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The Fifth Dream

Building the Perfect Man




"The garden is bound."

His hawk mask is an explosion of black and brown, and shards of ivory peek through the profusion of feathers. His robe, a mosaic of lizards, flows about him like a mist held in place by geometric theory.

"The plant must be brought to flower; it must seed the next generation."

She is half his height, slender and tiny as he is tall and thick, and she wears long white gloves. Her head is that of a raven, and the shoulders of her pale emerald robe are covered with leaves, the burning colors of fall.

The trinity of jackal-headed watchers do not speak. Their eyes are cold, glittering with frost. Their robes are streaked with soot and dirt. They stand at the foot of the slab, and each one is holding a different tool: trowel, awl, and ax.

I am sprawled on the slab, covered to the chest with an equally dirty cloth. My eyes are twitching beneath their lids as if I am deep in REM sleep, as if I am aware of what is about to happen but, other than my frantic eyes, am unable to move.

(I am also a witness to the scene, one of those self-aware points of perception like the astral projection of self or the simple omniscient observer of a dreamer's oneiromantic state.)

A leaf falls from the shoulder of the raven-headed woman. "Binding the stem makes the blossoms brighter." Her beak clacks on her consonants.

"If the soil is barren, what does the stem bring to the blossom?" asks the hawk-headed one. His immense hands twitch restlessly as if they yearn to be snapping bone.

The jackal with the ax is restless, blunt fingers tapping at the metal head of his tool. The raven-headed woman nods in reluctant agreement with her hawk-headed companion, and the wordless acknowledgement is the signal the jackal has been waiting for. He strips the dirty sheet from my naked body, and raises his ax. Even though his blows are precise, it is bloody work.

When he is finished, she gathers the head and still-attached spine, wrapping them in the discarded shroud. "The empty heart is easily chilled by winter," she says. Her gloves are red, nearly to her elbows. "Fullness of the heart comes with the summer heat."

"All equinoxes are thresholds," the hawk-headed one replies. "We are but phases, wishing to be stages."

"Doppelganger, dybbuk, and takwin," she says. "Oh my." Clasping her bloody package to her chest—the wet fabric of her robe sticks to her skin—she drifts from the scene, vanishing into immaterial darkness.

"Straw-eaters, all," the hawk-headed one nods.

The ax-wielding acolyte laughs, a throaty hiccup that sounds like he is choking on a piece of meat. His muzzle and chest are red with his work.

While the awl-carrying acolyte sweeps my severed legs and arms from the slab, the jackal-headed one who wears the trowel turns my bloody trunk onto its back. He deftly slices open the belly with the razor edge of his shovel, and scoops out the viscera with his implement. He hurls it aside with a flick of his wrist, and it spatters—white and red—on the floor.

The floor undulates beneath the gore, bulging and stretching. The old stone twists itself into a hippopotamus with empty eyes and cracked teeth. It snuffles and slurps at the stuff of my guts, gulping and gnawing at one of my hacked-off legs. The acolytes avoid the stone extrusion, and the awl-wielder kicks my other limbs towards the hippo's groping mouth.

The trowel-wielder reaches under the arch of my rib cage and tears out one of my shrunken lungs. His voice a fricative chatter, he offers it (like a burnblackened wing) to his ax-wielding companion. When he retrieves the other lung, they tear into the spongy meat, snorting and laughing.

While the sated hippo melts back into the floor, the awl acolyte roots around in the open cavity of the body for a snack of his own. He spears the kidneys with his sharp tool. They bulge in his cheeks like satsuma oranges.

"Your rotten spoils. Your geometric flesh." The hawk-headed one brushes the acolytes back from the slab. "The night is filled with silence, and the wheel must turn." Their mouths still full, the acolytes retreat from the ritual slab, vanishing into the darkness that surrounds the scene.

"To accept this gift is to accept re-creation," the hawk god says as he gathers the fabric of his robe, lifting it above his waist. A crimson stain like the burning line of dawn marks the lower edge of his robe. He is surprisingly male and human from the waist down, and his cock is a twisted worm. It nearly vanishes in his large hands, and when he squeezes the organ, it vomits a foamy froth of emerald urine into the belly of my corpse. "All land is fertile once it has been impregnated. All flesh is ripened by the green gnosis."

The acolytes return, laden with glazed bowls. The first bowl contains the corpses of shiny fish and brightly plumaged birds. The second is a swarming mass of scavengers: mice, roaches, snakes. The third is half-filled with red sand, dark like ash soaked in blood. The acolytes pour each bowl into the piss-filled cavity of my body, and two of them hold the flaps of my stomach together while the awl-wielder does the delicate work of sewing up the flesh.

A single serpent, stained with green luminescence, escapes from the bowl of my belly before the final loops of the fine copper thread are pulled tight. The snake squirms across the shriveled branch of my crotch and disappears beneath my body. I—silent phantasmal witness—am the only one who sees it escape.

While the hawk priest traces esoteric symbols on my skin, the acolytes retire with their now-empty bowls. The copper stitching forms a T shape, and he writes on either side and above the shining loops of wire. His thumbnail leaves white lines in its wake, arcane script that is slow to fade. Occasionally the flesh will ripple in the wake of his inscription, some vermin pushing up from below in response to the weight of his text.

The acolytes appear once again, pushing a wooden cart before them. The cart is filled with a profusion of materials: limbs of bruised bronze and hammered tin, collars and belts and chains of brittle iron, nets of filigreed silver.

They chose a pair of legs, red with rust like the soil along the riverbank. The knees are clumsy clockwork, and the feet are poorly cast—the toes are nothing more than dimples in the dirty metal. The arms are more finely worked—twisted strands of tin representing the intertwined musculature and bone. The arms are inserted into the stubs of a heavy harness, a flat collar of the cold iron resting across the headless shoulders of the body. The collar is fixed in place by four long nails, driven through flesh and bone by the hammer action of the butt of an acolyte's tool. A similarly unadorned belt is laid around the base of the torso, and after the legs are inserted into the brackets of the belt, more nails are pounded into the flesh.

The ax-wielder begins to repair the damage in my back, smearing black pitch into the ravaged crevasse where my spine once lay. The other two acolytes root around in the cart for a number of fat rings of colored stone—green and blue and yellow and red. Using a silver chain, these stone donuts are stacked according to some unspoken order, and when the first acolyte finishes laying pitch, the chain is placed in the body. An iron plate, worked with a graven array of peacock feathers, seals the back.

During this reconstruction, the hawk-headed priest has been staring at the indistinct horizon, as if he were watching the flicker of a distant drive-in movie screen. Something happens on that distant screen that causes him to blink, and the feathers along his neck swell and puff. "The sun has swallowed the sea," he says suddenly, and his words interrupt the acolytes' work.

They look at one another, their jackal tongues hanging loosely from their perpetually smiling lips. One hoots a half-formed question, and is cut off by the shake of another's head. The third goes back to work, the motion of his tool a little more rapid, a little more frantic.

The hawk priest raises his face and screams, the sort of ragged cry that terrorizes rabbits. His hands tug and pull at his robe as if the cloth is suddenly irritable against his skin. He shakes his head, and several of his feathers drift free, falling like charred pages of burned library books.

Hiding the metallurgy of the body, the acolytes dust the construct with a layer of gritty powder, like ash from a volcanic eruption, like the first frost of death that follows the fall, like the scattered cremations of kings and children and dreamers.

While the other two begin to wrap the whitened body with bolts of colored silk, the third acolyte approaches the hawk priest. The hawk-headed one kneels, his plumage now dull and listless. The jackal acolyte, fingers still stained with blood and pitch, puts his hands around the priest's neck and twists savagely. The hawk-head comes free, and the body slumps to the ground, green fluid leaking from the ragged stump.

The acolyte thrusts his hands into the head and rotates his wrists. The feathered head, suddenly pliable and rubbery, turns inside out. The face on the inside, bereft of expression and of feather, is more impressionistic than familiar, but it is still a face I recognize. The jackal acolyte carries it to the slab where the brightly swaddled body lays.

The head is attached with two more nails, and their great work complete, the three acolytes—trowel and ax and awl—return to their original positions at the foot of the slab. The body lies motionless until an echo rolls in from the distance, a roaring oceanic swell that disturbs the robe of the fallen priest, that lifts the hem of the stained shifts of the acolytes, and that moves the fabric covering the dusted body. As the echo fades, the body moves: the eyelashes flutter, the chest expands, a finger twitches.

The acolytes wait.

The construct wakes, staring up at the indistinct canopy above the slab. A tongue, pink and new, pushes its way between white-dusted lips, and the lick of moisture wipes away the ash. The construct clears its throat, remembering how to speak, remembering how to form the words. A smile pulls at its mouth.

"I am ready," the Ribbon Man says.


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