The far post in the damselfly bog is deadly. “Like staring at the sun,” people say. The laborers that harvest the muck—eighth-generation progenies of Chinese labor with resplendent, ruby-colored eyes—are shackled together at the ankle. They speak in a mixture of teeth-chatters and whispers. It’s something they do with their grip of the earth and dance rituals that spawns new damselflies. They crease their webbed fingers through mud, handling fistfuls, spitting into their palms every so often. The laborers wear linen and ashen faces.
Walter M., a gun-runner and weapons-developer, doesn’t allow the workers to wear gloves. This would inhibit chemistry between hand oils and earth. Mugginess lasts for a lifetime at this job. Every noon, a sputtering propeller airplane mists them. The men look up, eyes closed, and open their palms upward. The far post sticks out of the bog like a spine. It’s a marker for something horrifying.
Walter M. scratches himself while standing behind the screen door. He thinks no one can see him. He has a screwy eye that leaks. He pours a cup of tea into his slit of a mouth and counts heads. Twenty-four workers. No one missing. No added mishaps. He empties the last of a bottle of tranquilizers into his gullet. He abhors the sunlight. The hum of a tractor’s engine lulls somewhere on the horizon. Not far from here, farmers grow wheat and corn. But Walter M. knows that food is something from the past. He believes that there needs to be new food products—new animals—as weapons. He chugs another cup of tea and steps outside.
Crunching, clobbering, and the mulchy slap of workers’ hands against mud. Damp earth squishes through fingers—hence, the genius. That sound could be music if it weren’t so terrible. Standing over his men, Walter M. hurries a finger into his nose: his thinking posture. In the past, he would have shouted or killed one or two just to show the rest what’s up. Listen, fuckers, I know couple of you is leaking information. He says nothing. Yesterday, the popping sound of growing eggs began. It’s incessant. Near crazy-making. The laborers sense Walter’s heated tongue. His verbs. They don’t sing and there’s no reverie. It’s rumored that he ate a man once. A small, stupid guy, sure. But a man nonetheless.
“Keep muddling,” he says to one of the workers. “Keep whoring the bog ground. God’s working through your fingernails.”
That’s the secret. They say the workers have been bred for the special lubricants in their hands. Walter M. plops down on a beach chair. He picks up a day-old newspaper. He had tucked his will inside of it. He scans the will, wiping away grease from his eye with his finger, and daydreams. He would leave most of his assets—his iron bed where he had thought of weapons to destroy God, dog-eared books, a telescope, and the bundles of money buried in coffins near the bog—to people who are already dead. He breathes heavily. It’s simply one more hot, scurvy-like day of the WAR. He stands up. He puts a twenty-year old toothpick into his mouth and smiles. “I’ve run a factory for weapons, but I never ran a bog,” he says to himself. This seems funny to him. Two workers turn around and glance at him. “You’re muddling is good, boys!” The popping sound is like locusts. “This thing will kill every one of them,” he mutters. He eyes a red tractor in the heat-glimmers across the way.
Jeb, a mid-level COMBAT ANALYST for the DEPARTMENT OF WAR-PRACTICE OVERSIGHT, is safe inside his bunker. He stays there for weeks at a time. The air is stuffy like night-sheets. He sits cross-legged on a rug while ignoring the hurt inside his stomach. His suit smells like soot. He concentrates on the steel walls. There are thousands of seams and bolts demarcating each section of steel. For every bolt, there are dozens of citizens, some dead or with amputations. CIVIL WAR II has been outlandish compared to THE FIRST in 1861. Jeb is sorry that he hasn’t been able to mitigate the horrors, but he can’t remember an epoch without smoke and teeth in the air. He travels throughout the country via catacombs, visiting underground homes for OFFICERS and other ANALYSTS. He is voracious and his favorite meal is a stack of pancakes with sticky jam and a glass of milk with a dollop of whiskey. He never imagined himself a military man, but he grew to savor the gallop of fire and explosions.
Jeb’s duty is to surreptitiously analyze battle scenes: the means of death, the wounds, numbers of limbs crushed or exploded, the disbursement of bodies, etc, particularly those of civilians. On the surface, his duty is to minimize damage.
THE DEPARTMENT OF WAR-PRACTICE OVERSIGHT —with its origin in the CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE—is an unbiased, non-partisan enforcer of CIVIL WAR II’S established RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.
During his tenure, Jeb has recommended abolishing the names of weapons responsible for the greatest number of casualties.
He even recommended the abolishment of the names of diseases.
He and his staff theorized that if they outlawed labels, the objects themselves would disappear.
They outlawed the name for the mechanism-with-a-handle-that-shoots-cone-shaped-steel. For several weeks afterward, there were only knifings and strangulations. Then busted-up heads returned. Holes in faces and bodies became regular again with red caves in cheeks and skulls full of splinters—but where did the wounds come from? The name of the weapon disappeared, but the consequences resurfaced, although haphazardly at first. The origin of the wounds—whether revolver or semi-automatic—no longer had a NOUN. THE DEPARTMENT OF WAR-PRACTICE OVERSIGHT theorized that after the weapon’s name was “archived,” the combatants’ memories of the mechanism would dissolve into blurry, indefinable objects.
WAR has a funny way of mining the unconscious for any means of annihilation.
Men had to practice reusing the indefinable tool. It is now known the shape of the mechanism is genetically imprinted upon HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS, much like an infant recognizes his mother’s face without having met her, without knowing her name, and without having learned to love her. The shapes of things are sometimes simply there.
After a battle, Jeb scours the scene with his computer and creates a glossary of the most likely means of death.
He spends weeks documenting each mode of death to better ascertain which SIGNIFIERS to ban and slow down the slaughter.
But Jeb’s secret obsession is his MUSEUM OF EYES. He has a taste for shape, volume, density, color, and intention. He prefers the eyes of the living, but has nearly free reign of the dead. He perfected a spoon with a beveled razor on one of its sides to scoop out the eyes whole.
He stores THE EYES in airtight aquariums in a vault to which only he has the keyeach specimen labeled, codified, and coated with a special lacquer.
Cluster bombs and shrieking soothe Jeb’s mind, even from inside his bunker.
This is a WAR without governments. THE CONGRESSIONAL, JUDICIAL AND EXECUTIVE BRANCHES have turned a blind eye. The TWO WARRING FACTIONS are fighting for their respective living aesthetics.
FACTION A, having originated one hundred miles outside of New Orleans, believes in a NEW ETIQUETTE: the man-wig; sign-language instead of verbal speech; mandated meditation; genderless garb; semi-automatics with bayonets for all men; and that HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS is the proverbial ghost in all machines.
FACTION B, having originated north of Albuquerque, demands a RETURN TO BASENESS: madness as guru; see-through clothing; no-more-shaving; a private police force that mandates sodomy as the coming-of-age experience; the end of antibiotics; and that BRAINS simply broadcast thoughts that have always existed.
Jeb looks into the mirror hanging on the wall of his bunker.
He is a light-skinned, biracial man.
He has straightened reddish hair, glowing lime-colored eyes, and a deeply neutral expression.
Jeb considers himself a connoisseur of seeing.
Darkness sinks over the bog as Walter M. flashes the far post with a flashlight. He begins feeding the bog: cornhusks, old shirts, and a small motor. He unpacks a dirty lunch bag and sniffs the white brick of powder inside. He sticks his toothpick into the bag and tastes it. He is feeding the bog cocaine. He slaps it on thick over the skin of the water. The powder clumps at first, and then sinks. Walter M. grasps his mechanism-with-a-handle-that-shoots-cone-shaped-steel, stirs the juices like some home-brewed concoction, and pierces the surface with a rusty bayonet. He wipes the blade of the bayonet with his finger and licks it. Nothing really comes up from the bog—few air bubbles and sick gas, but not more than usual. The mosquitoes here are as large as pigs. He swats the mosquitoes and imagines gummy, burgeoning arms deep inside the bog mucking up the earth, cocaine, slime-fuck and the dead. Walter M. leans on his antique mechanism-with-a-handle-that-shoots-cone-shaped-steel and spits into the bog. He lights the far post again with his flashlight and sees capsule-sized eggs budding on it.
He will go to sleep on his iron bed for a week, envisioning himself as some kind of Edison. The fact is, he simply invents weapons. Upon reaching his cottage just a few dozen yards away, he cracks open his front door and jumps onto his stitched-up, soiled mattress.
The AMERICAN RUBYSPOT damselfly births at night.
The laborers sleep near the bog’s bank, culling leaves and twigs as pillows. Each laborer is a piano key in a line of sleepers.
The sunlight will bleed damselfly bodies spectacularly red. Two spherical penetrating eyes.
Like the fleshy seeds of a pomegranate.
The new WEAPON.
Winged. Opaque and veined and spidery.
Their shapes will disappear into the shade.
RUBYSPOTS feed on soft-bodied insects.
But these engineered damselflies subsist on thoughts.
And the laborers dream of each other.
RUBYSPOTS, of nearly ten thousand replications, at first feed on the laborers’ sleep resins; near the crust of their eyes; and, on the periphery of the men’s haws.
Two of the laborers cough. One of their webbed hands compresses the earth.
Thousands of naiads climb the stem of the plants from which they came, into the sky and into THE LIFE.
A week later, Walter M. sleeps with his hand on his crotch. It’s morning. He dreams of Big Wind, the three-hundred pound girth of woman who pounced on his love in New Orleans. In the dream, it’s the turn of the millennium. A brothel: tobacco smoking, pool, and moonshine in the saloon downstairs. Upstairs, Big Wind lies on two queen beds squished together. She has half a country for tits, a face more beautiful than his mama, two able hands, and thighs that would high-jack rich men across the globe.
“Walter M., get your ugly white ass over here,” she stammers through her drunk teeth. She wears a slinky night thing, frilly materials around the vagina, but mostly a smell of gauzed-up sex. Walter M. has a question mark in this dream. Why do I have a boner for the deeply confused?
“You’re a blur,” Walter M. says.
She unleashes one of her titan breasts. “Got your gravity right here, sugar.” She shakes it and shakes heaven. “Get your peter.”
Walter M. is aroused and half-awake. Do bosses have wet dreams? But then he sprouts upward out of his mucky bed. “They’re mashing the mud already!” he yelps while looking out his window.
The Chinese-descendent laborers mouth cuss as they squish the mud through their webbed fingers. Thousands of AMERICAN RUBYSPOTS swirl around and around the bog.
Walter M. knows the damselflies’ redness will be the scourge of the earth.
There is a slight wetness on his crotch.
The bog scum sweats onto his window screen. The panes are open. The morning hums. It’s god-forsaken summer all year.
Walter M. plops back down on his bed because he’s remorseful for his teenage years. There had been scores of dumbass decisions. He hates the military, hates FACTION A and FACTION B, and even hates the South. He wrinkles up his acne and closes his eyes. “I am a sad man.” As a kid, he dreamed of being a cardiovascular surgeon. He used to visualize big-breasted women cooing as he sewed up the chest of an important general. But he ended up a technician of damselfly terror. He turns bog scum into DEATH. He is a TERRORIST.
He hears fire-fighting erupt, the bloodletting and our God sponging up the rot with his tongue. DEATH shrieks. Walter M. hears the boots of thousands of disillusioned combatants pound against swamp ground.
“Murder all of them motherfuckers,” he mutters.
Walter M. will summon all the AMERICAN RUBYSPOT damselflies against the faceless hordes.
That night, RUBYSPOTS trek through the Southern front toward the combatants and swirl deadly in the space around their dreaming heads. Walter M. wears the necessary earplugs. It’s the fluttering of the RUBYSPOTS’ wicked wings that make all combatants deranged.
The sound of RUBYSPOTS seeps into combatants’ brains as the men murder and maim. One combatant, a bit of an idiot savant, pictures a house with skin-draped wings wedging its way into his head as he dies.
Combatants’ brains were never meant to house such evil sounds.
It’s a long, deadly morning. There are battles. Blood goes every which way. One combatant has his face eaten off by an alligator. But mostly, steel rips up these boys. It’s WAR. A FACTION B platoon gathers around the perimeter, trying to squeeze out the crackers from their holed-up hiding places. Even if the mechanism-with-a-handle-that-shoots-cone-shaped-steel lost its name, WAR presses on.
A black man is eating another combatant’s foot. The combatant, race unknown, simply gapes as if attempting to laugh.
Some university boy masturbates in the swamp for no good reason at all. “Shit, the war mongers!” he screams as he’s beheaded.
There are thousands of them. Men.
Even a couple hundred spears land from outer space.
There are corpses and there are hours. There are heaps of meat, a jaw, several hundred orphaned arms, legs unidentified, a heart in a tree, kidneys even ruined for dialysis, a wishbone, ribs good for the harp, an angel-shaped skin slough, gourds, the fishsmell, and the deadly whizzing of the damselflies.
The combatants are eating each other.
One guy, a lieutenant from FACTION A, turns to a Chinese laborer and says, “You have to shoot me in the head! I’m fucking dead already! I saw it in a movie!”
Twenty combatants creep up the hill—some carrying the shooting-mechanism backward-aimed. Damselflies gossip around their heads and daydreams. One on the far right asks, “What are we doing here again?”
Two grenades go off. Several are decimated and the others don’t know what to make of their colleagues except to guffaw and applaud.
A man with his teeth missing screams out, “Fuck all this! I brought a pick axe!”
A damselfly latches onto the back of his head. The combatant plows up the hill, yelling, “I’m gonna get you whoever you are!”
At the top of the hill, a diamond-edged saw-blade splits him in half.
Jeb is about thirty yards away gathering RUBYSPOTS with a net. Jeb wears a well-pressed suit, a bulletproof vest and earplugs for protection. He rips the wings off one of RUBYSPOTS and speaks into his walkie-talkie. “These dragonflies are everywhere. They seem to distort the RULES OF ENGAGEMENT … Yes sir… I’ll need to find the name for them, send it to the TAXONOMY BOARD.” Jeb puts the walkie-talkie away and swats some of damselflies away from his face. He’s disappointed at failing to minimize the damage of WAR.
Near the top of a hill, Jeb kneels near a half-Irish soldier. “Some water?” Jeb asks, offering his canteen. He makes sure not to muddy his suit pants.
The combatant has one violet eye. He has a jagged slash in his chest. The hole makes a wet balloon sound when he weeps.
“That like moonshine?” the combatant whimpers.
“It’s like LIFE,” Jeb says.
Jeb shakes a dribble into the combatant’s maw.
“Excuse me?” Jeb asks. He pushes his thick glasses back onto his nose. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t got any potato liquor?”
“I only have water.” Jeb stands and pulls up his suit pants near his navel.
“What’s all that commotion I’m thinking?” the man asks.
Jeb sighs and takes a swig from his canteen. “What a horrible smell out here, huh?” He starts to pace as smoke rises from the dark, red-steeped hill. “We tried to rescind usages, parts of the grammar of weapons, nouns, even reexamined the meaning of sharpness, but you think that stopped the mayhem?”
“You run this place or just work here?” the combatant asks.
Jeb shakes his head and sits back down. He can’t keep from staring at the man’s violet eye. Jeb sips water and shakes some more into the dying man’s mouth. He squishes three ants in the grass. “WAR makes me ravenous,” Jeb exclaims.
The combatant tries to lift his heavy head. “I don’t know nothing about any war.”
Jeb massages his tongue with his finger. “I have this terrible taste in my mouth.”
“Lick something…last night?” The combatant’s voice is giving out.
“No. I’m just very, very hungry.” Jeb gulps down more water. “Jesus…just can’t get enough of this water.”
“Sure is good,” the combatant says. He looks sorry-eyed and drunk. “Where can I get some of this stuff?”
A refinery looms like a bad tooth on the horizon.
“Where you from anyway, soldier?”
“Originally from New Orleans.” The man is bleeding to death.
“I sexed many a prostitute in that city,” Jeb exclaims, his hands in his pockets, and stares out over the hill.
A damselfly buzzes around Jeb’s head.
“Did your mother have gorgeous eyes?” Jeb asks.
The combatant coughs up blood. “Yeah, my mama was pretty. She had pretty eyes, I suppose.”
“Eyes are like a fine scotch, my friend. You’ve got some wondrous globes.”
“Thank you, sir,” the combatant says and dies.
Walter M. drunk-walks up the bloodied hill. He wears a grin as his brief period of guilt passes. He escalated each FACTION’S murderous capacity, but now he’s got a belly full of potato liquor and a head full of fucking. Can’t get the Big Wind out of his mind. He shakes his head and laughs as he steps over a whimpering combatant.
Once at the top of the hill, he notices the Chinese laborers gathered together in a circle in the valley.
After strolling through wrecked corpses for an hour, Walter M. comes upon a light-skinned black man in a suit and bulletproof vest. How goddamned weird, he thinks. “Hello, sir,” Walter M. ventures. “Are you an officer of one of THE FACTIONS?”
Jeb turns his attention toward Walter M. “Not exactly.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Walter M. says after lighting a smoke. He sits next to Jeb, overlooking the heaps of meat. “All this is useless, isn’t it?” He takes a deep, deep drag. “Had my one true girth-of-love in my mind throughout this satanic shit.”
Jeb tenses his back and examines an AMERICAN RUBYSPOT damselfly for a long moment. THE RUBYSPOT lands on a twig. It’s extraterrestrial. Red as sundown. Two bloodshot, globular eyes.
An earplug had fallen out of Jeb’s ear.
“Hear that?” Jeb asks.
“This fat girl, Big Wind, was the love of my cheap life. I would’ve married her. I would’ve lived inside her.” Walter M. turns toward Jeb. “Got a girl?” He repositions himself and plops his right hand on a man’s calf in the grass.
Jeb is succumbing to THE AMERICAN RUBYSPOT’S hypnotic fluttering. “I just had a vision of a vampire right now…somebody who’d murder us all…did you see him?”
“I dunno if you’re crazy or dreaming or not. Why you asking me? We’re all dreaming for all I know.” Walter M. smiles, sucks a lovely drag on the cig as he prides himself on his unique, damselfly terrorism.
“Shit,” Jeb says. “Yeah, I have an obese lover, too.”
“What color eyes she got?” Walter M. observes ten, maybe fifteen, damselflies swarming around them. It’s almost as if they’re teasing.
“Not sure,” Jeb says. He panics and his heart swells because he has never felt the obviousness of impending doom. “Shit, who the hell is that down there?”
One of the laborers gallops up the hill toward them atop a muscled, black horse.
Jeb observes an opaque and massive wing jutting from under the laborer’s shirt. “It’s a Chinese fucking vampire!”
Walter M. fantasizes about his former lover, Big Wind, and sighs. “It’s just one of my boys.”
From atop his muscled horse, the laborer looms over them—unscathed by THE RUBYSPOTS’ deadly fluttering—and unveils a titanium sword from its scabbard. He mumbles through chapped lips, “You’re both fucking done.”
Leland Pitts-Gonzalez earned his MFA in Writing from Columbia University with a graduate merit fellowship. He has published fiction in many literary journals including Fence, Open City, Monkey Bicycle, Drunken Boat, and Dark Sky Magazine, among others. He finished his first novel, The Blood Poetry, and a novella, Evolution in the Twenty-First Century, within the past year. He is the project director for a forthcoming event series, Phantasmagoria, which will feature dark/otherworldly fiction writers, as well as other artistic disciplines. He received fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts to launch Phantasmagoria in summer 2012. Leland lives in Brooklyn, NY.