Us Reaction

Blake Butler

The wires had been fed into my father’s face. We stood around and watched him take it, and the white was gray really and I was older than I’d meant to be and there was no way now to stop. No way now to let them take me before my father and let me be done with my hours here surrounded, as there was anyway no way I could have what I wanted, not because I didn’t know what that was but because the sky was close enough now that you could nearly not breathe a hunk of it into you without looking or thinking and behind the sky we did not know what there would be. My father’s face charred politely almost on the dais before the endless children came to crowd around him in offering to no one. They raised their plastic fists and rained away with voices from the boxes underneath their tongues, a sound without language, tone for tone’s sake to consecrate this demolition of a man. A man, my father, who had raised the very foundation of this township underneath us years before any of the rest of us here crowded in witness as the machines made his death, as my father had been the oldest man of all our people at 49, which meant that he next would be the one we filled with the excess light of electronics in the hope that it would be enough to hold the black inside the black and keep our skins against us nearer pressed to cling the blood in. In death my father made no sound, or at least nothing loud enough over the frying wires to be measured in a way I could feel enough to cling to. The smoke he gave was weak and cherry-brown, which allowed them to write down in formal record that his time had come for him at regardless and at last, that even had we not begun this exploratory procedure for sacrifice of eldest locals for our protection he would have soon died; even if this forced death was not what whatever the black inside the black had ever wanted, we would not be called to blame, his skin was ready, his mind was ready, he was a worried man like all of us, the sickness had leathered in him, he was ready as a man. I knew this not to be true at least in formal practice, as when the men had come for him on the morning of the death of the prior elder to secure his corpus for the next method of rite, my father had locked himself in our guest bedroom bathroom, hardly bigger than himself, and through the keyhole begged the sparing of his time, swore in fact he was not as old as he looked, he was a child here, a child trapped in a man, and instead they should take our neighbor, any of them, anybody. At that time I’d been ashamed. I’d shamed my father’s name and apologized to the silver men holding him up and disowned his posture and called him weak. I’d brought the lockpick for the door out of my mother’s knit box and handed it over to the men and stood with arms crossed and rather smirking as they pried him from the house, his frame still whooping no longer in our language but simply sounds like some gone animal in pain. I’d even taken a photograph as they strapped him to the plastic mobile altar and paraded him to where for his last days he would live in intense sun, in a black wire cage at the center of our township so that the black inside the black could see our willingness to make our dead, in the name of whatever it was, again and again, until we were nothing even, if that’s what must be done to slow the seize of time and aging in the rest of us all waiting for the same eventual end if slower and already begun. Give us reaction, is all we asked it, any answer, some kind of way to set a set of us to live without the wall of time, a way to live as the machines did without fear of counting down and losing form, a door into some closer guise of perpetuity if not at last the thing itself. When at last the smoke ceased pouring from the place my father’s body had been just before then and on the dais I saw now nothing left but pulp of char, a snotty gloss where my father had struggled through the spurting and the shakes, the sound coming out through all his pores at once same as the foam and then the ash did, his surface sort of turning inside out. I moved within myself to say a vow still in his name, a last remembrance of the man he’d been for me before the shitty parts over the years inside my raising to become the man like him now as I am, though where in the syllables my brain chose for me to give my want a life out of my mouth I found already I could not recall much of anything about him there at all beyond the way the shine of his skin had glinted in the last light under the sky surrounded, the machines all plugged up in his holes, his eyes sewn shut and seeing nothing, as well as perhaps a texture of the smell of how the final cinder-wafts of him at least had spread generally into our breathing vortex holding crisply like baked spaghetti and old oil, though even that recent thing already as I caught it I found its idea covered over by the music of the one note that rose over the air, formed our township’s anthem the machines all tooted slow and long into the faces of the children barking hard and splaying arms raised wide toward the calm long old sky above the dais, their toothless mouths wide open in wait to breathe in what might be offered in return for what we’d given up today and any day however near now would again and would and would.

Blake Butler’s most recent book is Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia (Harper Perennial). He lives in Atlanta.