This week’s short story comes from Ireland.
by John Kenny
The hot sun beat upon the head of Fermino Salousse as he hobbled on his crutches up Avenida da Marginal from his shack on the outskirts of Maputo proper. There was little mercy in that sun, the palm trees stretching along the avenue that hugged the wide bay offering tiny, isolated islands of shade.
He offered up a prayer that a minibus would appear along the avenue soon, that it would be Paulo Mucavele driving, the only bastard son who would stop for him these days. As he pushed his emaciated, dying body along with the crutches, he passed through a group of small stalls selling beer, fruit and CDs by the roadside. It faced the Costa do Sol restaurant on the other side of the road, packed with aid workers and the more well-to-do in the city.
Just as Fermino was sending a silent avowal of hatred towards those eating the finest of prawns and crabmeat, he spotted from the corner of his eye a minibus hurtling down the avenue. Quickly he turned, stuck out a crutch to halt the bus. The driver, spotting the telltale signs of Fermino’s diseased body, his skeletal frame, the crutches, swerved and pelted past, gathering even more speed, throwing up an immense cloud of dust, the bus’ occupants jammed sardine-like swaying from left to right.
He tried to quell the anger inside of him, tried to focus on his destination, prayed that Paulo would come by soon, before the sun had its final way with him. On and on he went in the sweltering heat. Hard to believe this was all under water little more than a year ago, although the damage to the roads and pathways was still evident enough.
He was coming up to a turn on the right when he saw another minibus. This time it was Paulo, this time the bus stopped.
“Bon dia, Fermino, what are you doing out this far?” Paulo enquired.
“On my way to Parque José Cabral,” Fermino replied, reaching for the sliding door on the side of the bus.
There was an outcry from some of the occupants. They were convinced they would become tainted, wither away and die.
“Hey, Fermino, get in front with me, don’t worry about them,” Paulo said, casting a look of disgust at the people piled in the back. “Mariamo! Shut up! Sergio, the rest of you!”
Amid grumbles, the bus turned right and took off down the avenue at speed. As they were passing the prison, heading towards the centre of the city, Paulo asked, “What do you want with that freak show?”
The word ‘freak’ touched something in Fermino, and he adopted a look of defiant dignity tinged with shame. “I…” he started.
It suddenly dawned on Paulo what it was that Fermino was interested in seeing at that ‘freak show’.
“Ah… sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’m just curious is all. Just curious.”
Turning on to the main boulevard of the city, Fermino looked out at the high rise office blocks and apartments lining the avenue, crumbling and dilapidated from all those years of war. The detritus of the war machines lay strewn not far from here on the grounds of the old military hospital.
Fermino’s wandering thoughts were interrupted by the minibus skidding to a halt at the corner of Avenida dos Martires da Machava. He got out, as did most of the other occupants; the show was attracting anybody and everybody. There was a carnival atmosphere surrounding the park.
“Obrigado, Paulo, bon dia.”
“Bon dia. You look after yourself, my friend.” The bus disappeared in a roar of exhaust and fumes.
The heat reasserted itself and a burst of sweat covered Fermino as he made his way along the broken path towards the centre of activity in the park.
In the distance he could hear a loudspeaker announce that the show had just returned from a tour of Cabo Delgado Province and the towns of Nampula, Beira and Inhambane.
“Roll up! Roll up!” the loudspeaker barked. “See the oldest man alive! See the heaviest woman in the world! Test your skill at the rifle range! Prizes! Prizes! Transform yourself in the Hall of Mirrors! Roll up! Roll up!”
It was a mad, crazy freak show all right; like something from a century ago. But it had caught the public’s imagination, starved as it was of diversion from the daily routine.
Fermino cast about, looking for the particular attraction he had heard about. The heat was finally getting to him. He began to feel a little queasy. As if by some kind of radar sense, or perhaps an affinity with the man he had come to see, Fermino found himself drawn to a knot of people gathered around a red and white striped tent pitched by the children’s playground.
He joined the queue, some of the people nearest him glancing warily at him, and fished out a handful of meticais to gain entrance. The shade of the trees around the tent offered sanctuary from the sun but was also a haven for mosquitoes, which buzzed angrily in Fermino’s ears.
Looking ahead he saw a batch of people emerge from the tent with dazed expressions on their faces. They wandered off in different directions, intent on nothing and nowhere. The queue shortened a little.
Suddenly everything became still, an air of expectancy in the air. Long moments passed followed by a sudden gasp from the people in the tent. As if on cue, Fermino’s guts started to churn. Pain lanced through his midriff causing him to stumble on his crutches. Sweat was now pumping from him; his shirt and trousers stuck to him wetly.
Now there were startled cries of disbelief and wonder issuing from the tent. The pain in Fermino’s body increased, almost doubling him over. A groan escaped his lips. People in front and behind moved a little away.
Now the people were leaving the tent with the same look on their faces as the last batch. The queue moved up and Fermino reached the tent flap and paid a man who stood by a small fold-up table.
He was in, and a dark coolness enveloped him. There was total silence. People crowded against Fermino, unmindful of his state, curiosity overcoming any fear of infection. All eyes were on a small, elevated stage and a dark velvet curtain.
When the jostling subsided, a man arrived in front of the curtain and announced the event, reminding people to please not panic. There was mute acceptance of what their host said and he withdrew, pulling the curtain across with him.
On stage was a gallows with a spotlight trained on it. There was a collective intake of breath. Moments later a man was lead by the Master of Ceremonies to the steps adjoining the gallows. They slowly climbed the steps and the man positioned himself over the trapdoor. The MC took the noose of the rope hanging by the man’s head and, with great solemnity, placed it over the man’s head securing it around his neck. He then stepped to the side of the gallows and placed his hand on a large wooden lever. With his free hand, he pressed the play button of a tape recorder that rested on a pedestal beside him and a loud drum roll filled the tent.
Fermino watched. The pain renewing itself in his body, he watched. The MC pulled the lever. The trapdoor dropped open. The man plummeted. The rope snapped tight. A sharp crack echoed through the tent. Everyone gasped. The man’s eyes bugged out a little. His tongue was forced out through his lips. He kicked slightly, a nervous response; he was instantly dead.
The crowd in the tent were appalled and fascinated in equal measure. Feet shuffled; there were curses and oaths and startled cries, a general jostling and the temperature increased, becoming noticeable again to Fermino.
He stared at the face of death. The open, bulging eyes were now glassy, the face flooded with trapped blood. The lolling tongue was comical; any dignity the man could have held on to was replaced by a shameful injustice.
This was what Fermino had to look forward to. This was to be his fate, waiting for him in the months, perhaps only weeks, ahead. His eyes were wide open, the pupils fully dilated; he sought to take it all in, staring, looking for the slightest movement, expecting evidence of some kind of continuance, here, or in the hereafter.
But there was none.
Silence reigned again as the MC arrived from the wings of the stage. He walked to the steps leading up to the gallows, ascended, and lowered the dead man to the ground below.
Descending again, the MC dipped his head beneath the gallows platform to kneel beside the body. All pain was gone from Fermino as he watched attentively, banished to another realm by adrenaline.
The man began to loosen the noose from about the dead man’s neck. When it had been removed, he stepped back. The air assumed an electric quality as the crowd insinuated itself a little closer.
The dead man’s face began to change; it lost its angry demeanour. The swollen eyes receded slowly. A sort of low moan began to issue from the throat, matched by something similar from the crowd.
But it was when the tongue moved that a kind of panic seemed to gather in the closely pressed people. The tongue moved back into the mouth, the lips closed. The eyes closed, followed by an intake of air.
Fermino also took a deep breath, sharing this moment of renewal with the man on the ground.
When the eyes opened, there was a light in them; they refocused on the man’s surroundings. They looked at the audience. In that instant there was a collective cry of astonishment. The heat in the tent increased. Fermino’s heart raced like a jackrabbit; sweat ran freely down his whole body. He felt faint and sick with an elation that transcended his awful predicament.
And then the man sat up. The MC moved in again and helped him to his feet. The crowd shouted in wonder and dismay. The MC pronounced the end of the show and quickly pulled the curtain closed again, leaving the spectators to make their stunned way out into the blazing sun, abandoned as if in an unknown country without even a map or a compass or the time of day.
Fermino was quaking as he hit the bright sun outside. He wandered about trying to rerun the event on the retinas of his eyes. Was that real? Did that man die and return to life? Or was it some kind of trick? He could not begin to imagine that the whole show had been a conjuror’s illusion. And yet, the alternative… Fermino lost his footing and quickly righted himself with the help of his crutches. He brought his head up to look at the queue patiently awaiting their turn.
Oh, to have that second chance. Or to at least know what awaited him when the time came. Fermino looked up at the blazing orb in the wide empty sky.
The immensity of that sky, this land, this continent. He imagined that immensity, his tiny place in it as he made his way to the back of the queue. He imagined that immensity as if he were looking from a great height, like a God, a God dispensing justice with an even hand.
Encore (c) Johny Kenny 2005. First Published in Emerald Eye: The Best of Irish Imaginative Fiction.
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John Kenny has been co-editor of Albedo One, the Irish magazine of science fiction, fantasy and horror, since its inception in 1993 and a fan of science fiction since the late 70’s. Before his involvement with Albedo One, he wrote extensively for Stargate, the magazine of the Irish Science Fiction Association, and was editor of FTL, the successor to Stargate. Apart from being involved in producing several books published by Aeon Press, he is also a writer of short fiction and has been published in First Contact, Woman’s Way, Emerald Eye: The Best of Irish Imaginative Fiction and other venues. He is co-organiser of the International Aeon Award for Short Fiction competition, now in its 5th incarnation. His first novel is currently doing the rounds with agents.