Sample from a recently completed novel
1. The Melting Crown of a Jester’s Hat
Wet footprints are a bitch. They’re treacherous, usually muddy and form lengthy tracks. The lady who looks after the corridors of this apartment block is staring at them with a comical expression. See, it’s not raining, and she left the floorboards spic-and-span earlier. Besides, who wanders around New York in flip-flops in February? They’re definitely flip-flop prints; she has a forensic eye for soles, sharpened over decades on the job. She follows this set up one flight of stairs and stops. The tracks go on, and they’re not getting any drier. We stop with her, because we have this quasi-scientific interest in the expressions people make when they’re absorbed in something. That’s when they let their aesthetic guard down, relinquishing the muscle control that tries, usually in vain, to make the world do what it’s told. The faces of the engrossed form the most wonderful expressions, honest expressions. In fact, expression is not the right word at all— what they are is impressions. The facial impressions of unfeigned confusion, absorption, deep thought, shock, pain, pleasure, desire…those are raw and therefore priceless. Personally, we can’t get enough of them. We thoroughly enjoy them, like now, watching the irked bamboozlement, or befuddled annoyance, of this rather affable lady of maybe sixty, maybe less. We have a wine connoisseur’s vocabulary when it comes to gawpery. We might say, for example, that there’s an undercoat of resignation peeking through the muted tones of anger and light backscatter of disbelief, but that would be pointless; Jestor would call it “wanky”. He has his own favored vernacular. Anyway, we’re idling, because we should be up on the third floor with said Jestor, in apartment 316. We should be, but we really don’t want to be. We don’t like how this particular case has turned out, and we’re squeamish. That said, there might be something interesting gawp-wise when the time comes. Besides, the lady’s taking back the reins of her face, so there’s nothing more to see. So up we go.
APARTMENT, BROOKLYN, NY. 25 meters above sea-level
And we are not disappointed. A man is standing in the shower stall, under a lazily dribbling rain head. His eyes are half-closed, and he’s rocking gently back and forth. Inside, there are waves high as mountains, figuratively speaking, of course. It’s a strange place to sleep, with a storm brewing, halfway between Nineveh and Tarshish, duty and desire, but he’s dozing behind ticking lids. Jestor kicks him awake and speaks his name three times: Jeb, Jeb, JEB! The pale, hairless man mumbles something—Bevel?—, then repeats it— Debil?—, pauses, widens his brown eyes, and tries again—Delve… Sitting on the toilet lid, Jestor makes a chatty reply as he lights a cigarillo:
No, Jeb. I’m not the Devil. Uh-huh. Do you believe in the Devil, Jeb? What?…You do? Never met him, so I can’t say. Belief’s a funny thing, though, Jeb. Let me ask you something sort of chicken-and-egg: which comes first, belief or doubt?
An orange glow sits on the sea-green wall tiles. Streaks of neon shimmer in the bubble-glass window above the shower stall. Some sirens in the street shriek in swirling blue and red. Outside, Brooklyn. Inside, a ship’s hull. Yes, Jeb has given up. There’s nothing more to say. Nothing more to feel. Nothing more to think. Not that there’s nothing more to be said, felt, or thought; but Jeb’s given up. We can see him giving up on speech right this very second, as he mutters something in reply, then lets the tip of his tongue run aground against the lower teeth. We’ve seen dogs do this with their heads up against walls when they’ve had a stroke. It’s a sad sight, like they’re trying to hold the wall up with their dazed heads. Jeb’s tongue has had it.
Sound of patter on the shower curtain. Jestor considers what Jeb’s just sort of said. He always knows what they’re saying. Even when they’re babbling, mumbling, drooling.
No, Jeb. There’d be no belief without doubt. See, belief comes after doubt, which feeds on certainty. You know something, then you doubt it, and then you choose to believe it, despite it all. So belief’s like a double negative that doubts the doubt. I guess you could say it’s like a plucked flower pressed between the pages of a book… No, I’m not the Devil, Jeb…You see a resemblance, do ya? I get that sometimes…
The moment of decision is fundamentally dialogic, so even when the decision taken is expressed only to oneself, the accompanying mien is an expression in the truest sense. Jeb is wearing it now, and there’s a grim beauty to it. It’s the look of a king about to melt his own crown.
JEB’S BATHROOM, BROOKLYN – NIGHT
Jeb is lying naked on the shower floor, his spindly body rendered in odd grisaille. The water is running and blood is streaming into the drain from his slit wrists. His eyes are open, but he’s either dead or very nearly so. See, there it is. The facial impression of death, like a wet footprint.
Now why would Jeb go and spill his own blood? Why on earth would he do that? For a million reasons. None of them particularly good, but one of them sufficiently compelling: he’d be better off dead. The sailors of this good world have picked his name from the hat three times and thrown him overboard. Splashing around in the mad water like Jeb, with waves above you and troughs beneath you, and a dark, dark void down below, you can either cry out for death or for deliverance. Jeb made his wrists scream for the former. He cut two toothless mouths in his wrists and they begged for death through gurgles of blood. Now, a philosopher might be petulant and certainly insensitive enough to disagree that one could ever be better off dead. You see, technically, the dead are nothing at all, only dead. Better off? Not without the verb, and surely the poorest sort of being is still preferable to not being at all? Not to Jeb, so he slit his wrists, deep.
From the bathroom, down the hallway, to the sitting-room
Besides some very poor life choices, Jeb also had questionable taste in decor. His sitting-room has red walls—okay, wine walls—with gilded furniture and showy frames full of filigrees…In one of these frames is a scale reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (c.1504). A procession of bills, fins and antlers, and naked flesh. In the earthly garden, sandwiched between Eden and Hell, bodies squirrel into cavities, into shells, into clams, into hollow trees, into warm pools. In a busy pond, a black pheasant-crested woman idles with a red fruit, and a threesome of blondes, apples balanced on their sunny heads, watch the ring-a-rosie of mounted beasts: white hog, pink apis, brown griffin, babbling fish. Everywhere in the great garden people huddle beneath petals of feeling, umbrellas of thought, in bubbles of dream, in the briars and hollow trees of big ideas. They frolic from beast to beast, from flower to flower. Pink rock, blue rock; dark water, clear water; white shell, and, not far yonder, a burning town. On the frozen Styx, the waters of Hell, a naked Jeb claws at his sinking sleigh in a hole of broken ice.
The framed reproduction, on its merlot-coloured wall, hangs just above a chest of drawers, and on that chest, in front of the painting, sits a badly bruised Jonagold apple. Jonagold, New York’s finest. A cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious, presented to the world, like Jeb himself, in 1968.
Jeb gorged himself numb on earthly delights. Once the delight lost its lightness, he had only the drag of earth. And the drag of the earth never wears off.
With a click of the fingers, a puff of smoke:
PARATY, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL. 1 meter above sea-level.
Nearly five thousand miles south and two time zones to the right, the fishing boats breathe on calm, green water, with the sound of wavelets lapping against their hulls. Seabirds shriek. In one of these boats, a sleeping drunk slobbers and snores, his misfiring brain trying to dream, but, alas…
This is the seaside town of Paraty, or Parati, a 17th-century colonial port once used to ship off gold and diamonds pilfered from the bowels of Minas Gerais by the Portuguese. The Freemasons built most of it, so its cobblestone roads are never straight, but veer slightly to break the line of sight. With paranoia in the street plan and English pirates in the many island coves, small wonder it had nearly three-hundred distilleries turning out industrial grade cane-rum back in the day. But the fact is, caught between Atlantic Forest and the green, isle-studded water, the town—a crust of whitewashed, blue-sashed buildings permanently soaked by rain and tide—is the perfect setting for lantern-lit tales of the wicked sea… Or perhaps a ghost story or two. Here’s one the locals love to tell: in an old square stands a four-sided fountain, and from that fountain is said to drink the ghost of a bride buried alive by mistake on her wedding day. Her ghost called to her fiancé from the grave, alerting him to the medical error, but nobody believed him. For some reason, the body was exhumed years later and the skeleton was found to be lying face down. The buried bride had kicked and screamed, clawed at the lid, banged with her fists, then turned over and tried to bump the coffin open with her back, pushing upwards with her her hands and knees until she passed out. It’s unfortunate, but some people are not as dead as they seem, while others are not as alive as they look. Call it a trick of the celestial light. How-and-ever, on this particular evening it is not the unlucky maiden who is sipping the stone-cold water, but a figure of another order; our not-one and not-only Jestor.
BATHROOM IN A HOUSE IN PARATY MIRIM, NIGHT. 7 meters above sea level
A fellow named Zé is cowering in the corner of a modern, artsy-looking bathroom with patterned concrete wall tiles and Azulejo, and a huge shower stall with burnished concrete floor. He’s terrified and shouting in Portuguese. He grabs a cologne bottle from the sink top, some hipster piss in a rum flask, and hurls it at someone or something whose presence is clearly unwanted.
Sai, sai daqui. Quem é você? Que que é isso, porra!?
Easy, José Angelo…Easy, José…Zé, can I call you Zé?
Zé is crouching against the wall. He pulls open a drawer under the sink and rummages around for a pair of scissors. All he finds is a nail clippers. The story of Zé’s life, that. However, unlike Jeb, Zé’s life is not ending, not by a long shot. Indeed, you might even say it’s only beginning. In a sense, that is. On a particular level.
O que? Fique longe! Como você sabe o meu nome?!!
Jestor approaches, hand raised against unpredictable reactions. No, as reactions go they’re pretty predictable under the circumstances, but uncharacteristic, and so inept. One way or another, it’s best not to sustain unnecessary damage, so Jestor raises his hand and tries to defuse his mark’s wilder impulses. It takes cop-like politeness; the slow, steady tones of crisis containment. At this point, before going any further, a brief digression on Jestor is probably in order: He’s a tall fellow, trim and muscular, with angular features and strong grey eyes. Neither young nor old. He usually wears a yellow fisherman’s raincoat, open, with the hood down and a fishing hook threaded through the right lapel, and a grey T-shirt with three buttons on the collar, seldom closed. He’s got a leather chain round his neck with a single great white shark tooth as a pendent. It was probably from a juvenile specimen, as it’s a few shades smaller than you’d expect. For strategic reasons, he’s partial to baggy below-the-knee cargo shorts, grey or cream-beige, worn over white-and-black striped drop-seat long johns. When not barefoot, he wears flip-flops. Jestor has a long hairless tail that tends to dance snake-like when he’s standing still, or else curls around his waist like a belt. When outside in the street, the tail is kept inside his shorts, wrapped around his right leg. The tail flattens at the tip, displaying a vulva with a light covering of pubic hair—auburn. The side flaps (not the labia) are usually folded closed, like a cloak around a hooded virgin saint. A pink saint.
Jestor is wearing, or is perhaps worn by, a three-pronged court jester’s hat:
Note on Jestor’s three-pronged court jester’s hat. Each prong is colored and patterned:
- Sea-silk arm of the hat: hangs left of the head to roughly cheek height. Detail: tadpole patterns running along it. Fabric: royal yellow Arabian sea silk. Bauble: a heavy scrotum, which contracts as Jestor thinks, pumping “juice” into his brain. Veins can often be seen popping under the skin. Jestor refers to the scrotum—mulatto—as “The Balls”.
- Byssus arm of the hat: hangs right of the head to just below the lobule. Detail: concentric circles. Fabric: Egyptian byssus linen dyed cochineal blue. Bauble: an eye (volume 12 cubic centimeters; vertical diameter 48mm. Roughly twice the size of a normal human eye). The eyeball sits in a sock of skin that hoods into an eyelid with long, thick lashes. The eye is alert and alive, with its iris (turquoise to blue) flaring and dimming and the pupil dilating and constricting depending on what it sees. It is very expressive in its creaturely personality. Jestor refers to the eye as “The Eye”.
- Madder arm of the hat: hangs left to the back of the head, but is usually worn on the left shoulder. Detail: Voynichese letters and other odd symbols. Fabric: lamb’s wool dyed red with madder (rubia tinctorum). Bauble: an apple. The apple varies in color, texture, size and variety depending on which character Jestor is dealing with at any given time. Jestor refers to the apple as “The Apple”.
Jestor is partial to chocolate-flavored cigarillos, though he will smoke vanilla or cinnamon on a whim.
Ok now, if you’ll stop throwing stuff at me, perhaps we can talk…
Zé, a Brazilian man of medium height and build, with dark hair and very expressive eyes, clams up, but remains guarded. He’s staring intently at Jestor. We like Zé instantly. He gives honest face.
Good. That’s better. Let me introduce myself. My name is Jestor. I’m sure you have lots of questions, so I’ve prepared a little brochure which you can go through at your leisure. It’s very comprehensive, but if you do have any doubts after reading it, we can go over them on my next visit.
Zé reaches out and takes the brochure from the intruder’s hand. He stares at the cover, with a pencil-drawn picture of a flayed Jestor on it. Some beats pass before he blinks, and then his eyes deglaze, as if someone’s just pulled back the blinds of rapid thought. A loaded second passes, and Zé visibly relaxes, like he’s just twigged it’s all a joke.
Someone’s put you up to this. It was Miguel, wasn’t it? Why am I talking to you in English? Sai do meu banheiro, bicho [Standing up and looking at the brochure] Olha só, gostei. Legal, posso ficar? É um desses jogos de aventura, não é? Tipo, você sequestra o cara e o leva num road trip maluco da porra, né? [shaking his head and smirking]…Foi o Miguel, não foi? Fala…Tinha que ser. Aquele filho da puta (chuckling)…
Jestor flies at Zé with brutal speed, like something out of a vampire movie, and pins him against the wall, his face only a hair’s breadth away from Zé’s. Despite the violence of his movements, Jestor’s expression remains perfectly calm throughout. Zé, on the other hand, has gone deathly pale. He’s not the kind who is used to violence. He can’t recall ever willingly becoming involved in a fight, except perhaps once when he was around ten. He was jumped one time during high-school too, but that doesn’t count as it didn’t require any action on his part. He has also been robbed twice, but that was at gunpoint, so there was no physical violence as such, just armed terrorism. So this, his being pinned against his own bathroom wall—let’s face it, if there’s one place on earth you’d expect to feel safe, it’s your bathroom—is not only unusual, it’s pretty much unfathomable. It just doesn’t happen. It’s not meant to happen. Worse, it’s open-ended. What on earth is he supposed to do? When Jestor does finally speak, after what seems like ages, his voice is steady and instructive:
Pay attention, Zé. You’re not paying attention. [pause] Now, read the brochure, and we’ll talk tomorrow. OK?
Jestor turns and leaves us with Zé, who is stunned speechless. We’ve no way of knowing, but the scent from the smashed cologne bottle has filled the bathroom, mingling with the faintest whiff of tobacco. That’s our supposition anyway. We’ve no nose.
INT. ZÉ’S BEDROOM AND HOUSE – NIGHT
Zé is pacing up and down and clawing at his scalp. He’s taking deep, deliberate breaths. Jestor’s brochure is lying on the bed, unleafed. The title reads: “Specifications and Procedures. A Manual”.
Zé stops pacing. Thinks, then paces some more. He goes straight for the window, which he pulls shut and locks. We follow Zé as he goes from room to room locking windows and doors. Zé is an architect, and it shows from his home, which is stylish and modern and full of stuff designed to be seen by visitors: vintage movie posters; a faux-50s record player made in China in 2017, with Bluetooth and headphone jack; low-wattage Edison bulbs hanging from thick black wire; bare demolition-brick walls; designer armchairs; his-and-hers bikes mounted on a rack beside signed photographs of old Cuban cars; clay statues and ritual masks from the Brazilian northeast, Africa, Polynesia; some art-photography nudes because, you know, there’s skin under all that sophistication; and, of course, citronela oil in jam jars dangling from post-office twine in the windows. It’s the mosquitoes, you see. Atlantic Forest mosquitoes are nightmare, but the borrachudas are ten times worse. In the ample sitting-room, which opens onto a blue-lit pool and lush garden with green filtered lighting, he pulls the large sliding doors closed and double-checks the lock. He then runs to the front door (peroba wood in colonial blue) and slides the heavy bolt across like a nun in a pirate raid.
He’s sweating and still breathing heavily. He pulls out his cellphone and considers making a call, but changes his mind and heads for the kitchen instead. It’s a bright, open space with a central cooking station and modern appliances, classy cabinets and a high-tech lighting system. The gadgets are all chrome. He pulls open a green drawer in the isle, shoves a rolling pin out of the way, and grabs a long, sharp kitchen knife. He weighs it in his hand, but what he’s really weighing is his own resolve.
ZÉ’S BEDROOM – NIGHT
Zé is sitting on the bed staring at the brochure. The kitchen knife is on the bedside table. He picks up the brochure and opens it on a diagram of Jestor’s hat with explanatory text and the title “Hat Specs”. He flicks forward to a section entitled “Prologuery”, but it’s too “texty” and he’s not even sure Prologuery is an actual word. What he wants is something like a FAQ.
He leafs back and forth until a heading, right at the beginning, catches his attention: WHAT NOT TO DO NOW. Of course, the beginning is usually a reasonable place to start.
Zé reads the list:
1. DON’T PANIC. YOU HAVE NOT LOST YOUR MIND
2. DON’T GET VIOLENT, IT WILL ONLY GET YOU HURT
3. DON’T USE PSYCHOTROPIC DRUGS
4. DON’T CALL THE POLICE (THEY WON’T BELIEVE YOU ANYWAY)
5. DON’T TRY TO SKIP TOWN. WHERE YOU GO, I GO.
6. DON’T TRY TO FILM OR RECORD OUR CONVERSATIONS. YOU’LL ONLY BE TALKING TO YOURSELF
7. DON’T CHANGE YOUR ROUTINE. BUSINESS AS USUAL
Zé is looking very confused now. Bewildered even. Like we said, the expressions humans make when shorn of aesthetic intent are truly revealing, deliciously so.
Zé is nurturing a fast-diminishing hope that this is all some elaborate practical joke, but he’s also aware that he needs to start entertaining the possibility that it is not. If it’s not, and it looks very much like it isn’t, then something’s gone crucially wrong and he’s: (a) being stalked by a madman; (b) gone all “Fight Club” or “Persona”; or (c) he’s being haunted. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, so (c) is unlikely. He’s hoping for (b), because he’d rather deal with his own madness than someone else’s. It doesn’t occur to Zé that he might have very limited notions of (x) the supernatural and (y) the unpacked suitcases of the human mind.