Joyland

The Midwest |

Fire With Legs

by Colin Fleming

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

It was very frustrating to have finally managed to scale one of the walls of the inside of the noise machine only to discover bars on the ceiling.

“Come on. This can’t be. I’m not sure I can afford to get much more demoralized.”

He gave the bars a shake just to make sure that they wouldn’t give, but they were as solid as could be.

Someone on the outside must have flipped the dial on his way back down to the ground, because the sounds of tropical breezes gave way to the hum and hush of waves washing up a beach.

This, at least, was a relief from the motifs and refrains of the crickets. Those crickets. A solid eight hours a night, usually. At first, they just went for an hour or two, and then everything would shut down. Not that the inside of the machine ever went dark, even then. There was too much commotion inside with everyone competing for work. Many of the crickets, in fact, had been ousted from their positions, because it was getting so that anyone could make the cricket sounds. There were even some bright orange pylons that had no problem handling the cricket-themed requests, plus a clump of rose bushes, a half-filled salt shaker, and even a locust whom everyone regarded uneasily.

He was a big talker, the locust, saying that unlike other locusts, who tended to stick together and travel in packs, he’d driven his mates away by the sheer ferocity of his ambition and individuality, given that this was a time when locusts generally hewed to the company line.

“And you know what that line is,” he’d say to anyone who would listen, which was everyone who got near enough to him, terrified as they were by his lack of compatriots. “Roam about the countryside, doing the whole plague bit, eating lots of grass. Grass. Freakin’ grass. Like that’s dignified. So you know what I said? I said, ‘fuck the grass, mates. Anyone can eat grass. A cow can eat grass. But love? Who can eat love? I mean, consume it, just suck it out of someone, yum yum yum. So that’s what I decided to focus on. Wrecked a lot of good relationships. Locust style. Respect, you know?”

It was a drag hanging out with the locust. He got a lot of work, too. Not because he was an expert sound maker, but rather because of his intimidating personality. He wasn’t anywhere near as versatile as the rock crab, though. No one got more work than the rock crab. He could do a jungle scene, anything ocean related, or as pure a cricket-esque sound as could be, and was even a master with fire sounds. All he had to do was procure a tinder bundle—which meant stealing a few leaves from the clump of rose bushes—and rub three of his legs together. Before you knew it, there’d be a spark and, by an amazing coincidence, as though the rock crab had some relationship with the world outside of the noise machine, the dial would be turned, and for the rest of the evening soothing hearth fire flames would play most everyone to sleep.

After the draining defeat of having learned there were bars at the top of the machine, he was not anxious to run into the rock crab. The latter, it must be said, was quite full of himself, and you could never trust anything—not fully, anyway—he communicated to you, as the rock crab enjoyed cultivating an image of himself as an enigma. A wise enigma, but an enigma all the same. But there he was in the break room, reclining on the fainting couch that had been provided for him, it was said, because of his many talents. As usual, he had a bucket of minnow eyes on either side of him, for the rock crab was a glutton, one who reveled in his burgeoning corpulence.

There was little joy in watching the rock crab stuff himself between his many gigs. Still, one had to eat, keep up one’s strength, and given that the entire expanse of the sound machine consisted of but a main stage, a basement where the locust hung out—and engaged in his various modes of saturnalia—and the break room, you had just the one place, really, to take your meals.

No one ever asked the rock crab why he first put the minnow eyes over his own before retrieving them with his pincher claw and popping them into his mouth, but the failure to find a door at the top of the sound machine had had an emboldening affect.

“Look, rock crab—what is it with the eye thing? Why do you need to put their eyes on yours? I mean, it’s weird. You can’t tell that that’s weird?”

The rock crab, who had been giggling upon putting the latest pair of eyes atop his own, stopped to put them back in one of the buckets, and set a very firm gaze.

“Weird? There’s nothing weird about it. It’s quite illuminating, really.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, when you put other eyes on over your own—or at least this is true for me—you’re able to look into their life. The life that they had lived. Before they came to have the ocular portion of themselves”—there was no disputing that the rock crab was well-read—“end up in buckets such as mine. There’s not a lot of range, with the minnows. It gets a bit same-y. ‘Oh, here I am in a tidal pool, isn’t the water nice and fresh today, I am grateful for all of this salt, oh look, it’s a hermit crab, I think I’ll go say hi, he seems to be beckoning me, maybe we have similar interests and could be activity partners, etc.’ And then the hermit crab rips him in two. Like I said, gets a bit same-y. But sometimes you come across something different. Could try it with you, if you like.”

“I’m not fully committed to dying. Yet.”

“Aren’t you?”

“No. Well, maybe. I’m not sure. Probably. But is there any way to do it without me being dead and in your bucket? I mean, could you maybe just, I don’t know, throw me over your face? Like I was a bandana? Or a mask?”

“You have to be shitting me.”

“What?”

“You have no clue what you’re doing here, do you? Or even what you are?”

“Well, now that you put it so boldly…I don’t. I have a great deal of pain. I know that. I’d thought about letting myself drop from the top of our box today.”

“Wouldn’t have mattered. Not with you.”

“Yes. I suppose I sensed that. Do trains ever come through here? I could put myself in a front of a train. Maybe that’d be an effective problem solver?”

“Afraid not. Here. Let me help you out.”

Given that he was especially vain, the rock crab always kept a small hand mirror tucked under his armor on the side of him that did not feature the three legs he used to make fire.

“Never mind that slime on the side. Being a crab is a war of attrition. You wouldn’t understand. But take a look. What do you see?”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah. I thought you knew.”

“I had no idea. None. Do you think this is why I’m in so much pain?” He had figured he looked like a person, albeit one with a different kind of job, and special responsibilities, but he looked more like a piece of lightning—maybe two inches in height—that had been snipped out of the sky and made into a little circle, with an extra bit of material—perhaps his head—hanging over the top and dangling towards an empty mid-section.

“I look very fiery. Raw.”

“Yeah. You do mate. Still want to try the mask thing? Might give you some insight. Of course, it’s usually only something I do with dead things, so they’re not around for me to tell them what I’ve seen, but this could be edifying. For both of us. What do you say?”

“I feel like I have nothing to lose.”

“Okay then. Just plop yourself on, I guess.”

It was a quick session, because the rock crab was due on the soundstage in ten minutes.

“So? How was it? Do we have our insight?”

The rock crab was not especially forthcoming, in any matters—due to his penchant for the enigmatic—but he felt bad for the creature standing before him. Plus, this was just good dirt.

“Turns out you were a person. Outside the box, that is. First you were there, in a house, looked happy, all was good. Like I look when I’ve done a great bit of work and I have my buckets to look forward to on each side of my fainting couch. That’s how you looked. And the person with you.”

“Oh no.”

“Right. Thought that might happen. Sometimes, with the minnow eyes, they twitch a little after I take them off of my own, like they’ve become, I don’t know, somewhat sentient, and pick up on a few things, even though they’re not, technically speaking, alive. My art is a complicated art. You understand. And then there was just you in the house. Empty house. Save for a tennis ball. You kept bouncing it against the wall. When you weren’t grinding your palms in your hands. Or vomiting. Lots of vomiting. That roused the gourmand in me, but I resisted that particular yen and kept looking.”

“You’re a good friend.”

“Thank you. There must be something about your, sir, that affords someone such as I more clarity than normal. Like, with these minnows, I never get to see what their family members were up to. Maybe a brother or sister is procreating as another sibling is torn in two by one of those hermit crabs. But with you, I saw what she was up to. It’s almost like…yes. That’s it. She’s become a part of you. So I guess I was still seeing you, in your earlier form, in a manner of thinking. She wasn’t in a house. An apartment instead. And so much mail! Almost as much as the fan mail I get. Almost. Dozens and dozens of letters every week. She’d pick out maybe one in every twenty, for which she’d write checks. The others—one look at the handwriting on the front, and into the garbage they went.”

“I can feel all of it now. Again.”

“Sorry about that. Say—what would you like me to call you? Now that we’re going to be neighbors? I’m thinking, technically, you’re a shaving. A remnant of a something, someone else. Cleaved away. But you’re also like a spark. All bright and everything. Want the mirror again?”

“It’s okay.”

“So—which would you prefer? Shaving, or Spark?”

“Spark, I guess.”

“And you can call me RC.”

“Can I just call you rock crab?”

“Sure. It’s not like you could confuse me with anyone else.”

The cricket sounds grated. For as long as anyone could remember, it was cricket sounds, eight hours a night. A versatile virtuoso like the rock crab was becoming bored, drained of his normal verve. That is, until one day, as he reclined upon his fainting couch, when he heard something cricket-ish, but not from the soundstage.

“Lo! Spark! Do you not hear that? Come, my fiery friend—put your…well…the side of your fiery self—up against the wall of the sound machine here. Do you not hear that?”

“I do. There is a cricket on the outside.”

“No, you idiot. That is clearly the Mother Crab. Clearly. I would bet my last bucket of minnow eyes on it.”

They debated, for days, what, exactly, they were hearing.

“There’s only one thing to do then. We go to the outside.”

The Spark, who was now overwhelmed with memories—which was to say, confusion, as well, having never understood how someone who had become a part of him could forget him like that, make like there had been no union at all, just depart in the night, forever—had been looking for a way to extinguish himself. Maybe a journey with the rock crab would take care of this.

“I thought you said we couldn’t get out?”

“I said—as you discovered yourself—there’s no getting out through the top. But there’s always the plug. And the sound waves. We’ll just hop a wave. I mean, look at you—it’s like you were born for this. It must have been how you got in.”

“How’d you get in?”

“I’m not sure, exactly. There was the basement. I think the locust might have had something to do with it. Greatness doesn’t question greatness though, does it? And that’s why I’m not going to question why the Mother Crab is sending out a signal for me. That’s an honor for any crab. Even a crab such as myself. It’s RC time, baby! Let’s ride that wave!”

The rock crab initiated his latest fire with his legs, and the flames were so close to both of them that it was with a certain instinct that they both leapt towards the plug. The spark did not expect to find himself upon a bog, mud oozing all around.

“This is the wave?”

“Of course it’s the wave. What did you expect? Not an ocean wave, I hope. The ocean’s on the other side of this wave. Oh—meant to tell you. Your old house might be there, too. Sort of seemed that way when we did the mask thing. But hot damn—let’s get going.”

Progress was slow for the Spark. He found himself clinging more and more to the mud, and he could feel the memories beneath him in the form of detached hands that rotted away as he climbed over the latest thumb, barely submerged in the muck.

The rock crab, meanwhile, danced atop the landscape with a balletic grace that seemed at odds with his corpulence. When a fish would dart out of the depths, he’d leap through the air and slash it apart for the sport of it. The Spark envied the rock crab, his happiness, even as he pitied the fish. Some heads landed near where the Spark was crawling, and when he looked in the latest pair of eyes, he saw images from his own past staring back at him. But a mere touch of himself to any severed head was enough to char it and turn it to dust, which he duly consumed, in case he had need of the memory again.

“Well, here we are,” the rock crab announced, when they came to the shore.

There was an island in the distance, with a vague, but large, form resting supine upon it, and what he thought was a huge palm tree, looming high overhead. To the west was a block of basalt, but a leap or two away for the rock crab, given his recently discovered powers of agility. A piercing cry came from behind the rock.

“Well, I’m off, mate. That’ll be the Mother Crab. Gonna be getting me those candy corns. Finally.”

“Candy corns?”

“Of course candy corns. What else would you come to the Mother Crab to get? She gives you the corns, you snap them in your claws, like using those hand strengthener things you squeeze. You can cut through anything after you get a set of candy corns. Good luck to you.”

The Spark watched as the rock crab took two giant leaps and surmounted the top of the basalt wall, where he ended up in the mouth—which had half a dozen minnows sticking out of it, and two or three crickets—of an enormous heron. The Spark was nearly hit by the shrapnel produced from the explosion of the rock crab’s body. There were flames, and the air smelled acrid. The water seemed a good place for the Spark to extinguish himself, but he was curious what that form was on the island. But how to get there?

Using one of the rock crab’s blown out legs as a rudder, the Spark sat in the center of the overturned portion of the rock crab’s shell. The top of it. He did not know the proper term. He only had a moth wing that he had found for a sail, so the journey took a little time. He thought it odd that he should see the sleep machine first. She was much larger than the sleep machine, of course. Her head was next to it, and what he had mistaken for a palm tree he knew, instantly, was the shadow that he carried in him, in all his forms, he figured, wherever they were, wherever they had been scattered to. The temptation to douse himself in the water was great, but he couldn’t help but feel the way he had before about her, and that sizzling sound, and the steam, would surely prove disruptive. So he settled on drifting, instead, for as long as he could stand it.

The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, Colin Fleming's collection of eighteen thematically linked stories, comes out from Dzanc Books on August 11, 2015.