The Hills, the Mountains, the Air

Based pretty heavily off of a dream I had-- which may explain the weird plot.
For Neontopia, 26 Thermidor CCXXIX

It was the third day after I had been injured. The only doctor in town, March Duchamp, sat across from me at the table, though his chair was pulled out to the side as he leaned forward to examine my leg.

Duchamp was a svelte man, thin-faced, his curly hair always oiled until it could be brushed back and stay there. He was a severe man, of rigid structure, but nonetheless his vest bore a somewhat funnily bright floral pattern, his collar bar curled in indulgent designs, and a cigarette dangled from his lips. He'd come from Vacwerthan to the north, that urban beast, and I remember his early days in town of naught but complaining.

He drew his hands away from my leg and looked up at me. “You are sure that you feel no pain, Barajas?”

I nodded. “None at all.”

Duchamp sneered, though I knew it was in jest, and he plucked the cigarette from between his thin lips to toy with. “Well, either way, with the state of your legs and back you should still have no business walking.” He raised an eyebrow and leaned forward, and I chuckled heartily.

As I reoriented my legs to a more comfortable position, Duchamp took a last deep inhale of his cigarette, then crushed it in the table ashtray– the very one that I had bought for him long ago when I realized the frequency at which we both liked him to visit my house. He rubbed his long nose and looked at me. Was there pity? “As for Mr. Baktovich,” he said. “Well. He is in no state to stay awake for longer than perhaps an hour, much less run his meat packing empire.”

I shook my head. “Must we talk about him? Let's speak of philosophy or something, as you like to.”

The two of us did like to speak of philosophy, though he knew the names and the books, that well-read lout, and I knew next to nothing. It had been a long time until he verbalized that he legitimately liked hearing my opinions, untouched by the academic scene. For that very long time I thought he was to make fun of me, a small town butcher– but I had underestimated him back then. My offer, now, was earnest, but nonetheless Duchamp shot me a wry look.

He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, and laced his long fingers together, pale, untouched by hard work other than holding books and medical equipment. His eyes narrowed. “Your kids told me you ranted and raved about lungs, when you were delirious.”

“I suppose,” I said, thinking to myself, staring down at my calloused hands. “I don't remember that, but… I can see why I would do that.”

Duchamp raised an eyebrow, a careful outlet of what I imagined was sharp curiosity. “What did you see in the factory,” he asked me. His voice had lowered almost to a whisper, and I knew he was interested.

I smiled a bit to myself. His curiosity was endearing. "The most horrible perversion of my profession that I had ever seen,” I replied bluntly.

A chuckle, and Duchamp waved me off. “I'm sure of it, but–” His look was intense. Ah, how well he knew me. “What was it that terrified you so, Barajas?”

I told him, of course.

...

That morning, I was completely unaware that it would go so wrong.

Before starting work, I visited Duchamp's house, as usual. I was greeted at the door by Gaita, Duchamp's daughter. She was small, full of a sort of angry righteousness, and she looked nothing like Duchamp– round-faced, red-haired, actually of decent weight, but she was very much like him in the sense that she was... rude.

She let me in, eventually.

I met Duchamp in the shrine room, past his personal office, past his medical room– in the case of a patient being unable to be treated at their home, past the kitchen, and past Gaita’s room. It was small, out of the way; Duchamp had repurposed a particularly large linen closet for it.

The shrine was for the Voice, Vacwerthan's god, and though I cared not for them I stayed quiet as Duchamp prayed. Once, he had told me that he doubted that the Voice could hear him, so far away from Vacwerthan, but living there with the fervor of the city and all of the Voice’s idiosyncrasies, he had gotten so used to his regular, religious habits. It calmed him, he told me, and so he prayed. As he knelt there, I traced the curving, geometric lines of the Voice’s idol atop the shrine with my eyes, with its many tongues and teeth, and with its gentle welcoming arms.

Once he finished, he stood up and turned, and smiled in such delight when he saw me. He treated Gaita and I to a breakfast of blinis and sour cream, and we spoke of my hyperactive children– Marun, Sadda, and Hamza– who stopped by just a half hour ago, along with the inherent goodness of man.

It was a fine and routine start to the day, and I made the way over to my shop in high spirits. There were already customers to attend to the moment I arrived; standing by the door of my closed shop was one of the Johansaat family, the mother, along with their sheep, waiting impatiently. Mrs. Johansaat was a tall, wide-nosed woman, with loosely braided red-blond hair, the peculiar color signature of Samkans. The sheep was just that: a sheep.

“What ho, Mrs. Johansaat!” I waved, and she waved back. “What have you come here for today?”

“The sacrifice of our sheep for Sankukaat,” she told me. “This year, my family must provide the sheep for the sacrifice.”

I nodded in understanding. This town, small as it was, had a surprisingly decent community from Samka Coast, and from what I could gather from them, Sankukaat was one of the most important holidays of the year. I had butchered many sheep for Sankukaat, though I always turned down their invitations to the dances and the feasts.

“Happy Sankukaat, Mrs. Johansaat,” I said, leading the sheep through the door, and she smiled in thanks. “So, how has this blessed day been so far?” Unfortunately, I doubted the answer would be positive. I could feel a deep annoyance radiating off of her, uncharacteristic on Sankukaat.

“It is an outrage,” she told me, “That Batkovich will not allow his Samkan workers to take today off! He knows today is Sankukaat!”

I raised an eyebrow, petting the sheep softly as I led it. “He won’t?”

“He won’t!” She shook her head violently, angrily. “I have asked the factory, about my husband, about my cousins, and they turned me away.”

A frown painted my face. We had arrived at the appropriate place for butchery, but I did not move further. To be honest, I had a soft, guilty heart for the town going-ons, and so paused to let her talk. “That seems cold, even for Mr. Batkovich.” I knew that at the moment the workers, if not slaughtering and packing meat, were digging to build a second factory building, right on the edge of town. But it felt somehow out of character for Mr. Batkovich to not even allow for a single day’s holiday.

Mrs. Johansaat huffed, shifting her weight from one leg to the other and crossing her arms. “He has stumbled in his leadership, ever since his father died.”

I rubbed along the cheek of the sheep, to soothe it. “There’s more to the issue than that.” It was then that I turned to her, and made the great mistake of that day, spoke those words I both do and do not regret speaking: “I can go directly to him, if you wish.”

Her eyes widened, her posture changed, and she was filled with hope. “Can you, truly?”

I shrugged. “I am the town butcher. The only one who works independently of the factory. Mr. Batkovich may very well listen to me.”

A smile came to Mrs. Johansaat’s face; it was a contagious one, and I smiled a bit right back.

“Now,” I said, voice turning brisk. “Can I trust you to have taken care of this sheep? You have treasured it, given its life contentment and joy?”

Mrs. Johansaat straightened up, her face soothed, and she nodded firmly. “Yes, Mr. Barajas.”

I smiled a real smile this time. “Good. Let us begin.”

...

I had to take a few more clients before I was able to approach Mr. Batkovich. Every client took time, after all; it was the worst possible scenario to rush a job in my profession. While it is an act of feeding, of providing, and of life, it was as well an act of slaughter. It would do no good to be sloppy, and to keep the animal alive for nary a second too long, both for ethics and for taste.

He was a small man, not unlike my good friend Duchamp, and surprisingly young, but where Duchamp held a dignified, if manic, elegance, Mr. Batkovich held a deep-seated nervousness. In front of me at his office, away from the factory, he fidgeted and twisted his hands tightly together. Not to say he was not a well put together man, in fact he always wore a suit and coat better than most anyone in town could afford, and his hair was always impeccably groomed and oiled on both his scalp and his lip– but he held little charisma. He stared at me with wide eyes as I told him of the Samkan workers that should be able to celebrate Sankukaat.

The second I finished, he closed his eyes and shook his head, chuckling in a way that inflamed my soul. I clenched my fists tight against my pant leg. “Oh, Mr. Barajas,” he said, my name sickly sweet in his mouth, “It is more complex than that. It’d be no good to pause for a holiday now.”

I felt an ache in my fingers, and forced my fist to relax. “How so?”

He chuckled again, and I tried slowing my breathing. “We must slaughter cattle after cattle, cut after cut, package after package, Mr. Barajas! There is the new factory to build as well! To gain, we need efficiency, for the good of us all. Here, there is no room for holidays.”

My eyes narrowed. “It has been a while since I have seen the methods you endorse. I trust that you stay honorable in your meat production.”

It was then that Mr. Batkovich– he– he laughed at me! “Oh, Mr. Barajas!” He cried out, leaning forward in his seat. His leg bounced, while my hand clenched against my knee. “Honorable, you call it? We must feed Vacwerthan! We must feed Anyat City! We must feed A Volta! We must feed half this gods-damned continent! If we followed your methods, we could do none of that!”

I could not have stopped myself if I tried. I stood up in my chair so severely that it fell backwards with a loud and frightening clatter, and I shoved myself forward and roared: “You spend so much time feeding this gods-damned continent that you don’t even feed this own fucking town!”

His eyes were wide, and I froze. Sweat dripped down my palms. What in all the realms had I done? Mr. Batkovich, against me, a lowly small town butcher, who worked alone in his shop and whose only helping hands were his three children. But my chair had been knocked over, so I stood there, my height lending me the effect of looming over him, and I said no more.

Mr. Batkovich let out a sigh, and it was shaky, uncertain. This did not help my nerves. But at last, he said: “Oh, Mr. Barajas.” There was pity, derision in his voice. “You–”

I did not hear the rest of what he said. I turned, walked out, and left.

...

My mind, afterwards, could not tear away from the factory. For the midday meal I prepared day-old stew for all my children. Rowdy as they were, they always returned for meals unless so totally distracted. They were used to me cooking one large meal to eat for the week, and they adored my stew recipe, so they ate readily. I had a few more clients, who came for their own reasons. I turned down more invitations to Sankukaat celebrations. Duchamp stopped by in the mid-afternoon, and we spoke of the human persistence to never ending tasks. And through all of it, I thought of the factory. It hung in my mind like meat on a hook, so to speak.

That day, I closed early. Go home to your families and friends, I wrote on the door sign, and celebrate Sankukaat, feed yourself on the sacrifice, Samkan or not.

I took off my apron but kept my work clothes, and wrapped an old coat over my shoulders. I didn’t bother with a hat. I dressed myself, steeled my nerves, and made my way to the factory.

It was on the opposite side of town than where I typically frequented; while my preferred side of town clung tightly to the steep mountainsides, the factory was down by where the slope began to form into the Great Plain. It was closer to the Transpraire Railroad– that ran all along the Yeniket mountains, and thus passed through the area– along with the flatter land ideal for grazing. And anyways, it was harder to build a factory on our typical steep cliffs.

Even so, the walk was no more than 10 minutes. My feet dug into the dark rocky ground, and the bitter-yellow grasses that clung to it. I waved hello to neighbors, acquaintances. The wind that day was severe, and it stung at my cheeks. Indeed, it even blew dark smoke from the factories into some of the streets.

As I approached it, my disaster of a conversation with Mr. Batkovich turned around in my head. There was a worry of whether Mr. Batkovich had told an assistant, or a manager, or a supervisor of me and what I had done that morning. I stared up at the concrete monster of a building as it sat on its steel-lined haunches, coughing smoke and meat. I heard faint, rhythmic sounds of a typical factory from within, with the occasional commanding shout, too muffled for me to hear.

The large doors did not give to my tugging on them, but I stalked around the edge of the building, on the side that faced the second, and found a small side door that acquiesced. But before I entered, I turned to stare up at the new building.

Or, at least, what was going to be the new building. Its skeleton, the scaffolding and exposed steel bars, yet to be filled with concrete, rose out of what was already there, as if its skin was melting. Smokestacks lay not fully bricked, and a dozen or so men could be seen crawling across it like ants.

I frowned, then entered through the side door.

Oh, what chaos I was greeted with!

No, chaos was not the right word. It was, as Mr. Batkovich mentioned, a perfect and efficient order. Every worker did their job, and that job alone. One worker I saw, a tall fellow, received meat cuts from his neighbor and hooked them to hooks. He hooked them, hooked them, and hooked them. Another worker I saw, raised their cleaver to make exactly two cuts to the bodies they received, before passing it on to their neighbor. They cut them, cut them, and cut them. And the meat was packaged, and the machinery that armored the backbone of workers screeched, and guts and gore were tossed in bins, and–

“Oi! It’s Mr. Barajas!”

I blinked. A dark haired Voltan woman, shadowed bags under her eyes, waved over at me from where she was pushing a cart. I smiled and waved back on instinct, and soon what seemed like half the factory was stopping to yell a greeting at me.

“Hey! Why aren’t y’all working!” An unfamiliar voice, domineering and sharp. My heart dropped through my stomach.

As if shocked by lightning, every worker went back to their work. My frown deepened.

A thin man, tall but no more than my height, in decent clothes and an air of authority strode up to me, an even larger frown than mine carved into his severe face. I did not recognize him. “Barajas, they called you.”

I nodded. “Indeed.” I accepted his hand, and shook it firmly. “I’m Ejiro Barajas. Pleasant meeting you.”

“I’m Adom Tomad, a supervisor,” said the man with a thick Vacwerthanese accent. After we separated hands, he took a long look at me, eyes narrowed. He cocked his head. “The workers know you, hm?”

I nodded, again. “I’m a local. I specialize in meat production.”

Tomad’s eyes crinkled. “I see. Are you here to inspect the new factory?”

I blinked, and after a long minute, cleared my throat. “Yes?”

Despite my apparent confusion, Tomad seemed to be satisfied with my answer and began walking, waving for me to follow. I complied, helpless on what else to do. Though the workers stared pointedly at their job on the assembly line as Tomad passed, they peeked up at me, though they could not spare a moment to wave, as I did.

Tomad led me to a short hallway where the two factories were presumably connected and opened the door for me to pass through. I tipped my head, a polite gesture of thanks, and passed my way through.

“So, Mr. Barajas,” Tomad began as he walked beside me. “What do you think of the assembly line?”

I frowned. I could be pleasant enough without lying. “It seemed quite compartmentalized. Though, I saw just the packing. How is the slaughter?”

Tomad chuckled. “Compartmentalization is the best method for quick production and efficiency. That is our goal, just as any factory in, say, Vacwerthan, or Tiemen, or Gerlan. Efficiency allows for good profit, after all.”

I turned to him. “Indeed, I understand this, but it worries me. With my preferred methods, while there is certainly cooperation, I work at my own pace. I try to take the process as carefully as possible for the safety of me, my clients, and the animal. If you make the process so... impersonal, will it not compromise the wellbeing of those involved? The workers cut and butcher meat! And the killing of an animal, without taking it carefully, can go very wrong. How many breaks do they get?”

Tomad nodded, then smiled as if to reassure me. “Do not worry, Mr. Barajas. Our employees are hardworking, and move like gears in a smooth engine.”

It was then that Tomad spread his arm out, and I followed his motion to look upon the expansive unfinished second factory. I regarded it with an odd sense of awe at seeing this unfinished skeleton from within. It felt as if I was being cradled within its ribs, cold and sharp. But… when I walked forward and looked across the floor–

Well. There was a large hole.

I pointed at the hole, and turned to Tomad. “There is a hole in your factory, sir,” I choked out.

Tomad raised an eyebrow, and stepped up next to me. “Yes?”

I stammered somewhat. “Factories typically have floors, sir.”

A bark of a laugh, and Tomad threw his head back. I frowned deeply at him, hand fisted at my side. “Well, see,” he began, “we have dug this as there is acl–”

“MR. BARAJAS!”

I was startled severely. That was Mr. Batkovich’s voice. I whipped my head around and indeed, saw him in his practical clothes, walking into the unfinished factory through the large doors. He looked, to say the least, very, very angry.

“Ah!” Tomad stepped out from behind me. “Mr. Batkovich! It has been so very long since you have–”

Mr. Batkovich strode up until he was nearly chest to chest with me, though his diminutive height intimidated me little– what did intimidate me was the power he held. He leveled me a glare that could spill god’s blood. “Why have you come here,” he hissed.

“To look at the rot which your workforce swims in,” I hissed right back.

Next to me, Tomad gasped. “Mr. Barajas, please, allow–”

Mr. Batkovich stepped forward, and I stepped back, nearly hitting a bucket of crowbars and hammers at the edge of the hole. He sneered. “Is this really necessary, Mr. Barajas? First you antagonize me at my home, and now you come to my factories, where people are earning their keep, and–”

“How much money is there to be found in meat, eh?” My fists were so tight that I could feel pain radiate through my fingertips and palm. “That you keep your workers here on Sankukaat, that you– that–” I was no wordsmith. What could I possibly say?

Oh, and Mr. Batkovich was talking, and though his words muddled together in my brain the tone of condescension came through loud and clear, and I let my hands unclench from fists, and I reached out behind me and grabbed a crowbar, and–

And, well. Tomad pushed me into the hole.

...

There was darkness. It was not the darkness of a dark room, nor was it darkness of the night sky, but a darkness so whole that I felt a tremble overtake me, and a raw fear speared its cold fingers through my chest.

I screwed my eyes open, and though I opened them as wide as I could, there was no difference in sight except for the sensations of my lids upon my eye. I let my eyes relax, and tried to stand.

Though I felt no pain, no sensation at all, my legs buckled and wobbled under me as if I was a newborn calf, and a polar opposite of those impossibly sure-footed goats one could see hop across the cliffs nearby. Even as I continued walking, this weakness did not abate and my back refused to stand straight. Perhaps, in that moment, I should have realized that something was horribly wrong, but I had prescribed my weakness to my immense confusion and fear.

I may have walked for a few hours or a few hundred years. Either one could be true, and I would believe it without question. But eventually, out of the dark, I began to see faint strings of light. I gasped, attempted to quicken, but I was stuck to my pathetic limp.

The lights, as I got near, were not strings as they appeared from far away, but in fact veins. Above my head, around me, out flowed the veins of an iridescent cream color. I paused, wonder overtaking my fear, and looked up to simply stare. Where the veins tapered, or as they travelled along, smaller drops of that liquid would almost drip out of the flow, but instead of collecting into little spheres, as water or honey would, it straightened into thin, smaller veins, little needles that flowed into the darkness of the oblivion. It was as if these veins were...

My wonder dropped and fell with a dull thud like a stone. I whipped my head around, from looking up to looking ahead, and indeed all the veins seemed to be coming from a faint figure, crouched in a fetal position in the distance.

I could not run. I limped, and tried not to let frustration overtake me. And as I approached, my sickening thought was confirmed: right in front of me was the body of a god, and the veins were their non-stop bleeding.

I fell to my knees. “Hello?”

The body in front of me seemed to be lunglike, but at once encapsulating the fetal body and turned inside out, with their bleeding veins bared out to the open. The figure within the lungs shifted within their confines, and I could almost not bear to look as its colors shifted and morphed in ways I could not even explain. I knew meat well, but this meat was a visceral ideal of meat itself, and my stomach churned.

“Hello,” they replied, and I gasped.

“Pardon but–” I worried my hands– “am I dead?”

“No,” they said. “You are simply in the gods’ lands. The second world. The land beyond dreams– In a realm not meant for you.”

I did not reply. What could I say? I would have looked around the darkness, but my eyes felt pinned to the body like a dead butterfly.

“What is your name?” Their voice was milky quiet, and seemed to echo from all around me.

“Ejiro Barajas,” I said. “I am a butcher.”

“A butcher.” Their voice held mild, pale delight.

“I fell down a hole dug in a factory floor. Did they truly dig it that deep?” I raised an eyebrow, and smiled a bit as they chuckled warmly.

“Who understands the decisions of men,” the god said, and I shook my head slowly, almost fondly. They chuckled weakly, making their blood ripple and twist.

“Who are you?” I could not help but ask, hoping desperately that I was not overstepping. I leaned forward, and the lungs bore greater detail as I examined them, as if a fractal of infinite shapes and tissues. I leaned back, and closed my eyes, allowing them a moment’s rest. What man such as I could understand a god?

“A god of the hills, the mountains, the air,” said the god. “Once, long ago, I was another, as all gods are. But I exist now. I am.”

I thought for a moment that they sounded much like Duchamp, and I smiled a bit. But then as my thoughts spun, my amusement grew to concern. “Why have I never heard of you?”

“That is how it goes, for many gods,” they said. “You bless them as you think of the stranger, the faceless worker, thank the tool or appliance for doing its work, thank the good weather and good fortune. There is little true worship but for the arrogant.”

I frowned.

“Do not worry. I love you. You are beautiful, and wonderful, and horrible, and every day your love feeds the world. All of you. But I cannot ask anything of you. Not anymore.” They seemed to shift, and their motion looked pained, sluggish. My heart hurt. I felt such a sense of protective instinct, much in the same way I felt to my children, but so deeply visceral. As if it belonged there. “Look at me,” they pleaded.

My head hurt, too, now that I thought about it. The edges of the world began to fall away, but my eyes kept trained on the bleeding god. “No,” I said firmly. “I will remember you.” I saw the silhouette of those great and impossible lungs, and kept it burned into my mind. “I will.”

The gods’ lands fell away. I gasped: “I will.”

...

When I crawled out, Tomad’s face was deathly pale as he saw me. Mr. Batkovich was lying on the ground, bleeding out, and just a meter away was my bloody crowbar.

...

“You break your legs and your back and five days later you want to take a mountain hike,” Duchamp muttered, trailing behind me with his cane in hand. He was clearly not a man of athletics, and navigated the steep rocks we were on with no small amount of trepidation.

I turned to grin at him. “I told you, dear friend, I feel just fine. No pain!” If only to show off, I skipped even more ahead of him, gripping onto the side of the cliff as I made my way across some particularly precarious terrain. I stood and looked back at Duchamp as he did the same jumps with thrice the uncertainty I held. My smile was wide, and so was his frown.

“Just because you don’t feel pain doesn’t mean you aren’t keeping your legs from healing,” Duchamp huffed and stopped next to me. “In fact,” he continued, arching his eyebrow high. “If I remember correctly, when you said hello to me that day, your legs and back were quite broken indeed, yet you still felt nothing until you became delirious.”

I snickered a bit, and Duchamp rolled his eyes.

We continued along the cliff, going ever higher. Far below us was the town, spread out before us like a tangled web. Down within that town, my children were keeping the shop open: Marun, the eldest, was the only one doing actual work, learning our craft, while Sadda and Hamza were watching her. Duchamp had left Gaita there as well, but she was probably goading them into stealing candies. So be it; they had their fun, while Duchamp and I had ours.

Fun it was, indeed. At the large protruding crest of the cliff Duchamp and I rested, side by side on the darkened rock, and we watched the fiery sunrise.

“Right here,” I blurted.

Duchamp flinched. “Pardon?”

“A shrine. Let’s build one right here,” I said, moving to stand once again.

The loud groan from Duchamp made me laugh, and I laughed harder as he flopped unceremoniously onto his back in a most ungentlemanly way. I stepped away from him to try and find some flat rocks with nothing under them.

“To whom, I ask you, Barajas?!” He cried out theatrically.

I laughed even more, for good measure. “The Hills,” I told him. “The Mountains. The Air.”

Duchamp did not retort or give me snark. He lied there silently and frowned a bit as I built a shrine right behind his head. He could probably hear the gravity in my tone. “Is that who you saw?” He asked.

I nodded.

“I see,” Duchamp said, and sat back up with a wince. “Yes, let us build a shrine.”

The two of us moved at a snail’s pace, tuckered out by the climb, but eventually our work produced a small shrine, not unlike a mailbox in shape. In the little slot for offerings, I left an old coat button, a precious thing of still-gleaming metal. Duchamp looked through his pockets and produced a fountain pen.

Duchamp watched me calmly as I used my nail and a stick to carve a crude drawing in white scratch-lines, that of a small pair of lungs, into the rock.

“Lungs,” he spoke quietly, offhandedly, and I nodded in confirmation.

We looked at the shrine in a mutual, comfortable silence.

“Well this is simply darling,” Duchamp added. He reached a hand up to neaten his oiled-back hair, some of which had fallen out of place into its natural curls during the climb. “But I do not appreciate the half-hour climb up dangerous cliffs to get here.”

I grinned and shot Duchamp a look. “That’s the spirit of it,” I said, “and anyways, we don’t have to leave just yet.”

Duchamp nodded readily, and we went back to our spots, sitting perched at the crest of the cliff. We talked of the societal philosophies of man, and watched the sun rise over the mountains and Great Plain.




Back to Pleurodelinae


CCXXIX / 2021 © Pleurodelinae. Writing & subject matter is mine.