The Sound and The Fury

July 24, 2015

I recently read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  The book had, frankly, been something I had planned to read for quite some time.  The usual delay between when I decide that I ought to read something and when I actually tackle it is running about fifteen years these days.  (I’m not sure why; it’s not because I’m too busy to read.)

Faulkner is obviously not a fantasy or science fiction author.  He wrote largely in the genre of “literary fiction.”  I have been heartened to see, in recent years, a lot more people admitting that this is just another genre, with its particular tropes and unrealistic conventions.  It is not my most favorite genre certainly, but I do enjoy literary fiction sometimes.

Faulkner is considered by many to be one of the giants of twentieth-century English-language literature, so I figured I ought to try him out.  The Sound and the Fury is similarly considered to be perhaps his best work, so I checked it out of the library.

The book was interesting in many ways, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.  The story has four sections, and the first two are not structured as conventional linear narratives.  The first day is narrated by Benjamin Compson, an autistic thirty-three-year-old man, still living at the Compson family home in 1928.  His thoughts skip all around his past, which makes the beginning of the story a bit slow going—although it did not take me very long to figure out what was happening.  I did feel, however, that Benji’s whole character did not make sense.  He is nonverbal, yet his memories are portrayed as crystal clear, in a way that just did not ring true to me at all.  He apparently remembers names perfectly, which makes no sense at all.  Ultimately, he seems more like a literary storytelling device than a human character.

Of course, I do not really know what it feels like to be autistic.  I do not understand the qualia of Benji’s existence.  So I am willing to give Faulkner some leeway with Benjamin.  However, I did not feel the same way about the second narration, that of Benji’s elder brother Quentin, who tells the story of the day he killed himself back in 1910.

My complaint is not that Quentin’s narrative is hard to understand.  Having made my way through Benji’s chapter, I had no trouble following what Quentin was saying.  I knew how to recognize the changes of setting and the other odd textual tropes the authors was using.  In fact, it almost felt like I was having too easy a time understanding Quentin’s difficult history with his beloved sister Caddy; apparently, this section of the story is considered extremely hard to follow.  The inserted memories, with their gradually failing sentence structure and punctuation, are apparently supposed to represent Quentin’s failing psyche; but this simply did not work for me.  The storytelling would probably be labeled as “stream of consciousness,” but I kept finding myself thinking, My consciousness definitely does not operate this way.  I do not believe this is how anyone’s actual thought processes go, even if they are on the verge of completely losing it.  I could accept the style as a purely impressionistic representation of a person losing their faculties, but once again, that robs the narrator of an authentic human voice and reduces him to a literary device.

By the time the third chapter arrived, finally narrated in a completely straightforward fashion by the third Compson brother, Jason—who is the most obvious villain of the story, although his mother really seems to be the most despicable character in the tale—I was pretty sick of Faulkner’s self-indulgent attempts to be confusing merely for the sake of being confusing.  As I said, I got the hang of Benji’s and Quentin’s idiosyncratic voices pretty swiftly.  However, there were some things that just seemed over the top.  In particular, many members of the Compsons’ family share names, even when that makes very little sense.  There are two Jason Compson’s, father and son—which is not actually unreasonable, although it seems odd that they did not name the eldest son Quentin after his father.  However, Benji’s name was changed in childhood; before it was Benjamin, he was named after his uncle Maury.  Who changes a kid’s name because he turns out to be disabled?  (One of Benji’s minders—who, over the years, all come from the family of the Compson’s black servants—says the Compsons did it because they were superstitious, which was perhaps supposed to seem ironic, but for me it just served to emphasize the bathos of the whole name changing story.)  Most egregiously, however, is the fact that there are two Quentins.  Caddy names her illegitimate daughter after the brother who killed himself over his sister’s promiscuity.  This naturally leads to a lot of confusion, because the text is so deliberately unclear about which Quentin might be involved in a particular incident that is being remembered.  And this seems like a cheat.  The nonlingual Benji, after all, never gets confused about who is who, so why should the linguistic choices of his narrating voice end up confusing the reader?  The confusion is dragged out until, in Jason’s chapter, the situation is finally made clear, and the plot follows a fairly clean arc, with quite a bit more obvious conflict that in the first two sections.

However, the last chapter again seemed to me to be a failure.  The three Compson sons had narrated the first three chapters.  (Caddy does not get to narrate, although her presence is hugely felt in all three of her brother’s stories.  Faulkner apparently claimed that she was the true protagonist of the novel, although that seems to be pushing her importance much too far.)  In the fourth chapter, the viewpoint character is (mostly) Dilsey, the Compson’s aging cook and maid—the matriarch of the black family that have been the family’s servants for at least three generations.  Dilsey is a great character—far more moral and grounded than any of the Compsons—and I felt cheated that the chapter was not told in her voice.  Instead, the narrative proceeds entirely in the third person.  While this omniscient narration allows the story to make sideways excursions—to finish off the story of Jason’s comeuppance, for example—I think it is a real loss.  I wonder whether Faulkner felt he could not do justice to Dilsey’s own voice, that he could not speak to the reader as an aging African-American woman.  Perhaps he was right.  Quentin—who, in his most lucid moments, seems, of all the characters, the most like a mouthpiece for Faulkner’s own beliefs—is annoyed that the Northerners expect him to be a virulent racist.  He is somewhat racist, not surprisingly, but he obviously ambivalent about his racism—as I imagine Faulkner was as well.  Still, I think the novel could have been quite a bit stronger if it had been finished in Dilsey’s own voice.

Of course, The Sound and the Fury did manage to keep me reading.  There were many wonderful literary flourishes.  I really liked Quentin Compson, and I definitely empathized with him.  (I still am vaguely considering reading Absolom, Absolom! in which Quentin also features.  Yet his self indulgent suicide seemed pathetically incomprehensible.)  Just at the end of narration, he is fiddling with the electric devices in his Harvard dorm room, then pouring gasoline on his bloodstained waistcoat to get it clean.  His lack of care for his own safety was quite evocative, which is natural enough for a man getting ready to drown himself in the Charles River.

The corrupt judicial system in the western Massachusetts town Quentin visits on his last day also struck me as very authentic.  You don’t (so far as I know) need to pay the police a bribe after your wrongful arrest gets dismissed these days, but the feel of the place Faulkner described still lined up with the attitudes I remember encountering in the hinterlands of Boston.

I do not particularly recommend this novel, although it is certainly considered a classic of American literature.  It captures a certain time and place in America, but unlike, say, The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it does not sport a protagonist that is both likable and realistically authentic.  And it ends abruptly.

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Once Yarec was actually inside, Mrissa had to wait.  She had parked her cycle on a rough stretch of of lakeshore.  Behind her sat a low brown warehouse, with a corrugated steel roof.  Down each of the roof’s creases ran a stream of cloudy rainwater.  They reached the edge and tumbled down in a ragged, watery sheet.  The warehouse was empty, but it was no relic.  It looked only a few years old, and Mrissa could see where the latest occupants’ corporate insignia had been spraypainted over with a thin layer of gray.

She could still hear one street performer at work nearby, in spite of the rain—playing the same impromptu over and over on a synthesizer box.  Mrissa leaned against the seat of her bike.  The cowl of her rain slicker hung low over her face, hiding her features from the wandering gazes of distant security cameras.  Her only distinguishing feature was the heaped red curls protruding over her collar.  There was a significant chance that Yarec was never going to make it out; if that happened, Mrissa had decided that she was just going to disappear.  She might send in a terse report in a few weeks, once she had found a stable situation far, far away, but there would be no detailed debriefing at the FAF headquarters if Yarec’s infiltration was a failure.

She had a low resolution video feed, transmitted from Yarec’s position, but it provided a narrow shaky view.  If a security officer came up behind Yarec, she would never see the attack coming.  There would just be a sudden jerk to the floor, then stillness as Yarec lay either unconscious or dead.  Mrissa reached back into her hood and bunched the hair at the side of her neck between her muscular fingers.

For a long time, nothing had been happening.  At first, there were only occasional twitches as Yarec changed position slightly in his dim little compartment.  That showed he was alive, but nothing else.  Then Yarec was out in the light and moving, with a cautious but natural gait.  Ris tried to match up the screen’s narrow field with what she understood of the factory’s interior layout, but beyond staying alert, there was still very little for her to do.

However, when Yarec’s movement became a dogged sprint, her pose changed completely.  Mrissa became minutely attuned to everything that was going on.  She knew her assistance could be required at an instant.  On the shaky screen, she watched the chaos begin inside the facility.  It was soon mirrored in what she observed directly across the turbid gray water.  The plant rang with sirens and lit up with emergency lights.  There were shooting flames on the monitor, and a fiery blast ripped through part of the roof.  Lightning flashed, and thunderclaps mixed with the booming explosions.

Yarec, having set the disaster in motion, had now lost himself among the escaping throngs.  Outside, the security personnel, in their sky blue uniforms, were still trying to maintain a cordon, but with each blast, they were pushed further back from the conflagration.  When the panicked factory workers finally burst past the guards, Yarec broke away from their horde.  While the others rushed for the causeway road to the mainland, Yarec broke for the shoreline opposite Mrissa’s position.

It was her job to provide covering fire for his escape.  She shot off six or seven rockets, hitting the fence at the spot where Yarec hit the water, then to his left and right along the coast.  Then she was supposed to wait.  Yarec might need serious medical attention the moment he was pulled from the water.  It was her responsibility to provide it, but only if he arrived soon.  Mrissa had picked out a fairly safe location—on the grounds of another small manufacturing facility that had only recently closed down—but she had given away her position now.  Someone would be around to look for her, and probably soon.

There was no way to track Yarec once he was in the water.  His camera was waterproof, but in the wet, ragged dimness, there was nothing for it to see.  As the rain fell harder and harder, the surface of the lake became a dirty, pock-marked mess.  It was impossible to see whether Yarec was still coming up for air.

Mrissa dropped the rocket launcher.  She pushed back the hood of her parka and ran both hands up through the soggy curls stuck to her forehead.  She pushed the locks back and held them tightly against her scalp, is if they might be the only things blocking her from seeing him.

Then, like a gray dolphin breasting from the water, his head and torso were up and out.  He wheezed a horrible-sounding breath.  Then Mrissa’s arms were there for him to fall upon.

She half led, half dragged him to her motorcycle, and they rode back to a clean hotel room, where they could hole up until they decided what to do next.  She gave Yarec’s bruised body a bath.  Then he just wanted to lie down beside her, with his own skin next to hers under the blanket.  He kept shivering for a long time.  The harsh ordeal had left him cold to the core, and for a while he had very little to say.  He just lay, curled up with his arms around his knees.  Mrissa lay behind him, still half dressed in her bra and undershorts, until he finally stopped shivering and fell asleep.

When he woke up again, they talked.  The city was not safe, and she wanted to get away.  So Yarec took her northeast into the countryside, to the the little town where he was born.  Mrissa accepted the bumpy trip, but she did not like the destination.

Where am I? Mrissa wondered once they were there.  She knew the geographic coordinates, but the highland seemed so alien compared to the coastal plains.  It was dry here in the summer and dry in the winter.  The landowners seemed to fancy themselves old-fashioned country squires, but there was virtually nothing to grow.  The soil, where it was not just sand, might have been quite fertile.  There was certainly volcanic activity to enrich it; just outside of town, Ris had seen two cinder cones.  They rose up thirty of forty meters—heaps of ash and black rock laced with razor-sharp edges.  Yet whatever nutrients the coughing little volcanoes had donated to the soil, there was too little water to draw them out.

In that dry countryside, for the first time Yarec seemed old.  He must have been much older than Mrissa, but she had never dared to ask his age.  In Sankirk, it had not seemed to matter.  When they were actively working, he had been a perfect professional—fit, sharp-eyed, and ingenious; and during their off time, Yarec’s behavior had always seemed uncommonly youthful, almost immature—as if some part of him had been frozen in perpetual adolescence.

However, in the country, among Yarec’s native people, his true age became an unavoidable fact.  The community was full of middle-aged men and women whom Yarec had known since they were infants.  Before Marshall Kubiak’s garden soiree, Yarec had tried telling Mrissa about the many relatives and family friends she would probably meet.  She leaned back against his chest and listened, snapping the names and the brief anecdotes associated with them into place in her mental diagram of the community.  So when she was introduced to people at the party, she remembered most of them; yet she was shocked at how old they all seemed.  Yarec, she realized, must have been one of the oldest people in town, and he was unquestionably the richest.  The affluent in these parts mostly survived by selling away the mineral resources under their feet, and that was nowhere near as lucrative as Yarec’s own very specialized line of work.  Whenever Yarec’s back was turned, Ris was aware of people’s envious glares, and she wanted to whisk him away to a safe place where he would be more appreciated.

How are they so backward, yet so smug in their own superiority?  No wonder Yarec had to get away from here.  When he collapsed on the banquet table, Mrissa was afraid for a moment that the locals, with their blanket of self assurance, had actually smothered Yarec into unconsciousness.

She drove Yarec back to his house, leading a modest convoy.  The doctor was following along to see that Yarec got suitably situated, but most of the other cars were just loaded with the curious.  A sizeable fraction of the community seemed to have come along to wish Yarec well.  They all professed to be deeply concerned about his welfare, and of course they were willing to help out in any way they could.  By the time Yarec was tucked gently under the covers of his steel-framed hospital bed, the most daring folk were beginning to congregate in the front room of the house.  Mrissa banished them all except for the Kubiaks.  A few of the visitors were hesitant to go so soon—and not entirely convinced that Ris really had such authority over Yarec’s house—but they acceded to the country custom of never overstaying one’s welcome.

After that, Mrissa watched Yarec’s body deteriorate.  His eyes were bloodshot—splotched with red where they should have been white.  His skin was puckered with sores, and any new nick or bruise became another oozing purple mess.  He was seldom awake and ever more rarely lucid.  So it took Mrissa entirely by surprise when he called her over to him and asked—in the strongest, calmest voice he could muster—to become his spouse and heir.

The question was a real effort for him, and he was asleep again before she could even answer.  Just as well, she told herself, since she was not sure what to say.  She did not feel entitled to Yarec’s largesse.  What would they have said back in Red Stick if they heard I was marrying a terminally ill older man for his money?  Imagining those catty sneers did nothing to dissuade her from accepting Yarec’s proposal though.  No, so what what if a bunch of bitches who don’t know anything about my life would think I’m a gold digger?  That was not why she was marrying him.  The infection may have sped things up, but if events had gone more smoothly, and Yarec had asked her in a year, she believed that she still would have said yes.

A current image did not actually reach her until Mrissa had already staked out Yarec’s arrival.  It arrived on her pocket lamina, which bleeped softly to alert her, but she did no more than glance at the file to make sure it was the picture she had been expecting.  Then Mrissa peered back down at the wharf.  She had perched herself—along with her high-powered scope, which was still perfectly focused, in spite of the dents and scuffs on its casing—on the roof of a three-story warehouse, just over on the mainland.  The little boat, laden with its cargo of exotic human and animal fluids, pulled up to the passenger dock.  The daylight was failing, but the occupied areas of the pier were well lit.  Under the large gray-white lamps, Mrissa could see the crewmen—and Yarec—relatively clearly.  The others looked rather anxious, but Yarec seemed impassive.  He showed neither the severity of an agent on a mission, nor the typical glee of a man on vacation.  To Mrissa, it seemed almost as if the muscles of his face were only halfway connected  to the nerves that were supposed to control them.

Yarec stepped away from the heavy lights of the pier.  Mrissa bounced down off the warehouse roof and was ready to follow him when he hit the street.  She could hear several different strains of music coming from different performers.  Their distinct rhythms competed for primacy in her mind, as she mimed a casual stroll, far behind her quarry.

He was not especially difficult to follow as he drifted toward the core of the festivities.  His gait was casual, until he ducked abruptly out of sight, and Mrissa heard a brief but noisy struggle.  Yarec swiftly disabled a pair of mesh-shirted toughs.  Then he exited the scene, and probably no one but Mrissa even noticed which way he had gone.

He checked into a hotel located next to a Austronesian-style dance club, from which twangs and rumbles tumbled out into the street.  As they walked, Mrissa had edged closer and closer to Yarec, and now, under the silver and pink neon of the hotel’s facade, she got her first clear, unaided look at his face.  He resembled many of his earlier personas.  Straight brown hair—artificially bleached, making it look as if he had lately spent a lot of time outdoors—hung down over his forehead.  His eyes were dark, and the way they were set in his face suggested something different than his otherwise largely Caucasian features.  Yet as always with a new with a new body, there were subtle differences.  The line of his jaw was softer than Mrissa had expected, and his nose was longer.  The slight changes from his default appearance made Mrissa wonder:  How much of what she saw was Yarec’s original appearance?

From across the street, Ris watched the hotel.  Yarec gave away which room he was in by adjusting the curtains in his third-floor window.  Security was evidently not his main priority right now.  Mrissa could have broken into Yarec’s room and waited for his return.  However, that would not have been the safest way to introduce herself.  If he found a stranger in his room, there was a reasonable chance that Yarec might just shoot her dead without even bothering to inquire why she was there.  If she was going to accost him in his bedroom, Mrissa would need to make it instantly clear that she was not armed.  She could be completely naked, but even that might not be sufficient.  To show that she was not about to attack him with her fists or reach for something concealed nearby, she should probably also have her hands cuffed behind her back.  However, if Yarec found Mrissa in his hotel room, hands tied and stripped naked, that could lead to an entirely different kind of misunderstanding.

So she waited until he left the hotel and then followed him along the boulevard, as it pulsated with lights and sound.  He seemed to be growing impatient, as if he was already finding the festivities tiresome.  He found the first bar that did not seem like too much of a dive—a red-lit establishment called Sloshed, Sloshed, Sloshed—and stepped inside.  Mrissa gave Yarec a little time to get situated; then she followed him in to make her pitch.

Once Yarec was on the job, Mrissa followed his lead.  She observed him at work, trying to tease out the traits that had made him so effective.  It would obviously never be possible to distill out the perfect essence of his technique, but after they had been working together for a while, Mrissa found there were two things about Yarec that really struck her.  The first—his arrogance—was not much of a surprise.  A polite way of describing it would be that he took a great deal of pride in his work.  He generally had a particular way that he wanted to do something.  When he had thought something through and come to a decision, he did not like to have it questioned.  He liked to see things done his way.

Mrissa’s second observation, however, was more subtle.  It surprised her to see how much he hated doing this kind of work—but apparently, he hated not doing the work even more.  He could conceal his distaste when he chose to, but at close quarters, Mrissa could see the constant frustration simmering inside him.

Sometimes, Yarec’s attitude really worried her.  His behavior never quite fit what she had expected.  She had to talk to somebody, about they way the job was turning out.  She was not quite sure what conversation she really wanted to have, but she had to say something.  So she signalled the FAF that she needed to communicate, in private.

A day and a half before the final assault, Ris went out to run some last-minute mundane errands.  She stopped to eat in a cramped blue-walled diner, where all the various natural and artificial foodstuffs were being seared on a single flat-top grill.  She sat down and waited, picking at the edges of a thin fried patty, until an irritating plinking noise indicated someone was trying to get in touch.  Mrissa excused herself to the ladies’ room and locked the door.  The restroom was a single unit.  The crude deadbolt, which had been affixed to the door by hand, would not keep out a determined intruder, but nobody in the diner had seemed suspicious of her in the slightest.  She knocked the lid down on the commode but did not sit on it.  Instead she stood in the center of the room, eyes of the door, and pulled a small communicator out of the side pocket of her pants.

She checked that the lamina was in an audio-only mode, then held it up near her face.  The voice was a conspiratorial purr.  “Do you need further assistance?  Is something going wrong with the ranking agent?”

“No, no,” Mrissa found herself assuring the voice briskly.  She wondered though, What would they do if I said “yes”?  “I’m just concerned that there’s going to be a lot of violence.  Are you ready for the fallout from a really big kaboom?”

“Do you mean you need more people?  ’Cause I can file a request, but I don’t think—”

“No, no” she said again—more firmly, but not loudly.  It would not do to be heard yelling in the toilet cubicle.  “There’s just going to be a lot of carnage.  As you prepared to deal with that?”  And how much carnage am I prepared to deal with?

“How many casualties are appropriate is left to the discretion of the senior on-the-ground operatives,” the voice intoned.  “However, we may review the mission outcome later, to see whether the methods used were appropriate to the situation.”

“Fine.  But are you prepared to protect the operatives on the ground—like, you know, me—when stuff gets nasty afterward?”

“Do you need additional Field Army Faction resources?” the man on the other end asked.

“Just some more money, I think,” Mrissa answered.  “And you all need to understand that I may not want to stick around after the job’s done.  If you need me afterwards, you may have to wait a while.”

“Hold on,” he said.  “How much money?”  As soon as she answered, he promptly transferred the call to someone else with more authority.  Ris dickered with the second man for a while, until they found a new number that suited both sides.

And evidently, that was all she needed right then.  After the call was over, she flushed the toilet and carefully washed her hands.

“I had told myself I was worried about your performance,” Mrissa told Yarec, “but I think I was really worried about getting close to you.”

She had exited the restaurant, with barely a glance at her uneaten food, and returned to where Yarec was waiting.  It was time to help him get in and out of the factory.

She met with a succession of minor functionaries.  Most of them were from the military wing of the FAF, but one young woman was from the organization’s quasi-governmental division, which mostly dealt with taxes and business regulation in the territory they controlled.  The woman, whose emerald green eyes contrasted remarkably with her deep umber skin, confided in Mrissa that even she was only filling in for one of the military payroll officers, who was suffering from an unpleasant bout of neo-typhus.

There was plenty of repetition, as they gave Mrissa her assignment and explained the terms of her service contract.  They had a lot more information for her to look over later, and they reminded her that the company she would be going up against would not be an easy target.  Intelligence gathering and careful planning would undoubtedly be necessary.  However, nobody told her how to prepare.  If Yarec took the job, he was going to be in charge.  For now, her job was just to convince him to sign on, and when he did, she was to keep an eye on him.  Of course, the Field Army Faction did not really trust Mrissa any better than Yarec, and they would both be informing on each other.

Yarec did not seem, from the demeanor described in his dossier, like the type to backstab his employer.  There were a few odd incidents in his record, but over the course of a lengthy career in espionage in assassination, some unfortunate incidents were basically inevitable,  Six years earlier, Yarec had ended up drowning his employer in a tank full of decorative coral.  Yarec said that the man had pulled a pistol out of his coat, and there had been a tussle.  From clues in the text, Mrissa inferred that the next part of Yarec’s report as missing; there was more to the story, although there was no overt indication of a redaction.  It was a little thing—probably not even really Yarec’s fault—but it did raise uncomfortable doubts in Mrissa’s mind.

“It’s funny that I’ve been waiting so long for you to coming back,” Mrissa told Yarec, “since at first, I didn’t even want to have to work with you.”  She trailed off there, then caught herself and began to explain.  “That wasn’t personal.  I decided I didn’t want to work with you before we even met.  You had too much of a reputation for getting people killed.  People working alongside you did not fare very well.  They tended to get shot, or blown to smithereens, or captured and executed.  Obviously, those were not things I was looking forward to.”

“Now though, I think the real reason that so many people working with you have died is that you’re too damn good.  I mean, they bring you in for the  toughest jobs, and you end up in some really, really nasty situations.  You always manage to make it out, but somebody else might not have your skill or your luck; and so they end up bleeding to death while you escape.”

“But I didn’t know that before we met up in Sankirk.  I just wanted to make sure I did not end up bleeding to death on the germ factory floor, and so I was not looking forward to working with you, especially not as your subordinate.”

Most of what what she had found recorded in Yarec’s dossier pointed to a highly reliable agent.  Of course, his missions were not always successful.  There were notes on a couple of encounters that must have gone spectacularly wrong.  However, there was no indication that he had ever accepted an inducement to trade sides.  Even so, Mrissa knew she would need to keep a very keen eye on his behavior.  He was also a neuro-job, a head jumper, his consciousness copied on from brain to brain.  There was no way to know when his character might change abruptly—with a new body, a new persona.

“Were you worried about that?” Yarec asked.

“Of course,” Mrissa said.  She got up off the bed and paced across the room.  There were no windows in her room, but there was a large industrially-produced landscape print bracketed to the opposite wall.  It showed a bucolic grassland, with scattered trees and an old brown house in the distance.  She gazed out at the scene for a little while, then said, “They may not say anything to your face, but a lot of people don’t really like you.  They’re afraid you’re going to go nuts.  They don’t trust the consciousness transfers—and  frankly, neither should you.”

She turned around and looked at him.  He was sitting up with his eyes open, watching her with a look she did not recognize.  Maybe nobody had ever opened up to him about this kind of thing before.  She returned to the pallet, and he scooted over to give her more room as she laid back down beside him.

It was simpler, in Mrissa’s view, to evaluate a person’s character from a dossier than it was in person.  She was not someone who thought she could read a man’s true intentions by looking straight into his eyes.  Human beings—especially those trained in subterfuge—were cyphers.  Body language and tone of voice could be powerful indicators, but they could also be faked.  Back in Sankirk, Ris had almost wished that she could work with Yarec without ever meeting him face-to-face—with all their negotiations and planning conducted via digital messaging.  But of course, that was obviously impossible.  He probably would not even take the job without a real personal contact; and even then he might refuse, although Mrissa did not think so.  As an emissary, she was quite skilled, and her arguments were seductively convincing.

“He’s arriving on the Forces nail ferry,” one of the FAF officers had told her.  The man’s uniform was stylized, with an indigo pattern like an old-fashioned set of famer’s overalls embroidered on top of the one-piece military bodysuit.  “According to his history, ban Silfien has never worked around here.  He doesn’t have anything lined up and probably doesn’t know the city.  So go easy on him when you find him.”  The man snickered, but Mrissa rolled her eyes.

“Do you have a picture of him?” Mrissa pressed.

“No, not yet,” the man confessed.  “His appearance might not be finalized yet.”  Mrissa rolled her eyes again, but she smothered her dissatisfied grunt by swallowing the whole mug of whatever it was they had given her to drink in one gulp.

Mrissa had been hired by the Field Army Faction.  It seemed like neither she nor Yarec had been the first choice for the job, but hiring contract saboteurs was difficult, even for quasi-governmental militias like the FAF.  In the lobby of their headquarters building, past two walls of bullet-proof glass, the FAF had huge portraits of their founder and other prominent martyrs.  The pictures had been stylistically defocused, to give the impression of antiquity and gravity.  They showed men with long mustaches and women wearing broad-brimmed yellow hats.  They were traditional farmers, who had risen up against the absentee plantation owners.  They had occupied whole farms, patrolling the fields with rifles and holing up in the plantation house basements when the owners sent helicopter commandos to squeeze them out.  The FAF took their slogan, “Everyone who will defend the people, follow us!” from two ancient heroes of land reform, the Gracchus brothers.  Over the course of a couple months, the occupation movement had become a full-blown insurrection, and there was fighting up and down the fertile mountain slopes.

However, most of that bloodshed was far in the past.  After years of on-and-off fighting, the FAF and the old authorities in Sankirk had reached an agreement.  The worst abuses were eliminated, and several of the larger estates were broken up among their long-time tenants.  The Field Army Faction still viewed itself as a group of agricultural revolutionaries, but now they collected taxes and jailed troublemakers themselves.

However, they still had their disagreements with the corporatist government in Sankirk.  Capital purchased control over the city’s policies, and sometimes the FAF had to counter those adverse influences with force.  That was where experts like Mrissa entered the calculus.

When she got there, the big yearly festival was going on in Sankirk, and that meant that it was festival time in the country too.  The party built up over a full thirty-two day month, until the climactic week of street music and outdoor revelry in the city center.  Mrissa was in peak condition when she was dropped off in the area, and she was ready to get to work at once; but just before she arrived, she got a message that the job was delayed.

Mrissa would have to wait a long time.  Yarec was busy on another job—not the assassination of Colonel Maldanko, but blowing up a diplomatic meeting.  Then he was resting in the floating hospital and settling into his new body with a new face.  His appearance varied from body to body, but Mrissa thought each new one looked like the previous versions’ cousin.

“I didn’t even get a picture of you until just before I went in to find you,” she told him.  “They must still have been tweaking your cheekbones.”

In the meantime, Ris was part of the party.  There was a lot of plain old drinking, in all the little taverns in the little towns, but many of the events managed to retain a more distinctive country character.  Every night, starting at sunset, there was a parade of women from one town center to the next.  The participants came from every social stratum.  They wore garlands in their hair, made from leafy vines and whatever flowers were handy.  The women gathered at sundown and danced across the fields to the next town.

They had plenty of music.  Among their group, there were always some with hand drums hanging from their necks.  They beat a syncopated rhythm, and other women sang along.  Sometimes, the whole crowd sang in unison, old refrains that everyone knew.  At other times, it was just individual singers improvising nonce lyrics, scat style.  A few women played flutes too, but except at very close range, their soft piping was drowned out by the bawdy voices.

When the noisy crowd reached a new village, it dispersed.  The revelers hopped on flatbed trailers or were picked up by boyfriends on motorcycles.  They rode home, slept in, and then got on with their regular work.  Until, at sunset, a new crowd appeared where the old one had left off.  Some of the women partied every night.  They finished every leg of the journey, from the town of Lucia in the northeast to Badford way to the south.  Most, though, only made bits and pieces of the trip.  They attended the events closest to home, or just those they had free time for.

Mrissa joined the procession as it passed through the town of Pimento, where the Field Army Faction was headquartered.  The daytime festivities were based around farm products and alcohol.  The food was interesting at first, but eating nothing but the local rice specialties did become monotonous.  So she jumped into the nighttime procession; it was something unique—an aspect of local color she would never get to experience anywhere else.

Mrissa was among the first to arrive, as the women assembled on the Pimento village green.  The village was far too new to have an authentic old common green, where yeomen could have freely grazed their sheep, but the first town planners had laid out a perfect square of green turf.  It had originally been surrounded by a white rail fence, but as buildings had encroached on the boundary of the green, the fencing had been torn down, leaving a ragged asphalt edge around the gray, overexposed grass.

The others arrived, on foot or by car, and when there were enough women present, someone struck up a song.  The song was a humorous take on the traditional genre of story songs.  It began, “Sing of the wrath of Achilles the ankylosaurus.”  Mrissa had never heard it before, but after the first one or two verses, she had mastered the chorus.  She just hummed along during the verses describing various incidents among angry dinosaurs.

“Hey, I know that song!” Yarec said, and Mrissa laughed.

After the first tune was finished, there was a burst of drumming, and the group set off as the sun was setting.  For a few nights, she was just another anonymous traveller.  She talked with the others, ate with them, drank with them, but she never formed a fixed group of friends and never said much about herself.  The others could tell that she was not a local, since she did not bother to adjust her accent, but no one seemed to care where she had come from.  No one asked prying questions, and conversely, no one else ever offered up more personal information than she wanted to hear.  It was freeing to be with a set of spirited women, in an environment that was so utterly unlike her work.  For a while, she imagined she did not really want to go back to being a secret operative.

However, she felt compelled to intervene when there was a murder along the trip.  Mrissa had a lot of experience working corporate security.  It was stable work and typically rather tedious.  Most of the problems she had encountered involved either petty thievery or intramural disagreements.  Working eleven hour shifts in a factory or mine could make the men and women surly and belligerent.  Workers got into shoving matches in the cafeteria lines or traded punches on the shop floor, and Mrissa was called in to break things up.

The fights were usually over by the time she reached the scene, but she sometimes needed to talk the combatants down.  When that did not work, she could execute a chop to the neck, whip a fighter’s arm behind his back, and march him back to the security office.  One of the companies Mrissa had worked for had an eye hook right there in the office, screwed into the wall, to which troublemakers could be handcuffed overnight.  And five times during Mrissas career, employee violence had culminated in homicides.

Whenever there was actually a killing inside the company, an investigation was required.  Most reasonably sized businesses payed the local government a fee—buying the authority to run their own criminal justice systems.  If the companies did not pay up front, they would have the local gendarmes breathing down their butts—interfering, demanding bribes—whenever there was any rumor of criminal activity.  It just made sound financial sense to pay the cops to stay away.

Except in the most lawless regions, however, the local police had to be involved when there was the possibility that someone had been murdered.  Sometimes, a killing could be covered up, made to look like an accident.The proverbial example was saying a worker had fallen into a boiling vat of leaf lard.  Of course, nobody actually claimed it was lard any more.  Mrissa was vaguely aware that leaf lard was some kind of rendered animal fat, which had long ago disappeared from ordinary people’s diets.  However, the ironic expression, He fell into a vat of lard, lived on, used to describe situations where companies actually claimed that their employees had been bludgeoned to death by unshielded camshafts or slashed to pieces by razor-edged gears.

However, Ris generally disapproved of that kind of subterfuge.  If somebody died on the job, the company owed their survivors an adequate explanation.  So Mrissa had a bit of experience looking into murders, and when one of the travelling revelers was found with the back of her head caved in, she volunteered to investigate.

The party had broken for a midnight luncheon, halfway between two towns.  The folk separated into smaller groups and scattered across the nearby hills, to find comfortable places to sit and eat.  When it was time to move again, one woman—Byron, somebody thought her name was—seemed to be missing.  That was not, on its own, unusual.  People fell asleep and missed the horn call; or sometimes they just wandered off and left the dark procession.  Still, they had time to make a quick search.  Lantern beams bobbed across the terrain, and it did not take long to locate her.  Her corpse was lying facedown below a hawthorn tree.  There was no question what had killed her; a bloody rock the size of two fists lay less than a meter from her shattered skull.  Nobody admitted having seen her since the group split up, and she had no relatives or close companions who she usually ate with.

The travellers had a schedule to keep and another village to reach by morning.  They notified the district police station by radio.  Then it was time to set off.  Mrissa, having deputized herself to handle things until the official authorities took over, circulated among the throng, probing the revelers with questions.

It did not take long to get the gist of what might have happened.  A number of women had seen Byron flirting with another member of the group the previous night.  However, the friendship had evidently fizzled by morning, and several people had witnessed the pair bickering.  The second woman involved was still with the group; one of the witnesses pointed her out to Mrissa.  Her appearance was unremarkable; she had very pale blond hair but much darker skin, glinting with spritzes of sweat in the flickering lamplight.  She was moderately good looking, but looked scruffy after many nights of travel.

Mrissa sidled near to the suspect.  The woman’s hands were clean—freshly scrubbed with dry cleanser—but even with just a flashlight to see by, Mrissa thought she spotted a few flecks of fresh red among the brown spots around the cuffs of her sleeves.

Around her, the other women were singing—something slow and repetitive, with lyrics that Ris tuned out completely—but the blonde’s lips were barely moving.  If she made any sound, it was a breathy half whisper, not to be heard among the other’s raised voices and stamping feet.  Every now and then, her face twitched jerkily to the side, and Mrissa saw the wide glistening of her eyes.

After trailing the stranger for a while—never quite the closest person to her, but always within a few loping paces—Mrissa finally closed in.  A new song was starting, accompanied by loud, syncopated clapping.  Mrissa took a long step forward with each beat.  She danced with leaping strides, until she was posed just behind the suspect’s left shoulder.

“Excuse me, miss,” Ris began.  The other woman’s head snapped around.  She heaved in a short breath, breaking the tempo of the music.  “I wanted to ask you about what happened to Byron, back—”

“That bitch!” the woman screamed.  Her lips parted in a snarl, and she swung a lumpy fist at Mrissa’s jaw.  Mrissa skipped back a step, and the overextended blow flapped through empty air.

“You bitch,” the woman repeated.  Suddenly, everyone’s light was focused on her face.  She seemed unsure whether to throw another punch or to flee in panic.  She opted for the punch.  Mrissa stepped forward and deflected it.  She gripped the blonde’s arm, and flipped her lightly to the ground.  The torso hit with a nasty sounding crunch.  Mrissa had not thrown her very hard, but it was dark, and she must have landed on a protruding rock.  The killer—no doubt now that she’s the killer, Mrissa thought—did not try to get up again.  Mrissa bound the blond woman’s wrists behind her back and left her lying there, moaning and cursing.  Three other women volunteered to stand guard over her while the rest of the party moved on.  Mrissa did not look back as she departed with the others, but she could not bring herself to sing, not even the slow sad song that the chant leader had chosen.

Ris tried to keep enjoying the festival procession, but the murder had soured her.  The procession was supposed to be a carefree bit of local color—something she could lose herself in before her actually work started.  But tackling a killer was too much like real work.  It shattered the illusion.  Around her, she no longer saw a band of free-spirited revelers getting back to some kind of pagan spiritual roots.  Now they were loose-willed drunkards, reenacting this weird ritual because they were too jaded to enjoy ordinary activities.  Even dim and flickering torchlight could not disguise the blackness behind their hollow features.

She dropped out after one more day.  She could have just placed a call, and someone would have sent a car; but she was still questing for a little more time to think.  So she caught a ride on a cargo truck.  It skidded to a halt beside Mrissa when she waved.  There were very few female hitchhikers walking along that rugged stretch of highway.  The driver had huge shoulders and arms, which suggested the power steering had gone out on his rig and never been repaired.  He motioned Mrissa up with one of his gigantic hands, then waved her toward the tiny bench seat in the back of the cab.

The engine burped a wicked diesel smell, and the truck accelerated back onto the road.  Mrissa made herself as comfortable as she could, then put the remaining crampedness of her situation out of her mind.  The driver and the bodyguard riding in the shotgun seat kept peeping back over their shoulders and leering at Mrissa, but she feigned naivete and pretended not to notice.

The truck dropped her at the outskirts of Sankirk.  She hopped down, landing in a smelly puddle, which the truck’s huge rubberine wheels stirred up and sprayed on her as they rolled away.  A man across the street was drumming on a set of plastic and metal buckets.  The bucket in the very front was sitting right-side up, with a few metal chits on the bottom and instructions for locals who wanted to leave him a tip with their wireless bank cards.  Mrissa had a little bronze-colored card the FAF had sent her for incidental expenses.  She tapped it against the digital register taped to the front of the bucket, then entered the nominal amount she had decided to donate.  The drummer grinned, showing off a glittering row of steel dentures, then accelerated the tempo of his riff.

Mrissa knew where to find the Field Army Faction.  Her commission required her to report there by a certain date, and she still had ample time to spare, but it seemed like there was little to do in the meantime.  She walked about eight kilometers back out into the hinterlands, to a compact suburban burg where the FAF had offices.  Most of her necessary belongings had been shipped ahead, and all she had on her back was a floppy red-brown knapsack, loaded with simple foodstuffs, extra clothes, and whatever she needed to keep herself hygienic if she ever ended up sleeping outdoors.  She briefly considered changing clothes before reporting to the office but decided against it.  They could take as she was, spattered with muck and carrying a faintly feminine smell of sweat.

The FAF facilty was not labeled in any way, but the group’s lantern emblem was visible on the inside of the frosted glass windows over the entryway.  Heavy concrete barriers were lined up across the front walkway, so that a lone suicidal enemy could not steer an automobile through the main doors.  Mrissa picked her way around the obstacles, and confronted the security camera at the front.  The staff admitted her after a few minutes of dithering, whereupon she was weighed, scanned, and finally escorted to an office to wait.

The Devil in Iron

May 29, 2015

When I first read the original Conan the Barbarian stories, my favorite was “The Devil in Iron.”  It seems strange that I liked the tale so much at the time.  I reread it recently, after happening on a comment on the Web that suggested that it was one of Howard’s weakest Conan stories.  I don’t always agree with the conventional wisdom about such things.  (For example, while may readers consider “The People of the Black Circle” to be one of the best Conan stories, it is my least favorite of Howard’s original efforts.)

But I read “The Devil in Iron” again, and I agree.  It’s not a good story.  The plot requires two remarkable coincidences just to make sense.  Yet it’s no mystery why I particularly liked the story when I first read it.

There were two reasons, actually.  The first reason was that I like the cover art on the edition of Conan the Wanderer that I first read it in.

The Devil in Iron

I not usually much of a fan of Boris Vallejo, but I find this picture really evocative.  It’s not Conan I’m looking at here; the weird musculature of his back and the odd angle at which he’s holding his knife are rather off-putting, actually.  However, the scenery and especially the larger figure of Khosatral Khel are very creepy.  I can’t quite look away from that face.

The second reason I liked the story was in Howard’s prose itself.  This passage is just very powerful:

The tongue was Nemedian, but the voice was not human. There was a terrifying resonance about it, like a bell tolling at midnight.

“There was no life in the Abyss, save that which was incorporated in me,” it tolled. “Nor was there light, nor motion, nor any sound. Only the urge behind and beyond life guided and impelled me on my upward journey, blind, insensate, inexorable. Through ages upon ages, and the changeless strata of darkness I climbed—”

I like the idea that the demon-god was something entirely different before he emerged in this world.  It had to work its way up, through the physical and metaphysical bedrock, before it could take on a man-like body of impregnable iron.  I also like notion that its voice sounds like the tolling of a bell, because that enhances the feeling the story provides of Khosatral Khel’s metallic character.  When Conan inevitably defeats the monster, its corpse turns back into whatever it was before by the time it hits the ground.  It never says what Khosatral Khel’s true form was, but I believe it when the story says that it was horrible.

All in all, “The Devil in Iron” is not a particularly good story.  But it still has a few passages that really move me, and I wonder if other readers will still react the same way.

 

So Mrissa began to talk.  Yarec closed his eyes (which had been looking very red and tired) but Mrissa could tell that he was not asleep.  Whenever she said something unexpected, he would pop one eye open, and his expression made it clear that he was waiting for her to elaborate.  Sometimes, he broke in with questions—simple ones, mostly—and Mrissa would pause her rambling narrative to answer.

Born down on the beach of the great gulf, Ris Roonbeck had grown up with sand between her toes.  Once, the warm water between the Mississippian Delta and the Yucatan had been swarming with blue shrimp, and the surface had been dotted with little trawlers.  There were still manmade pens in clusters along the shore, for raising fish and invertebrates, but wild-caught seafood was gone.  Far from shore, the only vessels were slow-moving freighters and mobile drilling platforms.  There was simply too much petroleum trapped in pockets beneath the seafloor for drilling in the gulf to be abandoned completely.

However, many oil fields had been shut down, or bombed into oblivion.  Facilities for extracting and storing vast quantities of inflammable material made easy targets in conflict zones.  A single bomb, whether dropped from an aircraft or planted by a suicidal commando, could set an entire well ablaze.  The resulting fire might last for weeks, churning out black billows of smoke.  On one beautiful clear morning, Mrissa had looked out toward the water, and seen yet another plume of destruction rising from an offshore platform; and then she had known that she had to leave.

“Was that during the Second Summer War?” Yarec asked.

“That’s right,” Mrissa said.  “Most of the fighting was farther east, but we got a bit of it too.”

Before she left home, her father had taken her for a walk.  They strolled past the vast industrial shrimp pens, then the processing plant.  Behind the high barbed fence were heaped the prawns’ empty shells, waiting to be ground up to make soil additives.

“You know, Ris,” her father said, “as long as we’re here, you can always come back.”

“I know, Pop,” she said.

“Just be careful,” he said.  “And keep in touch.  Call or send a message.”  He ruffled his fringe of thinning hair.  “You mother will want to hear how you’re doing.  She’ll worry if she doesn’t hear from her daughter.”

When she was a little girl, she would have comforted her father by squeezing his hand.  But that was not possible any more.  It would have aggravated his arthritis, and even apart from that, Mrissa did not think it felt right.

They kept walking, chatting intermittently about matters that were quickly forgotten.  They circled back around to the family bungalow, ate supper, and headed to bed early.  The next morning, Mrissa got on a bus headed northeastward, toward a job an acquaintance had found for her as a lookout at a small boat building facility.  From there, she rose through her chosen profession.  Mostly she worked on very small operations, but there were a few highlights scattered through her record.

After a stint on the eastern seaboard, she had spent most of her career along the Pacific coast of North America.  To get there, she had crept her way west, from job to job, skirting the ugly arid wasteland at the core of the continent.  The land there was almost empty of humans.  When the rainfall had begun to fail, they had mined the ground for all the water it still bore.  Then when that was exhausted, they had abandoned their farms, leaving the ground vegetated only with sport varieties of wheat that managed to survive in spite of the desert conditions.

Eventually, her work brought her to the vicinity of Sankirk.  It had seemed an ordinary job, until after she and Yarec had blown up the chemical weapons plant.