And today we begin the PhroMetal Collective!
The first story is by Curtis M. Revis Seubert, whose webpage is http://www.writing.com/main/portfolio/view/chomonky.
I will warn you now that this is not the typical PhroMetal wacky sci-fi. It’s much, much better. I really encourage you to find more of Mr. Seubert’s work, because he writes like a crazy writer ought to write.
Before I set you loose on the story (actually, make that “before I set the story loose on your psyche”), I just wanted to remind you that you–yes, YOU!–can contribute to the PhroMetal collective! If you’re interested, feel free to leave a comment or just send me an e-mail directly at email@example.com! I look forward to seeing what you have!
“Rag,” Being the Story of a Rabbit’s Skin
of and by an Earnest Trans-Sexual
Rag was the name of a young boy. Some said it was given to him because, as a mewling welp, he’d been expelled from his mother’s womb like so much dead uterine flesh. This was a long time ago, before civilization—sometime in the 1950’s. He lived with his mother in an apartment above Olifant’s Swamp, a dingy bar on the wrong side of town. They lived like animals.
Those who do not know humans well may think I have animalized them, but those who have lived so near them as to know somewhat of their ways and their minds will not think so. In fact, they were so wild, they were true humans.
Rag and his mother, Molly, had no speech as we understand it, but they had a way of conveying ideas by a system of sounds, signs, scents, touches, and movements answering the purpose of speech. For the purposes of this story, I have chosen to convey their speech in our tongue. In this translation, I tell no lies.
The rank blankets wrapped around and concealed the snug nest where Rag’s mother had told him to hide. As always, her last warning was to lie low and say nothing. “Momma’ll be back soon.” Though tucked in bed, he was wide awake and his bright eyes were taking in that part of his little world outside the window. Two thieves were loudly berating each other for stealing; a man pulled a half-eaten sandwich from a trash can and ate it; and a scarlet and black ladybug, serenely waving her knobbed feelers, took a long walk up one glass pane, down another, and across the ledge—and yet Rag never moved.
After a while he heard a strange shuffling in the corridor. It was odd, continuous, and though it went this way and that and came ever nearer, there was no thump of feet with it. Rag had lived his whole life above the Swamp (he was three years old) and yet had never heard anything like this. Of course his curiosity was greatly aroused. His mother had cautioned him to lay low, but this sound without footfalls could not be anything to fear.
The low shuffling went past the door, then back, and seemed going away. Rag felt he knew what he was about; he wasn’t a baby; it was his duty to learn what it was. He slowly peeped out the door. The sound had ceased as soon as he’d turned the door knob. He instantly found himself face to face with an enormous junky named Snake.
“Mamma,” he screamed as the monster darted inside. He tried to run, but theirs was a tiny room, and in a flash Snake had whipped his fingers around Rag’s neck.
“Mamma—Mamma,” gasped poor little Rag. Very soon his would have ceased, but screaming down the hall straight as an arrow came Mamma. No longer a shy, helpless little piece of tail, ready to fly from a shadow: the mother’s love was strong in her. The cry of her baby had filled her with the courage of a hero, and—slash, she struck, the switchblade slicing down his forearm. He howled with anger.
“M-a-m-ma,” moaned Rag. And Molly slashed again and again and struck harder and fiercer until the reptile let go the little one’s throat and tried to grab the old one as she darted toward him. The bloody Rag darted under the bed, breathless and terribly frightened. Snake, tired, bleeding and hurt, seeing no further advantage, ran for the door.
Molly, being female, was allowed no glory or revenge. Snake escaped into the streets, and Molly cuddled Rag in their dirty apartment until the next morning.
The neighborhood around Olifant’s Swamp was a rough, broken-down tract of tenements. A few ragged buildings were standing about as dead—and as hopeless—as their inhabitants. The buildings were infested with cats, rats, dogs and the kinds of people that feared these animals less than humans. The playground was overgrown with briars and young trees. Across the street was a stand of gummy-trunked young pines whose living needles in air and dead ones on earth offered so delicious an odor to the nostrils of the passer-by, and so deadly a breath to those seedlings that would compete with them.
Molly and Rag’s nearest neighbors were quiet, and their nearest kin dead. This was their home, and here they lived together, and here Rag received his training.
Molly was a good mother and taught him fear. The first thing he learned was to lay low and say nothing. His adventure with Snake taught him the wisdom of this. Rag never forgot that lesson; afterward he did as he was told, and it made the other things come more easily.
The second lesson he learned was “freeze.”
“Freezing” is simply doing nothing, blending with the background. The creatures of the dead city are of the same dead color as the city and catch the eye only while moving. So when enemies chance together, the one who first sees the other can keep himself unseen by “freezing”. Only those who live in the city know the importance of this; every prey and every hunter must learn it; all learn to do it well, but not one of them can beat a piece of tail like Molly at it. Rag wasn’t sure how he felt about not being seen: more than anything, Rag longed to be wanted.
The best trick of all Rag learned from Molly was the secret of the Brierbrush.
Long ago, women had no thorns. But cattle used to knock them up with their horns, and possums would piss them off with their long tales, and deer, with their sharp hoofs, would beat them. So women armed themselves with spikes to protect themselves and declared eternal war on all creatures that had horns, or hoofs, or long tales. This left women at peace, but Molly, who could not climb out of the gutter, was horny, hoofless, and got scarcely any tail at all. Until now, that is.
So the secret that Rag learned from his mother was, “The Brierbrush is your best friend.” He couldn’t understand.
Much of the time that season was spent in learning the mazes of tale men and women weave, learning his way around the Brierbrush.
It was not long after that the foes of tail were disgusted to find that some people actually traded sex for money and didn’t call it marriage. They brought a new kind of bramble and planted it in long lines throughout the country. It was so strong that no creatures could break it, and so sharp that it tore the toughest skin. Each year there was more of it and each year it became a more serious matter to those seeking nothing but sterile death. But Molly Cottontail had no fear. Dogs and foxes, cattle and sheep, might be torn by those fearful spikes: but Molly understood them and lived and thrived under their shadow. The name of this new and dreaded bramble was Prison Morality, though some called it Christianity; others called it Judaism; still others called it Islam. And Molly knew the Morale Male pent up in his Prison, and she taught Rag his tricks.
Molly’s other children had all died young, so Rag had all her care, and so the pigs reckoned them not so bad off and ignored them.
All the season Molly kept Rag busy learning the tricks of life amongst the dead. By day she worked; by night she earned the extra money to live. Little by little she put into Rag’s mind hundreds of ideas that her own life or early training had stored in hers.
Close by her side he learned “to keep his nose clean.” He learned to comb his hair and to dress himself.
When the weather was fine, Molly told Rag to squat in the alley, as if he were going to shit. Then she ran far away. Rag waited and waited, but she didn’t come back. Scared, Rag set out at a run to find his mommy. He panicked and began to cry, but got no reply. Could she have abandoned him? He returned home and found her smoking a cigarette and smiling. Thus he learned he might lose her at any time. After that, she sent him to public school.
Before the first year was over he had showed himself a veritable genius, though the foes of Molly and her kind had already planted all the brambles they would need to keep this piece of tail down.
In school, he was taught the signs by which to know all his foes, and for each and all of these evils he was taught a remedy, but he was amazed, for in all those signs he saw only his mother.
Turning a trick takes a deal of nerve and the best of skin. It was long before Rag ventured to try it, but as he came to his full powers, in secret from his mother, he showed himself to be a genius here, too. Thus Rag early learnt what some rabbits never learn at all, that sex had little or nothing to do with love.
In the summer he and Molly sunned themselves on the roof of the building. They stretched out in odd cat-like positions between the old chimneys, and turned slowly over as though roasting and wishing all sides well done. And they blinked and panted, and squirmed as if in dreadful pain; yet this was one of the keenest enjoyments they knew.
Just across the hall a sulky old woodchuck had dug in long ago and was refusing to leave even though the neighborhood had changed and the landlord sent dogs around to scare him.
He became more sour and ill-tempered as years went by, and one day waited to quarrel with Olifant’s dog instead of going in so that Molly could have taken possession of the apartment later. But Molly had a bad feeling about this hole, and so didn’t go in. The old woodchuck had been found with his throat slit in the kitchen.
This hole was afterward very coolly taken by a self-sufficient young skunk. With less valor might have enjoyed greater longevity, for he imagined that even a man with a gun would fly from him. His reign was over in seven days.
Molly and Rag’s hole was small and damp, and useless except as a last retreat from the small, petty violence that weak men do. It also was the work of a woodchuck, a harebrained youngster whose messy death still serves as an example to coax more work from the illegal immigrants working in Olifant’s kitchen.
Molly and Rag did not go near their hole when they could help it, lest anything like a path should be made that might betray this last retreat to an enemy. The little apartment downstairs had long been the residence of one Lotor, a solitary old black woman whose ostensible calling had been whoring, and who, like the monks of old, abstained from flesh food. But Molly suspected that Lotor needed but a chance to indulge in little murder, so she kept Rag from going near. When at last one dark night she was killed while refusing a pig his power, Molly felt not the slightest loss.
Bright August sunlight was flooding their hole in the morning. Everything seemed soaked in the warm radiance. A little Rag was teetering on the edge of a table. Beneath him there was a puddle of piss that brought down a few scraps of the fluorescent lighting, and worked it and the yellowing white curtains into an exquisite mosaic, with a little wrong-side picture of the American Eagle in the middle.
The eyes of the boy were not trained to take in the color glories, but he saw what we might have missed; that two of the brown bumps under the broad table were furry living things, with noses that never ceased to move up and down, whatever else was still. They were mice. They were Molly and Rag. They were under the table which was actually a car on the street outside, not because they liked its rank smell, but because the pigs were looking for them.
Molly and Rag were always learning; but what the lesson is depends on the present stress, and that must arrive before it is known. A warning note from an ever-watchful bluejay caused Molly to tighten her backside. Away across the street was a big black and white dog, coming straight toward them, because he only saw black and white and so couldn’t look to the side and couldn’t see into shades. He had his Yes and he had his No, and beyond that no more could he tell. He was the perfect cop.
“Now,” said Molly, “stay here while I go and keep that fool out of mischief.” Away she went to meet him and she fearlessly swayed her hips across his path.
“Whore,” he yelled as he followed after Molly, but she kept just beyond his reach and led him where the million daggers struck fast and deep, where he felt guilty for desiring, till he scratched his ears raw in his frustration, and she guided him to place where, pretending to succumb, she said she wanted nothing to do with such an ugly man. He went home cursing all women and beat his miserable wife. After making a short double, a loop and a baulk in case the dog should come back, Molly returned to find that Rag in his eagerness had moved out from under the car and was standing upright in plain sight, looking around.
This disobedience made her so angry that she kicked him and struck him and knocked him over into a mud puddle glistening with oil.
One night as they ate at a nearby pancake house a handsome man came up to their table and tried talking to them. Molly crossed and re-crossed her legs to make fun of him and then took Rag and skipped into the alleys along one of their old pathways, where of course the handsome man would not follow. It was the main path from Creekside Thicket to Stove-pipe Brushpile, two local dives that competed with Olifant’s swamp. Several creepers hung around the alley, and Molly used her blade to cut the creepers before they could say anything. Rag watched her, then ran on ahead, and cut some more that waited in their path. “That’s right,” said Molly, “always keep the runways clear, you will need them often enough. Cut everything like a creeper and some day you will find you have cut an undercover cop.”
“A what?” asked Rag as he scratched his ear.
“They are something that looks like a creeper, but they don’t grow and they’re worse than all the creepers in the world,” said Molly, “because they hide night and day till the chance to catch you comes.”
“I don’t believe one could catch me,” said Rag, with the pride of youth as he rubbed his chin and offending whiskers. Rag did not know he was doing this, but his mother saw and knew it was a sign, that her little one was no longer a baby but would soon be a grown-up. Rag viewed them as any annoyance, yet another sign of difference from his momma.
There is magic in running water, and not just for the autistic. The thirst-parched traveler in the poisonous alkali deserts holds back in deadly fear from the sedgy ponds till he finds one down whose center is a thin, clear line, and a faint flow, the sign of running, living water, and joyfully he drinks. Because he’s forgotten that companies dump toxic waste in oceans, rivers and streams.
There is magic in running water, no evil spell can cross it. The wild-wood creature, the true human, with its deadly foe following tireless on their trail, realizes it is nearing doom and feels an awful spell. Its strength is spent; its every trick is tried in vain till luck leads it to the water, the running, living water, and dashing in it flows downstream. The hounds come to the very spot and halt and cast about; and halt and cast in vain. Their spell is broken by the merry stream, and the wild thing lives its life.
And this was one of the great secrets that Rag learned from his mother—”after the Brierbrush, Water is your friend.”
One hot, muggy night in August, Molly led Rag through the city. The white cotton panties she wore under her mini skirt twinkled like the moon peeking out from behind a cloud, though it went out as soon as she stopped and sat down. After stopping a few times to listen, they came to the edge of the river. The wind in the telephone lines above them was whispering “sleep, sleep,” and an emaciated homeless man was moaning his opinion of American generosity.
“Follow me,” said Molly, and she went into the river and struck out for the opposite bank. Rag flinched but plunged into the water, copying his mother. On he went till he reached the far bank and scrambled up by his dripping mother on the high dry end, with a screen of garbage and old tires around them. After this on warm black nights when the pigs were looking for him, Rag would note the place of the river, for in case of direst need it might be his way to safety. And thenceforth the words of the song that the river sings in Rag’s ears were “Come, come, in danger come.”
Holy fuck, right? Remember, if YOU’D like to contribute to the PhroMetal Collective, please leave a comment or just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org!