WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?


CHAPTER 24

Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exiled for ever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

The sky darkens. A man is sitting in a cage, cold and fearful, with the shadows all around him. The cage stinks of animal waste products. It is a simple enough structure, made of bamboo. Only a knotted piece of twine holds the door closed. This is important. The man could have left that place at any time he pleased, he could have walked free. Even now, he might rise up and leave the cage.

The man's name is Hank Webb. Webb imagines himself to be a private investigator.

There is one other occupant. A mechanical scorpion crawls slowly in one corner of the floor. Its body is made of iron plate, and its long curving tail drips with a poison. For the last twelve hours, Webb and the scorpion have shared this tiny space, this cage that sits amidst the tangled pathways of a vast, circular labyrinth. Above them, the moon whispers amongst the overhanging branches. Muted cries and howls drift through the blossoms. A nightingale sings, the broken circuits of its internal machinery producing a sorrowful air.
Webb cannot remember how he came to be here. He fears the sting of the scorpion, and yet suspects that he may already have been poisoned. He cannot remember. A black confusion courses through him. His eye is drawn to the shard of glass that hangs down from the ceiling of the cage. It twists around slowly, showing now its painted side, now its reflective surface. But no, Webb dare not look there, he dare not look into the mirror. Even now, perhaps, he is subject to a fantasy, a changing; he sees the labyrinth as a complex laboratory, a magical construction of which he himself is the ritual. He cannot imagine the final effect of this magic. Once again Webb stares at the two objects that lie on the floor, a photograph, a gun; he knows only that by these mystical devices the spell will work its process.

The scorpion has moved out of its corner. Webb pushes himself back against the bamboo struts. He raises the gun towards the creature. If it should come any closer… but the scorpion, as though aware of this intent, backs away once more. Webb tries to relax. He picks up the photograph. Over and over, these last hours, he has returned to this image. His wife's face staring out at him, and with each glimpse becoming more real, the veil falling away, until now with twilight's possession she appears more real than she did when alive. And the sight of this brings the tears into Webb's eyes.

Something rustles through the trees. The animals fall silent in their cages, the birdsong is stilled. A flickering green light moves from shadow to shadow, and the moon catches at the flow of silk. The scorpion crawls away into the darkest corner. Webb looks out through the bars, to see the figure approaching, this ghost of sparkles. The woman steps up to the cage. For a moment the two figures regard each other. She slips the twine from the door and enters the cage, looking first at the scorpion, and then at Webb. Webb tries to raise his weapon, but his hands are weak now, and shivering. The shard of glass is turning around from dark to light; something passes between them, this man and this woman, some secretive mechanism, and Webb feels his heart opening.

'Jessica…'

The woman stops at the name. Her eyes narrow, her face softens. And her voice, when finally she speaks, is a bare whisper. 'Who are you?'

Something falls away from Webb's hand. 'Jessica. It's me. It's your…'

'No. No.'

The special agent finds within herself, within the play of feelings that now overtake her, only one firm conviction, only one good thing to cling onto, one voice alone; that she has been trained for this moment, that she has been given a life for this moment. And from the folds of silk, a gun appears.
'Jessica, please… forgive me.'

The air is set aflame, briefly, and a loud report echoes along the pathways of the labyrinth. All around, the creatures wail and cry, and scuttle against their bars. Petals drift down from a branch; the scorpion slips away unseen through the opened door of the cage. And then, once again stillness envelopes this small, contained world.

Webb opens his eyes.

Miguel is standing a little way off, his gun still trained upon the cage. The body of the special agent lies there on the floor, unmoving. The wound is raw, a burst of colour too bright to be looked at, and Webb goes to her now, he takes this woman in his arms, holding her face, touching her face, her beautiful face, and yet, even as he caresses her, his wife's image dissolves beneath her fingers.

The ghost fades into memory.

And the night falls softly on the Theatre of Creatures. The silvered moon floats high above the labyrinth, where the many bamboo enclosures hold their shadows, their stories. Transparent fish glide through limpid pools, the salamander sleeps on a mirror's face. A quiet, fluting sound stirs the perfumed air.

Otherwise, all is silent.

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WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?