“All right!” the man in black grinned. “All right, let’s get down to it!”
He began to spit into Nort’s face, aiming carefully. The spittle gleamed on the corpse’s forehead, pearled down the shaven beak of his nose.
Under the bar, her hands worked faster.
Sheb laughed, loon-like, and hunched over. He began to cough up phlegm, huge and sticky gobs of it, and let fly. The man in black roared approval and pounded him on the back. Sheb grinned, one gold tooth twinkling.
Some fled. Others gathered in a loose ring around Nort. His face and the dewlapped rooster-wrinkles of his neck and upper chest gleamed with liquid—liquid so precious in this dry country. And suddenly the rain of spit stopped, as if on signal. There was ragged, heavy breathing.
The man in black suddenly lunged across the body, jackknifing over it in a smooth arc. It was pretty, like a flash of water. He caught himself on his hands, sprang to his feet in a twist, grinning, and went over again. One of the watchers forgot himself, began to applaud, and suddenly backed away, eyes cloudy with terror. He slobbered a hand across his mouth and made for the door.
Nort twitched the third time the man in black went across.
A sound went through the watchers—a grunt—and then they were silent. The man in black threw his head back and howled. His chest moved in a quick, shallow rhythm as he sucked air. He began to go back and forth at a faster clip, pouring over Nort’s body like water poured from one glass to another and then back again. The only sound in the room was the tearing rasp of his respiration and the rising pulse of the storm.
There came the moment when Nort drew a deep, dry breath. His hands rattled and pounded aimlessly on the table. Sheb screeched and exited. One of the women followed him, her eyes wide and her wimple billowing.
The man in black went across once more, twice, thrice. The body on the table was vibrating now, trembling and rapping and twitching like a large yet essentially lifeless doll with some monstrous clockwork hidden inside. The smell of rot and excrement and decay billowed up in choking waves. There came a moment when his eyes opened.
Allie felt her numb and feelingless feet propelling her backward. She struck the mirror, making it shiver, and blind panic took over. She bolted like a steer.
“So here’s your wonder,” the man in black called after her, panting. “I’ve given it to you. Now you can sleep easy. Even that isn’t irreversible. Although it’s . . . so . . . god-damned . . . funny!” And he began to laugh again. The sound faded as she raced up the stairs, not stopping until the door to the three rooms above the bar was bolted.
She began to giggle then, rocking back and forth on her haunches by the door. The sound rose to a keening wail that mixed with the wind. She kept hearing the sound Nort had made when he came back to life—the sound of fists knocking blindly on the lid of a coffin. What thoughts, she wondered, could be left in his reanimated brain? What had he seen while dead? How much did he remember? Would he tell? Were the secrets of the grave waiting downstairs? The most terrible thing about such questions, she reckoned, was that part of you really wanted to ask.
Below her, Nort wandered absently out into the storm to pull some weed. The man in black, now the only patron in the bar, perhaps watched him go, perhaps still grinning.
When she forced herself to go back down that evening, carrying a lamp in one hand and a heavy stick of stovewood in the other, the man in black was gone, rig and all. But Nort was there, sitting at the table by the door as if he had never been away. The smell of the weed was on him, but not as heavily as she might have expected.
He looked up at her and smiled tentatively. “Hello, Allie.”
“Hello, Nort.” She put the stovewood down and began lighting the lamps, not turning her back to him.
“I been touched by God,” he said presently. “I ain’t going to die no more. He said so. It was a promise.”
“How nice for you, Nort.” The spill she was holding dropped through her trembling fingers and she picked it up.
“I’d like to stop chewing the grass,” he said. “I don’t enjoy it no more. It don’t seem right for a man touched by God to be chewing the weed.”
“Then why don’t you stop?” Her exasperation had startled her into looking at him as a man again, rather than an infernal miracle. What she saw was a rather sad-looking specimen only half-stoned, looking hangdog and ashamed. She could not be frightened by him anymore.
“I shake,” he said. “And I want it. I can’t stop. Allie, you was always good to me . . .” He began to weep. “I can’t even stop peeing myself. What am I? What am I?”
She walked to the table and hesitated there, uncertain.
“He could have made me not want it,” he said through the tears. “He could have done that if he could have made me be alive. I ain’t complaining . . . I don’t want to complain . . .” He stared around hauntedly and whispered, “He might strike me dead if I did.”
“Maybe it’s a joke. He seemed to have quite a sense of humor.”
Nort took his poke from where it dangled inside his shirt and brought out a handful of grass. Unthinkingly she knocked it away and then drew her hand back, horrified.
“I can’t help it, Allie, I can’t,” and he made a crippled dive for the poke. She could have stopped him, but she made no effort. She went back to lighting the lamps, tired although the evening had barely begun. But nobody came in that night except old man Kennerly, who had missed everything. He did not seem particularly surprised to see Nort. Perhaps someone had told him what had happened. He ordered beer, asked where Sheb was, and pawed her.
Later, Nort came to her and held out a folded piece of paper in one shaky no-right-to-be-alive hand. “He left you this,” he said. “I near forgot. If I’d forgot, he woulda come back and killed me, sure.”
Paper was valuable, a commodity much to be treasured, but she didn’t like to handle this. It felt heavy, nasty. Written on it was a single word: Allie
“How’d he know my name?” she asked Nort, and Nort only shook his head.
She opened it and read this:
You want to know about Death. I left him a word. That word is NINETEEN. If you say it to him his mind will be opened. He will tell you what lies beyond. He will tell you what he saw.
The word is NINETEEN.
Knowing will drive you mad.
But sooner or later you will ask.
You won’t be able to help yourself.
Have a nice day!
Walter o’ Dim
P.S. The word is NINETEEN.
You will try to forget but sooner or later it will come out of your mouth like vomit.
NINETEEN. And oh dear God, she knew that she would. Already it trembled on her lips. Nineteen, she would say—Nort, listen: Nineteen. And the secrets of Death and the land beyond would be opened to her.
Sooner or later you will ask.
The next day things were almost normal, although none of the children followed Nort. The day after that, the catcalls resumed. Life had gotten back on its own sweet keel. The uprooted corn was gathered together by the children, and a week after Nort’s resurrection, they burned it in the middle of the street. The fire was momentarily bright and most of the barflies stepped or staggered out to watch. They looked primitive. Their faces seemed to float between the flames and the ice-chip brilliance of the sky. Allie watched them and felt a pang of fleeting despair for the sad times of this world. The loss. Things had stretched apart. There was no glue at the center anymore. Somewhere something was tottering, and when it fell, all would end. She had never seen the ocean, never would.
“If I had guts,” she murmured. “If I had guts, guts, guts . . .”
Nort raised his head at the sound of her voice and smiled emptily at her from hell. She had no guts. Only a bar and a scar. And a word. It struggled behind her closed lips. Suppose she were to call him over now and draw him close despite his stink? Suppose she said the word into the waxy buggerlug he called an ear? His eyes would change. They would turn into his eyes—those of the man in the robe. And then Nort would tell what he’d seen in the Land of Death, what lay beyond the earth and the worms.
I’ll never say that word to him.
But the man who had brought Nort back to life and left her a note—left her a word like a cocked pistol she would someday put to her temple—had known better.
Nineteen would open the secret.
Nineteen was the secret.
She caught herself writing it in a puddle on the bar—NINETEEN—and skidded it to nothingness when she saw Nort watching her.
The fire burned down rapidly and her customers came back in. She began to dose herself with the Star Whiskey, and by midnight she was blackly drunk.
She ceased her narrative, and when he made no immediate comment, she thought at first that the story had put him to sleep. She began to drowse herself when he asked: “That’s all?”
“Yes. That’s all. It’s very late.”
“Um.” He was rolling another cigarette.
“Don’t go getting your tobacco dandruff in my bed,” she told him, more sharply than she had intended.
Silence again. The tip of his cigarette winked off and on.
“You’ll be leaving in the morning,” she said dully. “I should. I think he’s left a trap for me here. Just like he left one for you.”
“Do you really think that number would—”
“If you like your sanity, you don’t ever want to say that word to Nort,” the gunslinger said. “Put it out of your head. If you can, teach yourself that the number after eighteen is twenty. That half of thirty-eight is seventeen. The man who signed himself Walter o’ Dim is a lot of things, but a liar isn’t one of them.”
“When the urge comes and it’s strong, come up here and hide under your quilts and say it over and over again—scream it, if you have to—until the urge passes.”
“A time will come when it won’t pass.”
The gunslinger made no reply, for he knew this was true. The trap had a ghastly perfection. If someone told you you’d go to hell if you thought about seeing your mother naked (once when the gunslinger was very young he had been told this very thing), you’d eventually do it. And why? Because you did not want to imagine your mother naked. Because you did not want to go to hell. Because, if given a knife and a hand in which to hold it, the mind would eventually eat itself. Not because it wanted to; because it did not want to.
Sooner or later Allie would call Nort over and say the word.
“Don’t go,” she said. “We’ll see.”
He turned on his side away from her, but she was comforted. He would stay, at least for a little while. She drowsed.
On the edge of sleep she thought again about the way Nort had addressed him, in that strange talk. It was the only time she had seen her strange new lover express emotion. Even his lovemaking had been a silent thing, and only at the last had his breathing roughened and then stopped for a second or two. He was like something out of a fairytale or a myth, a fabulous, dangerous creature. Could he grant wishes? She thought the answer was yes, and that she would have hers. He would stay awhile. That was wish enough for a luckless scarred bitch such as she. Tomorrow was time enough to think of another, or a third. She slept.