He turned not quite in time to see that there was something directly behind him now that was most certainly not made of wood, that had full use of its legs, and that had very, very sharp fangs.
A yelp of pain as the stiletto raked across his bare back splitting the muscle like bread and his weapon fell away from him and he would have been cooked had he not sprang forward into a dusty somersault so the blood spun out from him a blurry pinwheel him and his sputter blood alike they crashed into the weighty chair and came quick to feet to face his opponent.
She was, indeed, a very old woman, very much like the one he had thought was her but which after all had proven to be less woman than cabinet or doll. This one too had camouflage, but no dazzle, just a hellish fog, a robe of smoke and shrapnel. She wore no mask, but he realized that the mask he had seen before was, terribly, a decent rendering – albeit a tad Cubist – of her real face, marred by time, the wrinkles mapping other folds and terrains far from the humane, casting shadows back onto itself, burnished without the sun, tweaked over a century of subsisting on nothing but meat, dark, and commitment. The face had become the film and back again and though the mouth was open it could not be said to be smiling.
And then there were the teeth. His initial assessment – oh sweet Jesus, she’s a vampire, that 134 years was kind of lowballing it, she’s been there since the dawn of stories, calling for the destruction of the Old West since it was still the New West, coming out at night over millennia, she probably told Gilgamesh he’d get fat off all those loaves of bread, probably sucker punched Jesus, replaced Roland’s horn with a protophonograph that split his temples from sheer sonic distress, staged an experimental production of the Necronomicon, told Byron he had a little dick and no idea how to use it, told Vlad the Impaler that his methods were obsolescent, flooded Paris a few times for a laugh, complained to Dante that he had missed a few circles of Hell and showed him what they were like, she probably fucked Hannibal while the elephants watched and remembered this with a certain degree of fondness, invented computing, eviscertated an accumulated total of 1,284 good Christians, wept a bit when they put the screws to Müntzer, filled the Tiber with purified whale oil and set it aflame, the whole secret history was her, and straight through this century, going below to coordinate the mess above, and come to think of it, my God, that voice, I know that voice, it was that I heard in New York, not the Duke’s voice but worse, that hissing rumble below, up through the subways, it was her who spoke through the tongues of the foxes and the elk when the mission went sour in the Arctic, it was all her, and that’s the sad fact of it, that our whole history has been vampiric, from the get-go, no decadence, no rise and fall, just the brittle laugh of a woman with nothing to lose, not even sleep – was incorrect, as was the vampiric thesis. They were fangs, all right, but they were not made of tooth and least as far as the things in his own mouth are what teeth are supposed to be. These were knives of glass, catching the torchy light, screwed into the tar-dark gums with tiny brass fittings, and they hung from her hissing mouth like sharpened skyscrapers and god damn did she know how to make an impression, he had to give her that and lovely as they were Snake’s buzzed head, into which adrenaline burst its gates and made that mind itself glass and tact, sounded loud and clear that he knew only what was to follow was to be very, very messy indeed.
Out came his knife.
Lowered his hips to preload the gutbucket sinews of his calves.
Out came his second knife.
Last chance, lady. You want out of this the easy way? Just give me the device.
She drew her tongue along the edge of one of the fangs, splitting the tongue until its blood covered its surface and filled her mouth, and she spat that blood onto the ground between them, with a precise spit that made its slick mess into a bastard calligraphy.
So she was one of those, he thought with a shudder of recognition. To the others in the vault, this was just a rather showy move, a tougher-than-thou and your ilk, an ante-upper that meant this will be very, very messy indeed. But Snake knew better. My sister. He too had been trained in this, during a strange episode of military policy that began to shun the arms hustle in favor of some older arts. The slow waves of alcohol that sloshed him decades long had never eroded this memory. It’s a weird world out there Plissken, he had been told. And sometimes the only way to handle it is to get even weirder yourself. The bomb couldn’t erase that. Nothing can. There are things that move in ways that just don’t… well, that just shouldn’t happen. But they do. And you either figure them out or you get done in, in ways you just don’t want to know. Because killing isn’t about putting the knife to something. It’s about getting good with death. Not mastering it. Just according with it, letting it master you.
Is this some Zen shit, Snake had asked?
No, Snake. This is the Zen shit.
And it was. After the training, his bones were never the same. Nor was his appreciation for Martha Graham.
So he cut his tongue with his knife, rolled the dark liquid between his gums, dancing eddies around the uvula, and then, twisting the lips as if a sneer, expectorated, his blood falling next to hers, to complete the other half of the arcane symbol she had started, the impossible word without syllables that meant – roughly translated – I am the hatred of that which we are. We are the death of that which will be.
The room darkened. The other Plisskens knew too what this bloodspit meant, even if they also could not pronounce it, and they edged closer to the impromptu ring surrounding the old man and older woman.
We’re not so different, you and I, he mumbled through an unmade tongue, and this time he meant it.
And he couldn’t help from grinning. A Ug-Ukhanthian death cult fight! Shit, it had been – what, thirty years? forty? – since his last. He couldn’t walk for seven months after that but totally worth it. And you should have seen the other guy, ha! Snake saw him, after all, for those seven months. Kept himself company with the guy’s head and when his leg moved again the first thing he did was walk to the edge of the sea and punt that desiccated pumpkin out beyond the breakers.
His tattoo itched, eager. The wind felt louder. Somewhere above them, the gull gave a keening howl. And they started.
If those watching had a hard time agreeing on what the film had meant (and if more than a few had died in the argument concerning this), they had an even harder time explaining what the hell happened then. Because at the opposite ends of the circle of spectators gathered around them, each fighter took their respective knives and, after a mutual nod, stabbed them hilt-deep into their own lower backs. And then stared across at each other.
And stared, not muttering a grunt or grunting a pain or moving a millimeter. Just standing still as butterflies fixated by or through the pin.
The blades had been precisely placed, directly between the L-3 and L-4 vertebrae, twisted counterclockwise with a wrist’s jimmy just so that they lodged precisely alongside the spinal cord, nearly fraying the nervous tissue’s twine. The portion of the spinal cord running through L-3 and L-4 is of rather prime importance, particularly when one is in a room with an old man or woman who wants one dead. That zone controls thigh flexion, thigh adduction, and thigh abduction, hamstring flexion, knee extension, dorsiflexion of the foot, and, last but not least, extension of the toes. In other words, general locomotion south of the genitals. Such that if the blade moved, even a nicking quiver, if the precise position and muscular arrangement held by the fighters was to deviate, the blade would sever what it touched, singing out that scraped piano wire’s lateral unfurling. The legs would go to shit. They would paralyze themselves, topple like jelly puppets. And then the pseudo-suicide left standing would do the honors, withdraw the blade and decapitate she who mewled on the floor, he who could feel neither pain nor legs, just the dull impassion of weight unmoved and slack as whale fat.
It is a game that can end in a tie, and it certainly has throughout the 3,600 years of its history. But it’s a Pyrrhic tie, a loss in twin-set which ends with the two newly crippled dragging themselves like clumsy worms after each other in ridiculous mortal combat, stabby, panting, the punctured lungs blowing fizzled raspberries into little crimson spittle froth, roll and the mumble of wasted limbs and talents, now apeless mermaids in a cut and fuck fest, all to slick the floor in smeared gore and blurred like if they was nude women-sized brushes and Death was Yves Klein, which never has it been. It’s an idiot’s art, Snake knew, but, you know, it isn’t about putting the knife to something. Unless it’s to yourself, which changes the whole game, rat race and grave hustle alike.
Across they stood, old man and older woman. Glint gems of sweat welled up through the pores. They held they own bodies, like an embrace, clenched and relaxed at once to guard the knife where it hung suspended in meat and bone, the back bow-arched yet unstrung, the ass jutting out, groin in as if to tuck the junk back into the torso, scapulae angled toward each other, neck thrust ahead, skull back and eyes lowered dead ahead. The feet lifted in minutiale tones, a slow staccato, test the supple, ripple the secondary muscles to unchain them from the reactions of the core, free ‘em up from the mess of guts and grip that had to stay cool as fortuna lest it let slip the stuck knife.
It was time. The dance contest begun.
As it was her home territory, the music was her choice. That’s always been the rules. In a properly perverse pick, she had selected Yolanda be Cool and DCUP’s “We No Speak Americano (Extended Death Match Remix)”.
The first synthy clarinets boomed. The voice trilled:
Comme te po’
Comme te po’
They started to dance.
Not haphazardly, not spontaneously, but a deployment. An arsenal. A tremendous repertoire of comic dances culled across the centuries and around the globe, from Mesopotamian ballads to Hi-NRG, East Anglian folk rounds to Thai breakdancing, Yoruba endurance to the faded twirl of a Vancouver raver on an MDMA overdose, carefully torn from their context and honed into a razor’s set of grimaces, hops, grins, jazz hands, ass shakes, scrotal wiggles, elbow locks, breast jiggles, fake drunk shuffles, all calibrated to a single murderous purpose: to make the opponent laugh, a laughter that alone would unlock the body’s held core and let the knife slip that miniscule distance between war and slaughter.
The beat dropped.
Comme te po’ capì chi te vò bene
si tu le parle ‘mmiezzo americano?
Quando se fa l’ammore sotto ‘a luna
come te vene ‘capa e di: “I love you!?”
They busted out their best moves, one after another. The Masturbating Pimp. The Hershey Underpass. Three Goats in an Aquarium Filled With Bees. Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti’s Hot Box. Paul Bunyan and His Babe’s Hot Box. Hot Box For a Cold Traveler. The Tar Trombone.
Pa pa l’ americano
Pa pa l’ americano
Pa pa l’ americano
Dolphin Rodeo (Sodomy Variation). Dolphin Rodeo (Lisa Frank Holocaust Variation). The Keaton. Bushman’s Night Out.
It was a dead heat. The surrounding crowd collapsed into laughter and further, past laughter’s horizon straight into tears and straight out into the further seas of death itself, burning lungs, doubled over in a titter so great it threatened their own lives. Ribs buckled, spleens went black. Never had they seen anything like this, comedy tooled into such lethal technics. Snake spread his ass cheeks wide while sucking his thumb and curling his toes, while his eyes rolled back and forth in his head: The Butt Pirate Gets the Runs. The ex-Futurist put her legs together as if holding in long-overdue pee and snapped her fingers sassily while fighting off a sneeze: The Shazaam.
Fa l’ americano!
Excuse Me, Ma’am, Where Did the Cucumber Go? Kangaroo in a Sticky Situation. Paula Abdul’s Walk of Shame. Abdul the Three-Legged Madman. The Stink. The Decapitated Jolson.
Pa pa l’ americano
Fa fa l’ americano
And still they danced, eyes locked on the form of the other, as was the rule written in the blood they had spat. No bowing out. No stopping. And no laughing. At moments, each thought that the gig was up, as the sight of bared teeth, wobbly thighs, softshoe labia, hideously vacant faces, and dicks made to helicopter twirl pushed the stone face of death’s unmastering to the brink of just fucking losing it, of submitting to an explosive grin that would end all motion itself. But no. They held on. And they turned it up a notch, with increasingly advanced and obscene techniques.
Fred and Ginger and Death. Tucking the Testicles in One’s Anus and Spinning in a Circle. The Clitterbug. Murder She Rode. Dog Gets Lost. The Dong of Roland. Disco. Baby’s First Fist. The Softly Waving Barley on a Summer’s Morn.
whïsky soda e rockenroll
whïsky soda e rockenroll
whïsky soda e rockenroll…
The Visigoth Stomp. The Crimp. The Damp. The Dank Walnut. Peeping Thomas. Moses Goes For a Swim. Sally Scimitar. Wang’s Revenge. That Time of the Month. The Macarena.
The final move was hers, and it wasn’t that dance, which always had all the stupidity of existence as such and hence was no exception, so much as the fact that it had joined all these other techniques that caused Snake to slip toward a bleak, rasping laughter. His chest spasmed, and he caught that tremor lower, but that only made it worse, and his lungs were iron and fire and no, no, no, he howled silently and, then blissfully accepting that death did the best he could, to put a good face on it and go down like a man.
It was that face that ended it. As she moved her hands to hips just before the twirling crotch thrust of the Macarena’s cycle, her eyes locked onto that face. It was exhausted, haggard, beaten. It was the face of an American on his way out. The face every man makes in a club when he knows for certain that he isn’t going to get laid that he’s going to go home alone and try not to sigh but maybe no definitely text a woman he slept with a month ago pretending to be all casual about it even though it’s three-fifty in the morning and there’s no way it can appear other than what it is a gesture that knows its own stupidity and the desperation reeks clinging to the drunken thumb-mashed letters and words reread twice but still misspelled and bounced off a satellite so that that the distance clings to it all the more and that he just thought he’d see how you were doing because we haven’t talked in a while and it would be cool to see each other again after last time :) and if you happen to be up and want to grab a nightcap give a yell you know ;) but which will go unanswered and he knows this he knows that he will eat pasta left in the pot on the stove without even heating it and that he will masturbate distractedly before realizing just before he comes that he’s actually watched this video before and he knows exactly the face that the woman is going to make and knowing this is like a dull knife stabbed into his bored orgasm muting it into half-wilt before he half-floods the folded tissue and how sad it is to have folded the tissue as if you can outreason pleasure and how sad it is to not even pay for porn because doesn’t that mean that one is already devaluing one’s orgasm for fuck’s sake I will buy takeout but I will scrimp on the prospect of cumming because I know that I can’t admit what I already know to be the case namely that I will have come alone and he knows all this he knows it at that precise moment in the club when the night takes on that air of a repetition curling back onto itself like paint and it feels like the night of a decade a century a millennium of frustration that can’t call it quits and he knows also that he won’t just admit it but will stick it out longer and try and laugh harder and dance closer to a woman who is not interested not a chance in this or any other universe and buy another drink and retuck his shirt as if that would make any difference and check his phone even though there’s no message to be read and at that very moment when all this is clear to him before it even happens he makes that certain face which can never be faked because it was nothing but fake a pure inorganic approximation of authenticity trying to be both sexy in its seriousness and sexy in its enjoyment of the moment and it is neither because it is simply the face of courageless desperation and it is the face of man and it is the face of death itself
It was the funniest thing she had ever seen.
The sound of her taut spinal cord suddenly rending and rolling up like a window shade boomed shrieking through the catacinema. Her legs became hot rubber, and she collapsed to the ground in a puddle.
Snake crowed in the silence of the hushed crowd. But as he carefully slid the knife out of his own back and let his guts relax, as he held the knife at his side and stepped towards her he felt not a trace of hatred, not a glimmer of loathing, just a quiet sense of survival and a respect for this woman. My rival, he thought, you were the best I’ve ever seen. My enemy. My sister.
But still, rules are rules, and these ones had been written in blood and giggles thousands of years before his birth. They were sacred.
He stepped towards her, and, as he knew she would have wanted, he put on a good face – a different one – and swaggered. It was part of the ritual.
He lifted her up like a flock of birds, her noodle legs slack and swaying. He pulled the automaton out from behind the orbit of brass rails, on which the bearings still raced, and he put her in the wheelchair.
You forgot one thing, he whispered to her, with no small degree of tenderness.
I’ve always been a fucking joke.
And jokes don’t know how to laugh.
He stepped back and raised the knife. In the silence, he could hear even the tears of the crowd splish-splashing onto the stone floor.
His arm tensed for the swing.
And he collapsed to the floor.
Moose Plissken stood behind him, the iron bar still ringing a pure tone in his hands from the blow it had delivered to his comrade’s dizzy skull.
I’m sorry, Snake. I really am. But it’s not just about you. It’s about the movies. And we can’t let you take those away from us.
Through what remained of consciousness, Snake tried to used his chin to write FUCK YOU YOU VILLAINOUS TRAITOR I THOUGHT WE HAD AN UNDERSTANDING NOT LIKE BROTHERS BUT MAYBE BROS AT LEAST LIKE THE KIND YOU CAN HIT THE BARS WITH OR JUST OPEN UP THE ENGINE ON THE HIGHWAY AND LET IT ROAR LIKE VALKYRIES WHICH IS THE KIND OF SOUND THAT IS BEST HEARD BY THOSE WHO HAVE GONE FROM ATOMS TO BROS I THOUGHT YOU KNEW WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE ONE OF THE MARKED AND ADRIFT BUT NO I GUESS I JUST READ THE SIGNALS WRONG GUESS THAT BAD IS ONE ME NO WORRIES NO BIG DEAL AND OH AND FOR THE RECORD FUCK YOU in the blood flowing from his mouth onto the ground where it would meet those tears. He didn’t get beyond the F.
The ragged crowd closed in on him.