by Don Hucks
The Monster Above
It lives in the attic, in a den constructed from cardboard boxes full of assorted treasures and forgotten junk. It sleeps during the day, but I hear it at night. It’s working on a stage adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses, set in Damascus during the second crusade. At night, it reads aloud from the manuscript. It lacks the power of speech, but is able to produce words through exquisite modulation of the modalities of digestion, the horrors of which are as you might expect for a monster subsisting on cockroaches, silverfish, beetles, doodle bugs, spiders, centipedes, the occasional mouse, and copious cat turds. (I don’t own a cat myself, not believing in cat ownership, but my neighbor’s tabby sneaks into the attic, every night, through a loose vent under one of the eaves, and craps all over the place.) Now, the manuscript is spotty, at best. Large parts of it are truly abysmal, in fact. But the beast can turn a phrase, and, now and then, it reveals flashes of unequivocal brilliance. I’ve lately grown convinced that the thing is a genius, hideous and tortured and misunderstood, like all the really great ones are supposed to be.
Each night, as I sleep, I encounter the creature in a dream. It’s always the same dream, more or less, and it goes something like this. I hear a rumbling and I go downstairs to find the thing stalking around the basement, grasping its belly. I startle it, and it begins to cry. But I apologize and swear that I mean it no harm. The thing is greatly relieved to hear this. All along, it believed I meant to kill it. It continues to cry, but now, I understand without being told, these are tears of joy. The rumbling persists, and I offer it an antacid tablet, thinking it must have gotten hold of some bad cat turds.
“Oh, no, thank you, though. It’s very kind of you to offer,” the thing gurgles from deep within its gut. “Actually, I was just doing a bit of work on my manuscript. It’s a stage adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses, set in Damascus during the second crusade.” It pauses to lick one of its eyeballs, before continuing with a nervous grin, “I rarely have an opportunity to perform for an audience, these days. Would you mind if I read you a few passages?”
“That would be delightful,” I tell it.
With a scaly paw, it wipes the dust from a corner of an old ping-pong table and invites me to sit. It takes a stack of rumpled pages from beneath one of its wings, shuffles through them, finds its place, and begins. “Act one, scene one. The curtain rises to reveal a room in Damascus, decorated in the style characteristic of that place during the twelfth century. Enter Buck Mulligan, left. The actor playing Buck should be stately and plump.”
The enthusiasm with which the thing performs is charming, its eyes agleam, its heavy tail sweeping rapidly side to side over the bare floor, its horns twitching whenever it reads an especially poetic phrase, its claws carving the air as it gestures broadly. And, as it reads, I slowly become aware of some traces of beauty in the thing, ugly though it is. Like the way the light shimmers on its slimy skin. And the intricate patterns created by the branching of veins in its translucent wings. And how its protruding fangs intertwine like bony fingers of praying hands.
The thing reads on and on, growing more and more animated as it goes, bringing every character to life. Now and then, I applaud, or nod my head appreciatively, or laugh out loud.
“Do you really like it?” the thing asks, eagerly. “Tell me the truth.”
“I do, honestly,” I insist, laying a hand over my heart. “I really, really do.”
Encouraged, the thing continues with increased bravado, pacing back and forth across the room. I sit there on the ping-pong table, listening attentively until I awake.
Of course, I’ve never actually seen the thing. I never go up to the attic at night. And during the day, the thing is always asleep in its cardboard cave, out of view. I don’t dare try to sneak a peek inside the cave. If startled, there’s no telling what it might do, in real life. On the last day of every year, I creep into the attic and tip toe across the rafters to leave a bottle of sparkling cider outside the mouth of the cave. That’s as close as I ever get. So I have no idea what the thing really looks like. But whenever I think of it, I imagine it just as it is in my dreams-- beautiful and hideous, hopeful and afraid.
The spiders that live in my arm have been busy. They are building a city in there. I can see it through a small hole, just above the wrist, through which they import supplies. They have an apartment complex, a shopping mall, a half dozen chain restaurants, a movie house, and a library. And that’s just what I can see through the hole. As this neighborhood has all the trappings of suburbia, I fear it is only the leading edge of sprawl from some greater metropolis that may be as far away as my elbow. Or possibly up near the top of my hand, with a uniquely colorful and culturally distinct community occupying each finger, the trendy bohemian addresses lying just beneath my thumbnail, perhaps. All day they work. They carve away muscle and bone and cart it out through the hole and dump it somewhere at night, while I sleep. There is hardly anything left of my forearm but a paper-thin shell, brittle and dry. When I hold it up to the lamp, the light passes right through, and I can make out the skyline in silhouette. The view is breathtaking, I’ll admit. But the thing is, it’s my right arm. And I fear that one day, possibly soon, this onion skin of an arm will crumble to bits and blow away. Then what will I do?
Lately, I’ve attempted to master getting by without the use of my right hand. It’s much harder than you might imagine. I’ve already ruined three perfectly good white cotton shirts while attempting to eat soup. Spaghetti is out of the question, and any but the tenderest cuts of meat. Sandwiches are no trouble, but I tire of them quickly. I cut my face to ribbons every morning, being cursed, as I am, with a Euclidean jawline and hyper-masculine chin. Problem is, I’m something of a bleeder, which has made me late for work several times this month. Another time or two and I could find myself out of a job. Meanwhile, old friends, I’m sad to say, have stopped coming around to visit, I suspect because of my inability to master certain hygienic subtleties left-handed. And I was humiliated when, just last weekend, the cashier at the grocery store refused to accept my check, because my left-handed signature didn’t match the one on my driver’s license. “But you know me,” I protested. “I’ve been shopping here every Saturday morning for three years.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Rules are rules. The signatures have to match.”
Distressingly, I’ve had several close calls on the roads, shifting gears with my right foot, which is only possible thanks to many years of yoga, which has kept me remarkably limber for my age.
So, I’m forced to admit, the re-training hasn’t gone well, and I’ve grown increasingly nervous about my fate.
But just this morning, while icing down a nasty burn I received trying to flip two over-medium eggs, I had an epiphany. I came up with a plan for saving my right hand. I’m going to send in a family of scorpions. I’ve often overheard the spiders talking about the scorpions. And they don’t speak well of them-- quite the opposite, in fact. As I see it, the scorpions will depress property values up and down the arm. The spiders will be desperate to get out. They will tunnel up past my shoulder, across my chest, and down on the other side, where they will build a beautiful, silky, new home in my left arm. Much better, I figure, to lose my left arm than my right.
True, I’ll still have the scorpions to contend with. But here’s the thing. From what I’ve overheard, the scorpions are neither as clever nor as industrious as the spiders. The great city they inherit will undoubtedly fall on disrepair. Little by little, muscle and bone will be allowed to grow back, reclaiming the arm, cell by cell. It will be good as new in no time at all.
Sure, it may be difficult at first. I hear the scorpions are less judicious in the use of venom than are the spiders. I suspect it will hurt like hell having an arm full of stinging scorpions. But only in the beginning. Sooner or later, I’m bound to get used to it. You can get used to anything after a while.
Don Hucks lives in Arlington, Texas. His fiction has appeared in Baker’s Dozen Review, Brink, The Pedestal, and 971 Menu.