculine way of crying. Leaving Osip in the care of the one-eyed crazy lady Oksana, Dimitri emigrated to America only to discover that the family members who were to survive Osip had actually been survived by him for a decade. Those stories of wealth, drugs, and lascivious behavior must have been the death of them. Stranded, destitute, and knowing little English, Dimitri was eventually hired as a janitor at the World Trade Center after writing in his job application the American pseudonym: John Smith. Since then, he had spent countless hours studying a Russian-to-English dictionary bought from a street vendor. And so he hoped that he was piercing through the panic and confusion of Norberto when he said, wielding a hank of his hair, “Tie me. Tie it to me.”

Slowly, Norberto nodded and then a disordered voting commenced. Rather than any desk leg, column, or even steel beam, the majority, swayed by the sheer muscled mass in human form, ruled in Dimitri’s favor. Knowing this was no time for second-guessing, Norberto attached the giant ball of hair to Dimitri with a Gordian knot. Everyone stared at Dimitri as he approached the column, hirsute rope trailing behind him. He took off his coverall, revealing polka-dot boxers and claw scars across his body. With meditative movements, he tore fabric from the coverall and wrapped it around his hands and wrists. He motioned for someone’s belt and received from a Southern insurance salesman one made of a thick and broad cowhide. Dmitri positioned it to support his back and cinched the Dixie flag buckle over the bellybutton of a stomach that had loosened with time but still retained the ability to contract into concrete. Encircling the column, he said, “You will all go!”

They tossed the other loose end of the rope out the window, watching it unravel, while others held onto a length of it to protect Dimitri from whiplash. As the first person began to climb down, everyone was silent, aside from a cicada dispersion of coughs. More and more people descended. Dimitri used every muscle in his body to bear-hug the column, shriveled veins ballooning from his skin. The wind and the smoke were one, acidic and engulfing. For some time, Dimitri felt alone in his exertion, until he could hear Osip coaching him: “You must tap into the power of you the animal, you must become it!” The weight of many, more than any championship, made his feral atoms tremble. He could barely sustain facing forward, nose against the column, but his scalp was elastic, a thick and resilient rubber. “You are the animal, you have the teeth of the tiger, the strength of the bear, the roar of the lion.”

Dozens of people climbed down as fast as they could, gripping soft hair, coarse hair, thick hair, thin hair, straight, curly, wavy, black, blonde, brunette, ginger, hair with trichoptilosis, hair with leaping lice, with natural grease or with molding gel that threatened to loosen holds, the lycanthropic hair of an intern with hypertrichosis, hair that smelled of fruit, cigarettes, vegetables, cannabis residue, hair from the head of someone with trichotillomania, a male’s hair that still contained the atomic evidence of a tryst, a female’s hair that had been dyed so frequently the original color was a social myth. Smoke surrounded them all like an ether, in and out of which darted feathers of every color, including colors none had ever seen before.

Dimitri could feel the claws ripping open his muscles. The kiss of Toni’s fangs in his neck. “Only as prey will you be able to feel then mimic the raw power of the predator.” He could smell the sweat of a hundred Herculean men in Moscow. His bad arm was crunching into its natural maneuverability. Yet there was a pleasure in this pain, a sadomasochism he had forgotten over the many years he mopped floors and emptied wastebaskets. It was rejuvenating, devastating. “The more of you they eat, the more of you that will grow back into the flesh of the tiger.”

When Norberto had started to climb down, he catalogued what he did earlier in the day to get here, all the quotidian and not-so-quotidian actions. He thought of the smallest acts he sometimes performed to rebel from his job of ultimate bureaucracy, whenever he felt too heavily the magnitude of the governmental purpose. The essence of a purposeless purpose without purpose. All those micro-rebellions, they might have amounted to a butterfly’s wings flapping, orchestrating from afar this burning tower. For instance, right before the collision, he had been attempting to staple together three sheets of paper when the stapler simply left a dent, ghostly in its near-invisibility. Believing at first to be out of staples, he realized he had been the victim of his own absent-minded mutiny the day prior, a non-non-invention in which he relocated the half-spine of gray staples behind the pusher and over the spring, effectively making the device useless….

The addition of weight, along with the high altitude winds plucking the taut line of hair, caused Dimitri’s head to whip backward so that he was forced to view the blackening ceiling. His human claws tore into the column, but it was futile, and he found himself being pulled backward, sliding through discarded nails and broken glass, just barely splaying his arms in time so that he could cling to the steel beams. Now he felt the heated breeze on his body and, still forced to look up, he saw a hole in the night sky, revealing the clean, white clouds of day, almost human-shaped. And when that, too, was masked by the smoke, he turned his eyes and saw between black spirals the other tower, out of which sprouted a second rope, fearful people scrambling down. Who was this competitor, he asked himself, and provided the answer: Kazimir the Krippler. Here to tarnish his honor. Even though his hands were pressed into shards of glass and the weight of the rope threatened to snap his neck, he knew he would still hold on, even if it had to be with a postmortem clutch. “Death is so small as to be a tiny bug on a normal-sized bug’s ass. Only fear it if you yourself are smaller than that.”

After the rope had fallen some feet, Charlotte gripped it tighter, her pronged fingernails digging into her palms, and the fear of heights reduced her thoughts to pinpoints of light, warm and caring. She remembered how her mother, before she left, read fairytales to her every night. Her favorite was Rapunzel. Let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair. And while her mother read in her theatric voice, Charlotte would close her eyes and fidget with her mother’s luscious curls, gently tugging on them, twisting one around her finger, putting a few between her lips. Charlotte would trade all the nails in the world for that ambrosial keratin. Something she would never have. When she dared to peer down, the dizziness caused Charlotte to think about all the other tics she had developed in order to bury her finger-biting urge: the squeezing of an anthropomorphic extraterrestrial named Panic Pete, whose globular nose, eyes, and ears protruded with each surge of pressure, the bouncing of her leg underneath her desk, the gum chewing between cigarette smoking, the meticulous application and reapplication of makeup, the humming inside her head (the final demotion of what started as whistling), the flipping back and forth of rolodexes, and, to the auditory disgust of her colleagues, the cracking of her knuckles, spine, neck, and nose cartilage—all byproducts of her father’s conditioning. When she survived this, she told herself, she would quit all of it, but she would never stop biting her nails. She’d be a proud, corpse-fingered woman….

Made frantic by the rope’s near-collapse, Norberto searched the air for some automated gyrocopter he might have invented but forgotten about, something programmed to rescue him from over the edges of cliffs. That’s when he saw the other rope dangling from the tower. It was a mirror, the same invention independently designed, the same people climbing down through clouds of smoke. He could almost spot himself spotting himself, a frazzled, suited man whose eyes widened as his widened….

The weather had formed a zephyr that not only shook the rope but lifted then slapped it against the glass, causing some to slip and fall, taking one or two others with them, submissive to the smoke, accepting that blackness as their new world, a world in which any sense of direction was null and void, allowing those whose palms opened and feet spread to fall up or down while feathers twirled left and right, and the remaining climbers climbed down, no, up, or they were simply walking a tightrope like Philippe Petit, and while some screamed most did not, including Norberto, who, inhaling burnt hair and seared flesh, knew that the practicality of his rope invention would be, like all of his other designs, only 99.9 percent fulfilled, and yet even now he could hear his mother whispering in his ear, “My darling Daedalus.”

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