The slender jawbone lies in the palm of his hand like a crown. Raising it, an offering to the night, stretched starlight gleams on milk teeth. Engravings appear, a scene playing out from incisor to canine to molar, a tale of disease and mourning, of angry tears and hissed warnings to those who’ve caused him harm.
The city sleeps beneath him, bristled, towers jutting skyward in defiance of Mallinos. He swings off the eaves, jawbone in hand, down a drainpipe, past square windows of indigo, feet dropping on pavement with barely a sound.
He glances both ways down a stilled alley. On tiptoe to the doormat, where he gingerly places the scrimshawed mandible to await discovery come morning.
He climbs back up, quicker this time. Dancing on tiles as he maneuvers the precarious roofscape house to house, a fox, a shadow, out of the gubernatorial quarter and back to the slums to rouse his kind from sleep.
To tell them they’re free.
“Is he now, the rotten bastard?”
“Scared some poor woman half to death this morning, when she stepped on his omen.”
“Oh, horrible one was it?”
“All of ‘em are horrible, you pathetic creature.” The editor hit Yandi the writer in the ribs with a folded stack of broadsheets. “Now here’s your story. Write it. And you—” he spun around to the caricaturist. “Draw me a nice perverted sketch of that monster. I want him up on a roof, in the dead of the night, eyes bulging out and blood dripping from his snout. Powerful close-up. Make it work.” And with that he ducked out of the workroom.
The caricaturist studied his half-finished drawing of a stooped man carrying his limp child, her skin spotted and peeling. He blew on the paper, and the father and the sickly girl vanished in a plume of soot. Picking up a slab of charcoal, he started work on the Scrimshander.
The caricaturist bought half a sack of potatoes from the produce market on his way home, costing him two thirds of the day’s wage. Eases the pain, a soothsayer had told him. Easy to keep down, well-boiled.
In their hovel, sitting by her bed, he caressed his daughter’s pale cheek, feeding her mash with a wooden spoon. She licked at it more than she ate, every swallow followed by a rictus of pain. When she finished she turned sideways to sleep, and behind her earlobe he saw another black spot.
His heart ached.
The caricaturist was aware of an overweight porcine figure, collar of bones around the neck, watching him walk to work in the early morning from every newsstand, doorstop, upright. The Scrimshander’s beady eyes followed him. Above the face, the words, Strikes Again. His sketch graced the city: rounding a corner, there, past the market, the tunnel, Bristlecat Bridge, there, the words, the eyes, observing.
People hurried past the ubiquitous posters, their gaze never hovering for long on the menacing drawing, a quick glance, a conversation momentarily paused; then they looked away, got back to the day’s worries as if nothing had changed—but the caricaturist, paying attention to their reactions, noticed something beneath the veneer of nonchalance, something his editor had succeeded in drawing out, waking in the subconscious of the masses. Uneasiness. A badly masked fear, a sense of helplessness.
Walking in the cold with his fists in his pockets, he couldn’t help but wonder whether the Scrimshander was angry for being misrepresented—surely he didn’t look the way the editor had cartoonishly described him—or whether he was pleased with that exaggerated caricature of his likeness, a gesture that indicated Parliament’s slipping away from rationality and toward propaganda, a move obviously driven by anxiousness, or desperation, or both. Were the politicians feeling cornered? Afraid?
The Scrimshander stared at him from everywhere, mute, offering no answer.
Perhaps he hadn’t recognized himself yet.
“Have you slept? You look horrendous.”
With a forefinger the caricaturist smeared charcoal on paper. “I’ve slept.” The bushy hair of the father veiling a smeared and knotted face, those long curly wisps permitting only a sliver or a hint of an expression heartbreakingly recognizable: absolute resignation against every parent’s worst nightmare, a facial equivalent of the long drawn-out sigh.
“This week?” Yandi snickered, pushed away his typewriter, pranced over to the caricaturist’s desk. “What’re you drawing?”
“What I see.” He looked up at his impish colleague. “Around me. With my own eyes.”
Yandi snatched the paper, held it up as if studying a roentgenograph. His arm dropped, his grin vanished. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because it’s what’s happening.”
He glanced at the door. “Yes. Everyone knows but should say they don’t.” He strode back to his desk. Banging on the typewriter, “Go back to drawing what they pay you for.”
He was looking out a window at Mallinos, that black rupture in skycloth around which starlight circled before sinking like watered milk down a drain. He pictured his daughter, slipping, swirling, gone. Like her mother before her; now beneath their feet, patiently awaiting her girl.
Why wouldn’t they write about what was happening? Warn people, stop the spread.
A moan split the night; not her, he realized with relief. But somebody else’s child, squirming in another hovel—and relief was pain again, anger.
This decaying slum sucked all joy from him, the way Mallinos gulped down starlight above. He felt angry with himself, with the ones paying his meager salary, with the ones paying his editor’s salary, but also angry with everyone in this putrid quarter, ensconced in their rotting hovels, sinewy enough to fight back but too frightened to raise their voices above a whimper. Sleepwalkers, the whole lot; entire lives wasted fumbling in the dark.
Another moan, from his daughter this time. He shuddered and closed the window.
Why weren’t the papers writing about the disease? They could teach people to take care of each other, lessen the suffering of those dying.
He hurried to her bed.
They don’t write, a voice in his head said, because they can’t stop it. It’s spread already; they can only distract the people, delay the panic.
Only cling to power.
He carried a sack of potato peels on his back. The air chilled his bones, but he liked that; it was as if the cold cleansed him somehow. He emptied the burlap sack into the neighborhood rubbish dump, his face turned away from the stench.
On his way back through a cobbled alley narrow as if cleaved from a continuous mass of hovels, a chorus of children’s voices reached him in whispers.
“Hurry, Mommy’ll worry.”
“So what? Mommy worries for all and nothing.”
“Still. Getting dark. Hurry, I say. Swipe the plums.”
The voices reached him through the conduits of human squalor, through the sheets of scrap metal which served as roofs and the makeshift walls of wood or sackcloth and the hollow pipes that ran through them.
“One more round.”
“No, too late.”
He stopped, paralyzed, wringing the empty sac in his hands like the neck of that shadowy someone who was to blame for his predicament.
“What? Afraid of something, eh?”
“Afraid of somebody?”
Things had changed too much, his world was a new world, in fact no longer his. His eyes stung. He pressed his palms against them.
“Hopping roof to roof, carrying a rattle made of bones—”
“No, Nikki. I’m not a knucklehead, I know he’s not real.”
“Oh, do you?”
“He’s one of Mommy’s tricks, I’m old enough to know, Nikki. No more real than Baba Roggha. Than the Bed Bug Monster. Than your lover girl!”
“You little prick.”
He found himself crying against a porous hovel wall. He listened to the voices of the unseen troublemakers and tried to remember when last he’d heard her speak, when last she’d heard her own Mommy speak.
He stifled his sobbing in the crook of his arm. He wanted them back. His old life back.
Somewhere along the way life had turned on him, one tragedy swiftly following another like a procession of mourners coming up to him to shake his hand, and the little scraps of hope he’d held on to, these heroes of the underground fighting for his rights, for his better future, were nothing but children’s tales, and he knew that, and they all knew that, but they all played along, because it helped them forget.
The caricaturist ran home.
Studying him through slitted eyes, the editor said in a measured tone, “Your coworkers complain.”
“Then they should be in your office instead.”
“Don’t be difficult.” The editor’s elbows rested on his desk. “Not now. Difficult times for all.”
That failed to provoke a reaction.
“You need the money. I hear—I hear now your girl’s sick.” He sighed with compassion that didn’t seem entirely forced. “I’m sorry.”
Silence, then, a perfunctory nod.
“Please behave. It’ll be best for everyone involved.” A flick of the wrist, indicating the conversation was over.
As he walked out of the editor’s office, the Scrimshander caught his eye, beady-eyed, disapproving. He turned. Pointing at his own work up on the wall, “Was the Scrimshander your invention,” he asked the editor, “or did it come top-down?” Words rushed out of his mouth before he could stop them. “Some Member of Parliament with a twisted imagination? A Minister? Mister Gurnlander, perhaps? Who came up with him, huh? Who was it ordered you to poison us with lies?”
The editor stared, caricature to caricaturist. At last he said, “You have your worries. I will pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Black spots dappled her cheek, neck, coiled along her back like a rat’s tail.
She tossed and turned, grumbled in her sleep. He stayed by her side all night, washing her burning forehead with a wet cloth.
The following day he stayed late in the office, pretending to work. When everyone had left, he slipped into the basement to the printing presses.
To the boy on duty he handed a sheet of paper.
“We started already.”
“Then stop. This is the latest version.”
The boy hesitated. “Can’t. Editor’s gone.”
“Yes, and tomorrow he’ll hear I handed over my work and you refused it.”
The boy considered this, eyes on the sheet of paper in the caricaturist’s hands, a drawing of a father stooped over a diseased child; then he pulled a lever, stopping the presses.
He found her in her bed, already cold.
He covered her dappled face with kisses, tears, squeezed her pale alabaster hands, pulling at his own hair, sinking his teeth in his fist.
Then he went to fetch the mortician.
Procedure dictated it had to be done quickly to contain the disease, but he didn’t care, his blood was tainted already.
He held her hand while the gloved mortician prepared her body, then they buried her under the floorboards beside her mother.
On his doorstep, arms wrapped around himself. He watched Mallinos through watery eyes and shivered, as the sky shivered around that black hole. Where did all the light go? It couldn’t just vanish; the universe had to even things out, somehow.
The silvery roofscape of the slums lay undisturbed, no figure, heroic or otherwise, flitting across it. How he wished he were real.
A wind picked up, and a half-torn poster of the Scrimshander flapped on a lamppost. He walked over to it, reached out to rip it up into pieces. One word was partially legible above the face, and the way the poster flapped in the wind made the word there, gone, there, gone, as if flashing.
He stared into the flickering eyes of the monster he’d drawn, hypnotized, stricken, and the wind dried his tears, and his shivering stopped as grief became anger, became recognition.
He strode back into his home.
Ripped up the floorboards.
And sinking his fingers into soft earth, he started to dig.