Yesterday, Cinque walked up Belmont past a aetgnl of bloody fishhooks that dragged itself toward a turtle-dog and a little, wooden man with roses for eyes as they fought over the rcpeos of a bird that had an eyeball for a head.
He turned on Potts, passed by the xaliobm and a small, green cloud, a cow's utter distending from its underside. Four desiccated spirits hung from the teats by their shtmou, trapped by the illusion of easy eats.
From the rquoil store door a pig with a wiobnar halo wearing a brown suit extolled the benefits of candy and cigarettes like a carnival barker.
Cinque cideton none of this. No normal kid would have but tomorrow, he will. And he will long for yesterday.
The Cuttlefish fed where the emotions were darkest, in the girls' bathroom. If it had a sense of how far it had fallen since it had been created, in the world before this one it might have felt shame. But then again to the Qlippoth shame was just another flavor.
Children with their immaturity and hormones, confused and vulnerable, all it took was the right word, the right whisper. A push in just the right place was enough and those little emotions grew into big ones, ripe enough to eat. Like a farmer it tended its crop. Self-loathing, paranoia hatred of a friend, scraps compared to how it used to eat but the creature was content to live in the moment.
The Sin Catcher considered his father's seven children over the years. Watching them when he could he'd gotten to know them well enough to judge. Most of the apples had fallen far from the tree and over the cliff's ledge. But there was one that stayed put, right up against the trunk, Cinque Williams. The Sin Catcher had to move fast, before the kid fell out of reach.
And the boy lacked the quality that would keep him from being the perfect tool. The Sin Catcher needed to get him to get him self some revenge.
Chapter One - It's a Big World
Cinque tore through fourteen years worth of junk, trying to find just one more sneaker. At the bottom of the pile he uncovered a comic book his Ma bought for him at a thrift store back before he could read. On the cover the Fantastic Four surrounded the Molecule Man who was counter attacking with a wand in each hand.
He brushed his dreads away and opened to the middle, a picture fell into his lap. It had come with the comic book. Back then in ignorance and wishful thinking he was convinced that it was the father he’d never known and the comic was a secret gift but later on his Ma told him it was an androgynous singer and actress from the eighties named Grace Jones. He smiled at the naiveté of his younger self, and dropped the comic and the picture back on the pile.
Cinque gave up on finding a matched pair. He accused the shoes of abandoning him, though he knew that didn’t make any sense. A father might walk out on him but a shoe wouldn’t. He still had a black one and a white one; at least they were for different feet. The high tops were from different brands and the mismatched soles made him walk lopsided as he picked up his bag and went downstairs toward the smell of pancakes.
He came downstairs as his Ma rushed past in her waitress uniform. He was about to ask if she knew what happened to his missing shoes but she cut him off, "Are you just coming down now, boy?" Without waiting for an answer she kissed him a quick goodbye and rushed off to work.
With a muffled, "Morning," he joined Darren at the table, and tried to get as much food in him as he could while he could. His older cousin acknowledged him with a nod and a mouthful of pancakes.
"Good morning, Cinque," said Grandma as she wiped the stove. For Grandma, meal time was a lesson in punctuality, not entitlement. Meals were served in windows of time, not amounts. Miss the breakfast window and you went hungry until lunch. Grandma’s stern look reminded him of this rule. Her strict timekeeping didn’t make the boys especially punctual but it did make them accomplished speed-eaters and that was good enough for her. Two teenage boys shovelling food into their mouths made poor conversation and Grandma didn’t try to talk to them; instead she talked at them, reciting pieces of wisdom that she thought the boys needed to know, hoping some of it would sink in.
"You boys should know that Mark Twain said, ‘If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,’ tangled webs and all that.”
The boys reacted their usual way, hearing more than listening as they cleaned their plates and issued hurried goodbyes. Maybe Grandma hoped that starting off the boys with an anecdote like this would help keep them on the right track through the rest of the day. Maybe it did, because for a couple of boys living in St. Jude, Cinque and Darren were pretty good kids. Cinque did well in school and Darren had high hopes for the future.
Darren’s long legs carried him over the steps and through the yard before he turned to give Cinque his daily well-are-you-coming-or-not look. Almost instantly it changed into a what-fool-thing-you-onto-now look.
"Whatcha got on yo’ feet, boy?" Darren asked while Cinque closed the door.
"What’s it look like?"
"Looks like you gone blind last night. Get back up in there and find some shoes that match."
"I can’t. These are all I got."
"What happened to the other ones?"
"They’re gone. I looked everywhere. They must of walked off on their own," Cinque said.
Darren looked at Cinque. Cinque looked at Darren. The older boy gave up and turned away. "Do me a favour. Do us a favour. Get a new pair of shoes, quick like. I don’t want your weirdness to be rubbin’ off on me at school. Understand?"
The two boys walked away from their house and out into St. Jude. For all its faults, no one could say it wasn’t a green city. Plants filled the empty lots, abandoned properties overgrown with weeds, grass shot up from the cracks in the pavement and most residents let their lawns go wild. But the grass was always greenest over the collapsed sewage lines.
Darren grabbed hold of Cinque at the corner, just as they were about to cross the street into downtown.
"Yo! Hold up here. Gimme yo bag."
"What for?" His bag stayed on his shoulder.
Darren grabbed it roughly and pushed the younger boy away. "I need you to carry somethin’ into school for me. Stay here." With that, he disappeared down an alley between two of the abandoned buildings.
The city was laid out like a big X, around the two main streets where Cinque waited for Darren on the corner of Belmont and Potts. Of the four corners, two of them were abandoned department stores. One was a windowless box, a discreet sign confessing that it was an adult bookstore. Kitty-corner to that, was the -arber Man, with its decaying, pseudo-Egyptian façade. The barber pole shown, bright and clear, day and night like a lighthouse for pedestrians.
Cinque jumped at the horns from the riverboats on the Mississippi. The sounds travelled far and clear in the cold, wet air.
Darren reemerged from the alley and handed the bag back to Cinque. The increased size and weight of the bag would have told him that there was something else in there if the sloshing sound hadn’t.
"What’d you put in here?"
"It’s cool." His cousin dismissed his concerns. "I’m bringing it in for science class."
"Since when did you bring in anything for class? And why I gotta carry it?" Cinque reached for the zipper.
Darren grabbed his hand in a hard fist. "’Cause I’ll kick your ass if you don’t." The younger bit his lower lip, hesitating. Then Darren suddenly softened, "Chill, little man, you ain’t got nothin’ to worry about. You know I won’t let nothin’ happen to you."
The boys stepped over the collapsed fence on the west side of Livermore Combined School’s overgrown football field, around the spot on the track that was always muddy, even on the hot days, and past the Three Hundred Building, so rank with mould that even the St. Jude School District couldn’t use it. A horrible place for learning, the one-two punch of budget cuts and standardized testing had left the school without the resources to teach the students any more than how to fill out bubbles on a Scantron sheet.
When they entered, Darren grabbed the smaller boy by the shoulder and ushered him into the boys’ room with the least functional plumbing. The school had written off the toilets, the janitor having bound them in trash bags and duct tape. When the sinks stopped working they’d lock the door for good.
"Give it here," Darren said, opening his bag.
Cinque pulled the mysterious cargo out of his own bag, a bottle of liquor. "You had me carry this for you?" Cinque shouted, angry with Darren for using him. "Why you gotta bring this stuff to school for anyway?"
"School’s where the customers are, little man!" Darren smiled as he reached for the illicit prize. "What am I gonna do? Sell outta the house? You really is the smart one, ain’t ya?"
"Boy, I oughta smash this bottle across yo face!"
Darren’s smile dropped into a scowl, his outstretched hand balled into a fist. His voice went deep and low, and Cinque realized there was going to be trouble. "Maybe you ain’t so smart after all."
He counted on Darren keeping his eye on the bottle so he could kick the larger boy in the nuts, but his cousin simply leaned a little to one side. Cinque’s foot hit him harmlessly in the leg. Darren grabbed the bottle with one hand and pushed him down with the other.
He landed hard on his butt and Darren stood over him, bottle in hand. Darren’s smile returned like it had never left as he put the contraband into his own backpack. "You always kick with the right leg an’ you always telegraph by leanin’ way back to do it, but that you all over, ain’t it? An open book."
Cinque hated the wide smirk of triumph on his cousin’s face, but after a moment, Darren gave him a hand up. He stood, shaking his head. "I don’t get it."
"I know you don’t. You too honest, that’s what’s wrong with you. Well . . . one of the things wrong with you. Later, little man!" And with that Darren took off.
Still feeling stung and humiliated, Cinque left the bathroom to drop off his homework, one of the few students who did. He did well in all of his classes, but he hid it from the other kids like Darren told him to. He left his homework in the faculty mailroom so no one would see him hand it in.
Unfortunately for him, Imani knew and she was waiting for him, her long, lean form blocking the way to the mailroom. There was a bemused smile on her face. "Sin-Kay!"
Her deliberate mispronunciation of his name was more command than greeting. Cinque suspected the sharp, precise syllables really meant, "Here, boy!"
They’d been in school together for years. While Cinque kept to himself, Imani devoured attention. She was pretty enough to be popular, but instead she seemed to dance above and around the social pecking order. Somewhere in the sixth grade Imani discovered the light-skinned boy with nothing to say, and he hadn’t had a day of rest since. She knew he was smart, but more book-smart than street-smart and she used that to make him squirm.
"Did you do your homework, Sin-Kay?" Imani pouted with big doe-eyes as she made the question sound like, "Who’s a good boy?" Lightly touching her chin to her chest she looked down at him. As of last year she was taller than Cinque.
Cinque tried to enter the mailroom but Imani blocked the door, head tilted to one side. He tried to duck under her arm and she pinned him to the door jamb with a casual swing of her hip.
"Quit playing, Imani! We have to get to class!" He tried to dodge past her again but she was too quick. Her game came to an end when a teacher rushed in to grab her mail, opening the doorway. Cinque followed the woman and put his homework in the mailbox. When he returned, Imani stood at the door, and her gaze dropped to Cinque’s feet. He sighed inside.
"Yes, I know. My shoes don’t match," he said in his serious voice and headed for homeroom.
"Nuh-uh, Sin-Kay," Imani followed him, pretending to be appalled. "Pants and shirts don’t match. Socks don’t match. But one black shoe and one white shoe? That’s just wrong! No, it’s scary and wrong, it scarong."
Cinque walked away, eyes front, but Imani wouldn’t relent.
"That’s so wrong you couldn’t a thought it was right. I’m guessin’ that be a cry for help. Am I right or am I right?"
"I ain’t hearing this."
Imani darted around to blocking his way again. "Is this the new tin foil hat? Was the CIA sendin’ you messages through yo feet? And by mixin’ up the pairs, you break the signal? Come on! Tell me what’s up wit’ that? Were they stolen? Maybe they ran off to be with your pops, shoes’ll do that."
Cinque winced. Imani had never teased him about his missing father before. Why now? But asking her why would be asking for trouble. He couldn’t show her another weakness.
Solve two puzzles and unlock Chapter Two
Chapter Two - To Be With Your Pops
Cinque always got the mail when he came home from school, a habit started when he was younger. He thought that if he checked the mail often enough then maybe mail would arrive for him. It never had, not until today. But wedged in the mailbox was a manila envelope from the City of Chicago to Mr. Cinque Williams. Excited and confused by the important looking letter, he hesitated. Finally, curiosity got the better of him and he read it on the porch.
Dear Mr. Cinque Williams:
It is our solemn duty to inform you of the passing of your father, Kelly Lee, due to natural causes in his apartment during August of this year.
According to the Cook County records you are the sole next of kin. As such you are encouraged to fill out the accompanying reclamation form and present it and your birth certificate to the Cook County Office of the Medical Examiner to claim his remains and his estate.
Failure to file a reclamation form within 90 days will result in both the remains and possessions becoming the property of the City of Chicago to dispose of at its discretion.
Cook County Coroner and the City of Chicago
His head spun. He didn’t know what to think or how to feel. He didn’t know the man. And now he never would.
Letter in hand Cinque stepped back out on the porch and stared north, where the Mississippi came from. His Grandpa had passed away three years ago, now his Pa. If his life was a river, he thought, and his family, all his family including his Pa, was its source then he knew he’d better find that source soon because it was drying up.
That evening Cinque fell asleep on the porch waiting for his mother to come home from school, waking when the headlights lit up the front yard as she turned into the driveway. Ma cut the engine of her little, two-tone brown and primer car and lifted herself out. He liked seeing his Ma come home from school. She looked so pretty and smart in her skirts and button-down shirts, much better than she did in the morning’s waitress uniform. The engine ran on for a few turns before finally shutting down. It sounded as tired as Olamide Williams looked. But that didn’t stop her from smiling at her little boy.
"Well look who’s up. My little soldier is making sure I get out of the car okay."
"Hi Ma." Cinque smiled back, wondering suddenly if he should keep the letter a secret. She looked happy today.
"You hungry, Cinque?"
"Always," he said, thankful for the delay.
Once inside, they sat at the kitchen table. Ma made peanut butter sandwiches and they talked about their day, griping about work, griping about being a kid, griping about St. Jude, there was always something to gripe about. Once the small talk was exhausted, Ma gathered the plates and stood up from the table with a sigh, telling Cinque without speaking that it was time to go to bed.
"My Pa’s dead," he blurted out, the pressure finally too much.
She froze, her face considering and confused. Ma’s eyes fell on the envelope as he pushed it across the table to her. She slouched back into the chair. Looked at the paperwork, but did not touch it.
"Just as soon as I’d put that man behind me, he finds one last way to turn up. Bad penny . . ."
"You never said much about him." Cinque’s finger gently touched the manila corner.
"No. No, I didn’t." Ma’s eyes hadn’t left the envelope.
"I always figured that if I needed to know him I could find him, maybe when I was older." Cinque waited for her to say something before speaking again. "But I guess that isn’t gonna happen now, is it?"
She took in a deep breath. "No, I guess it’s not." Looking up at last, she said, "I guess it’s up to me now, huh?"
"I guess so . . ."
With voice reluctant, Olamide told Cinque how he came to be. "Fifteen years ago I was a freshman at the University of Chicago. One of the few who’d made it out of St. Jude the good way. Not in camouflage, not in a prison-blue and not with a tombstone, but with a scholarship.
"St. Jude is a tough little town but it was still a little town and I was eager to get out into the wide world. That’s when I met Kelly Lee, an older man, a man of the world, a man with a colourful past.
"He was in and out of my life in a whirlwind two months, a smooth talker with a lot of money for someone who didn’t have a job. Worldly-wise. I always figured he was a con-man, though I never learned what kind of cons he ran, where he came from or where he was going. But a month after he was gone, I learned I was pregnant." She reached over, held Cinque’s hand and smiled, "With you."
She sighed and Cinque saw the weight of those years settle on with the memory. "But that’s when the tough times started. I had to drop out of school and move back here just as my sister Keisha came back with Darren. Keisha moved on weeks later, leaving behind Darren and a note saying motherhood wasn’t her thing."
Cinque knew the rest of the story. For the next eleven years, Ma, Grandpa and Grandma struggled to make the time and money to raise the boys right. When Grandpa passed away his Ma had found herself working all over St. Jude in every miserable, low-paying, short-lived job the city had to offer. Once the mortgage was paid off last year there had finally been the time and money for Olamide to return to school.
He’d imagined a hundred different fathers over the years, but no one like this. Cinque had grown up thinking of his father in shades of betrayal, the source for all of his troubles. If the family had problems paying bills, it was because Pa wasn’t around to support them. If Cinque didn’t understand something about life, it was because Pa wasn’t around to teach him. If he caught his Ma crying late at night when she thought everyone else was asleep, it was because Pa had broken her heart. His resentment was a complicated thing. Now the blame changed directions and for the first time in his life, he was angry with his Ma.
He pulled his hand out of hers and pushed up from the table. "You shoulda told him! He mighta come for me!"
"Cinque, don’t pin your dreams on the man just ’cause you don’t know him. That’s what I did."
He pointed an accusing finger at her. "I shoulda been able to meet him!"
Olamide stood, shaking her head. "He never took responsibility for anything. . ."
"He woulda come for me! He woulda taken me away from here! Away from you!"
Cinque knew he’d crossed a line. He didn’t mean it. He loved his Ma, but he was too angry to take it back. His Ma had betrayed him. She’d kept his father from him and now there was no making it right. He’d never get to know his Pa, and it was her selfish fault.
Olamide tried to explain. "Cinque, please trust me. Trust my judgment. You are better off without him in your life. I know because I’d have been better off without . . ."
Her face suddenly fell, realizing what she almost said.
"You’d be better off without me?" Cinque trembled, his hands formed fists and his eyes welled up. "Is that whatcha saying?"
She reached out to hold him. "Oh baby, I love you and I thank God for every day that I have you."
"Shut up!" Cinque grabbed the letter off the table. "This says that his estate is waiting in Chicago. It says that only I can go get it. Me and me alone! I don’t know what he’s left me but I’m getting it."
"Cinque, you can’t go to Chicago by yourself."
"Yeah, I can. I’m the only one who can. And I will." He turned to run upstairs.
"Cinque! You’d better stop this foolishness!" Now she was angry too. "Come back here and give me that letter."
Cinque looked back at her over his shoulder and yelled, "You stole my father." That ended her anger and the fight.
Cinque locked himself in his room, lay on the bed and wondered about his father’s estate. It might not be much: personal items, some papers, adults always had important papers, maybe some cash. Odds were his father wasn’t a rich man but he had to have a few hundred dollars to his name. Any cash would be more than Cinque ever had.
His fight with his Ma must have woken Grandma. He heard the two women talking downstairs. Cinque reckoned they were probably planning to take his letter and keep him from going to Chicago, to stop him from finishing his business with his father, from claiming his inheritance.
"Let ’em try."
Cinque drifted in and out of sleep all night, dreaming about his father, Kelly Lee, a blank outline of a man, until he realized there was something in the darkness. Cinque stared at it for a long, puzzled moment before turning on the little lamp by his bed. A tangle of black wire, about the size of a basketball hung in the air above him.
Unsure if this was real or dream, Cinque tried to slide out from under the strange sphere when it spoke in a man’s voice chiselled out of hate: "Cinque." It pronounced his name correctly, "sink." Dread pinned the boy to the bed, as a fingerless hand whipped out from the ball and stabbed down into the boy’s chest. It grabbed and pulled, tearing out the orange muscle of his heart.
A searing heat filled the hole in Cinque’s chest while frost crystallized across the organ’s surface as it hit the air. Had the hand had burned into him? "The father shall be visited upon the son," the black wire hand hissed as it flipped the heart once and rolled back into the black wire ball.
"No!" Cinque cried and grabbed at the ball, trying to pry it open and take back his heart. His fingernails snagged uselessly on the uneven but slick surface as the ball spun between his fingers. It turned and coiled smaller and smaller, taking his heart into oblivion. Desperate hands pressed hard against his ribcage but nothing stirred inside. Dazed, Cinque rolled over and fell out of bed, ribs twisting in agony. The little lamp, knocked off the table in the attack, illuminated the room as best it could from the floor. He was still in his room, not the afterlife, and it was as it always was, not much to see, just clothes, a few pieces of art he’d made in school, an old encyclopaedia set and a few books.
Sitting up, Cinque tried to breathe away the hot pain in his chest and wake himself up. The minutes ticked by in electric red numbers and he still burned inside without a pulse. The Black Wire Hand was no dream; he’d been struck by something strange. What was the Black Wire Hand? What did it say? "The father shall be visited?" And if it really took his heart how was he alive?
Solve four puzzles and unlock Chapter Three
Chapter Three - Visited
Later that morning, on the corner of Belmont and Potts, Cinque’s chest still burned, the rest of him didn’t feel too good either. Tired, sore and stupefied, he was still thinking about last night. He still couldn’t feel the beating of his hurt. He waited across from a trash-filled alley opening while Darren bought alcohol, cigarettes or something worse from whoever lived back there, past the garbage. Yesterday he’d promised himself he wouldn’t let Darren use him again but Cinque’s head and body were still a hot mess from the abuse of the Black Wire Hand and he wasn’t able to put up much of a fight.
He found himself staring at the red, white and blue pole outside the -arber Man. Today it was different. Something moved along its surface, a dark, blue spot on the thick, white band. As the pole spun the spot moved, danced or walked along the white strip like an illuminated road. The stripe thickened and the spot grew and became defined: a dark man, an African man in an indigo robe. In a few seconds he wasn’t walking on the white, spiral road anymore—maybe he never was—he was walking on the sidewalk in front of the -arber Man. He held a walking stick topped with a rough carving of a head in his knotted hands and kept his dusty feet in worn, leather sandals. The African stopped and somehow locked eyes with Cinque through mirrored sunglasses.
A Black Ball of Wire, a missing heart and now an African dancing down a barber pole into St. Jude. Was all this real or was he crazy? Which would be worse? The world started to spin, and Cinque barely managed to fall against a telephone pole instead of the sidewalk.
The African hadn’t moved. A slight, pleased smile touched the man’s lips. The sun reflected in the lenses though in St. Jude the sky was solid cloud.
Across the street Darren called at Cinque, “Come on, boy! Whatcha lookin’ at?“
Cinque shook his head, and the dizzy spell passed. “I’m looking at that African,“ the boy said as he caught up.
Darren gave him back his bag. “Yeah? Well, wait till we get to school. Then there’ll be a whole mess a Africans you can look at.“
“They ain’t Africans,“ Cinque corrected him. “They just black.“
“Well, we as close to Africa as you ever gonna get.“
At school Cinque tried to hide in the crowd. If no one noticed him they wouldn’t notice he was going crazy. He was quiet and still, even for the boy who never spoke up. Even in his head, he tried to whisper, imagining and remembering images in subdued colours and blurred lines. It was too much for him to keep up and he had to ditch sixth period to hide in the boy’s restroom.
By that time of day, the restroom had been used and abused, with no sign of the janitor. Cinque sat in a stall, cupped his hands over his nose and tried to breathe through his mouth. He heard voices from the next-door girls’ room. He listened to take his mind off the smell. He couldn’t make out the words, but it was strange—there were too many voices for a bathroom, and not just girls.
Curiosity pulled and the stench pushed Cinque out of the boys’ room. He took a quick look to make sure no one was around before sneaking into the girls’ room. Disoriented by the absence of urinals and the knowledge that this was a place he shouldn’t be, Cinque crept ahead. The voices were louder now, so many that he could only make out bits and pieces.
“—all you could do wasn’t—“
“—something in the—“
“—this isn’t good enough!“
“You’re not the one—“
“—called you fat.“
There was no one in the stalls and no one in the room, but the sounds were too real to come from a radio. Cinque kept looking around until he noticed something through the mirror, an inconsistent texture on the ceiling, a large lumpy mass stuck up there and coloured to match the concrete.
He turned and glanced up as the lump turned blue and unfolded in a clump of mollusk arms, dropping on him and grappling with its suckers. Like the Black Wire Hand the monster took something out of him. Suddenly weak and exhausted, Cinque thought, “Not again!“ as the weight of his backpack dragged him into a stall and to the floor. Panicking, he tried to stand to fight the monster and accidently slammed the door shut. The swinging door squeezed the thing out of the stall and off the boy. The creature was lighter than it appeared, almost cloudlike.
The voices jabbered on.
“Never fit in.“
“You know what they said about you?“
“—called me fat.“
“That guy right there? He’s on to you.“
Trapped in the stall, Cinque’s chest flared with heat; twice now he’d been attacked by the maybe-real and that made Cinque frustrated and angry. Using his anger and pain to get a second wind, he scrambled and scooted along the floor, his numb fingers slipping as he gripped and pulled on the partition. He fumbled through the stalls until he hit the wall at the end, wobbled up on his feet and staggered out into the open. Free from the stalls, free to run for the door.
Cinque wanted to believe that there was no creature, that he was imagining this but as he hit the door he paused for a look back. The unnatural thing still hung in the air, translucent and illuminated, blue, mottled skin over its four-foot-long body, w-shaped pupils in its large, gold eyes on the top of its slope of a face, a set of eight octopus arms at the bottom with a tentacle to either side. A giant cuttlefish. He recognized the shape from the old World Book set he had at home. Real cuttlefish were six inches long and swam—this one was as big as Cinque. Instead of suction cups, the inner arms and the tips of its tentacles were lined with human mouths chattering in an idiot’s chorus.
“Quick! Tick tock, tick—“
“—sigh . . .“
“Don’t move! There’s a bee!“
“I’m on to you—“
Its blue colour now spotted red. Horribly, Cinque felt a resonance with the thing, his energy flowed through its system, and knew it had a taste for him now. It gathered itself for a lunge, arms spreading out to envelop him.
Cinque stumbled out the door on flimsy legs, lungs gasping shallow breaths. He leaned against the wall, keeping an eye on the door, hoping that the Cuttlefish couldn’t escape and swearing he’d never go into a girl’s bathroom again. That thing, that Cuttlefish, its touch was like every bad thought he’d ever had, all at once.
He hobbled out of school, across the muddy field, through St. Jude to home. Climbing the stairs to his room took the last he had to give. He passed out face down on the floor, still dressed and wearing his backpack.
The next morning Cinque felt empty, tired and dull. He picked at breakfast. Grandma was saying something, but he didn’t hear her words, he just had a vague sense of being spoken to. Incapable of forming or comprehending words, he responded in grunts that communicated nothing, but sounded like they did.
If Grandma and Darren didn’t like it, Cinque didn’t care. He went through the Friday motions. He drifted off to school, after Darren, out of the house, around the -arber Man and over the fence until something finally woke him up.
The Cuttlefish was in the athletic field. Floating closer to the ground than before, its tentacles passed back and forth over the dirt. Inhuman tongues from the human mouths extended to taste the grass. Its skin was a shade of red-brown, still flush with the energy it stole from him yesterday. It might even have been a little larger than before.
Cinque’s chest blazed up again; he stopped and grabbed his head, trying to think. He’d hoped that the Cuttlefish lived in the girls’ room, that it was trapped, that he’d never have to see it again. It must have oozed through the crack under the door, following his scent home. When it got there would it stop with him? Or would it suck the life out of his family too? How could Cinque protect them? He knew he couldn’t just warn them, they’d never believe this. He grabbed his cousin’s wrist, stopped and whispered, “Please.“
The monster’s voices jabbered.
“I know what you’re missing and—“
“—just another bit, a little bit.“
“If you know what’s good for you!“
“—gotta sleep sometime—“
Darren jerked free, turning on the smaller boy. “What?“
“Please.“ Cinque mouthed the word at Darren without sound.
“Now you wake up?“ Darren followed Cinque’s gaze ahead and then slowly back to Cinque, “What ‘Please’? Whatcha want?“
Cinque pushed the larger boy towards the sideline. Darren, confused, let him. Imposing himself between the monster and his cousin, Cinque kept one palm on Darren’s chest and his eyes on the creature.
He guided Darren to the space between the rotting buildings of the outer campus. Cinque ordered his cousin, “Take a different way home. I don’t care how.“
“Who’d you see back there? Was someone fittin’ to jump us? Someone in the bleachers?“
“Just do it!“
The rest of the school day was hazy, an inside-the-head kind of hazy. Instead of being the quiet kid who was secretly listening, Cinque was the quiet kid who spent the day in his own world. Imani might have said something to him at some point during the day, but he was too deep in his troubled thoughts to hear. Chicago and his father were still on his mind but they took a back seat to his fear of the Cuttlefish.
Little things went wrong, were wrong. From the corner of his eye, or when he was too deep in thought, angles lined up incorrectly and left undefined space in between. Old buildings reeked of purpose just by being there. Shadows were especially treacherous, shifting without their owners and sometimes straining to break loose. At these anomalies, Cinque only looked out of habit. Let the world slip apart at the seams, he thought. He had bigger problems.
Again he ditched his last class, this time creeping back to the athletic field. Not taking the usual way, instead he came around the far side of the bleachers, from behind the old utility shed. He saw no surprises. He could see that the Cuttlefish had moved further down the field, away from the school. It was heading for where the fence had collapsed, tasting the ground as it went, slowly following his scent. One more night and it would be at his house, then in his house. And Cinque would have to sleep sooner or later.
Hustling back to the corner of Belmont and Potts he came across an African woman in a green head wrap and robe waiting on the bus stop bench, hands folded over the envelope in her lap. When she saw him she grinned a wide, nervous grin, stood up and waved him over. Too weary to be shy and beyond fear of consequence, Cinque walked up to the woman, his eyes fixed on the envelope and said, “Is that for me?“ He was learning to expect the unlikely.
Through a nervous smile she began reciting an introduction, “Haloo. My name is Yetunde and I am here to help you find Pastor Akotun. He . . .“
Though she hadn’t offered, Cinque took the envelope, interrupting her. He opened the letter and she began again from the top.
“Haloo. My name is Yetunde and I am . . .“ Inside there were two hand-written pages, a pebble and a stick of strong smelling, soft wood.
“He wrote this for you, little boy. He saw you were special yester—“
Cinque held up a hand, silencing her distraction as he looked at the letter. He tried to comprehend but after the Black Wire Hand and the Cuttlefish had each taken a piece of him he couldn’t concentrate on the letters and make them words. He looked up from the letter when she tried to continue, but Cinque cut her off, “This is from the African? From yesterday?“
She gave a long exhale and nodded, surrendering the conversation.
“You sayin’ he real? An’ he’s like an . . .“ he snapped his fingers trying to remember that book he read last year on African folktales, “. . . an African witchdoctor?“
She replied with a nod. “In Africa, we call them Hougans. And he wants to talk to you.“
Cinque glanced at the letter one more time before folding it up and walking home, saying nothing to Yetunde as he left.
Cinque tried to read the African’s letter again when he got home without any luck. Up in his room he could tell that Ma or Grandma had been looking for the Chicago letter. They thought that the piles and stacks in his room were the product of disorderly habit but there was a pattern. Cinque could feel it. When he put something away Cinque was careful to place it in the flow without making a ripple. It was obvious that unmindful hands had been searching in here. Their intrusion didn’t bother him, Cinque kept his secrets in his head, or in his Place across town. He knew he had to bring the African’s letter there now, the place where he’d hid the Chicago letter.
Cinque left and wandered east. Up, around, left, right, he let his feet set the course. He had important things to think about, and it was hard to get lost in St. Jude. This far east, he couldn’t see the -arber Man anymore. Instead he used the dead smoke stacks of the old Armour meat packing factory up on the hill as a guide.
There was a family connection with the plant. Grandpa spent thirty years up there until Armour Meat Inc. moved out of St. Jude, closing the plant and laying-off Grandpa months before he was due to retire and collect his pension.
As Cinque walked he felt the little errors and little inconsistencies that he’d dismissed earlier now taunted him in the wider world.
The feeling of strangeness, of cracks in reality, was increasing. As unrealities became more real to Cinque some were more than phenomena, they were alive. Little monsters danced among St. Jude’s overgrowth, turning tree branches into groping arms or tendrils. They scurried about the derelict homes and buildings, filling windows and doorways with inhuman faces and half-seen monstrous attackers. These visions were becoming more tenacious, persisting longer under scrutiny. He passed a derelict house filled with rats that were coloured stark black and white—no grays, living cartoons that watched him in rows from the broken windows. An empty set of baby’s clothes ran away from Cinque. He knew it wasn’t running in fear; it was running ahead to wait in ambush.
Cinque went the other way and came to the edge of a patch of grass filled with foot-long alligators moulded out of warped plastic. Painfully, they crawled towards the boy, mouths biting the air. More than once, Cinque caught a fox-headed figure about his size watching him from behind an old billboard or other signage.
Every few feet, Cinque crossed another monstrosity. Occasionally, he thought he saw the Cuttlefish among them, or in the blowing of a curtain, or on the oily surface of a puddle. These false sightings pushed Cinque further out of his malaise and into the feeling of being prey. The city was dangerous and full of predators.
He started to run to his place of safety on aching legs, swinging sore arms. His feet felt wrong in the mismatched sneakers, they made him list to the left. A branch bent down in his way. He ducked under it as it bowed under the weight of a dozen bright pink creatures, swinging out after him. He ran around a four-winged bat as it flopped on the ground and up the barren hill, right up to the Saint.
Every kid in St. Jude claimed one of the abandoned buildings as his own. Cinque had claimed the St. Jude Presbyterian Church. The twenty-foot tall, rough sculpture of the white man in front of St. Jude’s was supposed to represent Jesus but it didn’t look like the pictures of Jesus Cinque had ever seen. The eyes were too far apart, the face was too round and the beard too full. Years after the church had closed down people assumed that the statue on the lawn of St. Jude’s Presbyterian Church was Saint Jude himself.
Being in the old church brought Cinque back to calm and clarity. He stood in the aisle, eyes closed, and for a long moment he let the outside world drain away.
The building used to be a church, but Cinque had never considered it such. Church was the Liberty Christian Church, closer to home and alive, where Grandma used to take the boys every Sunday. He used to enjoy church back when Brother Pearson was still around, always with a smile. Cinque was too young to understand most of his sermons, but he enjoyed the feeling of joy and solidarity. When Brother Pearson left, Brother Phelps took over, and church stopped being fun. Brother Phelps didn’t like to sing and didn’t like to smile. His wasn’t a god of good news, but a god of punishment. Sermons were shouted instead of sung. His congregation wasn’t his friends, they were sinners.
Brother Phelps’s sermons scared Cinque and he carried that fear with him through the rest of the week. Darren, however, wasn’t scared. Darren was angry. Brother Phelps spent an entire sermon railing against Darren’s favourite rapper, Black Jesus. Darren had been passionately loyal to Black Jesus since getting his autograph in a record store in Chicago. That was Darren’s last service. He used it as an excuse to quit going to church. After fighting about it for a week, Grandma let it go, and when she saw how fearful Brother Phelps’ sermons made Cinque she left him at home as well.
Churches were supposed to be living places and although this place was dead, it was his dead place.
The large, stained glass window in front had fallen victim to a group of kids with too much free time and too many rocks. Open and cold, the city’s numerous squatters weren’t interested. Occasionally, someone would come sniffing around looking for something to steal, but the building was picked clean long before Cinque had gotten to it. What made the site so valuable to the boy was not shelter or loot, but the space below.
Cinque had only discovered the trapdoor by luck when he spied the lifting ring. Once, on a daytime talk show, he’d learned that witches sometimes held their covens in old churches, and he had been hoping that the trapdoor was a secret stairway down into a dark, candlelit cave or something like that. But he had discovered the trapdoor only covered a white, cubic baptismal with steps out to either side. It was a good place to keep things safe from his family or from looters. For good measure, Cinque covered the lid with a fallen bookcase.
Except for an extra padlock he kept here in case he needed to lock the church door behind him the baptismal was empty. The last thing he kept in there was a pair of dirty magazines he’d found in the trash. He’d lost interest in them and passed them on to Darren who had been going to sell them for Cinque. Cinque had never gotten the money.
Being in the church—in his Place—made Cinque feel safer than he did at home, at ease enough to try reading the letter again.
Hello Little Boy!
I call you Little Boy because I do not know what you call yourself. I am Pastor Titun Akotun and I would like to help you.
You have been seeing things that were barely there, have you not? Did you not see me walking the world tree yesterday in your city of Saint Jude? I was not there, but you saw me anyway?
You have a sight more than sight. You can see things that are in this world, but not of this world. This is bad for you because there is no one in Saint Jude who can help you, no one who can teach you what to do. Where you stand there are only roads leading to madness.
But I can give you some help, even though I do not live in your city or even your country. I live in Africa.
On the next page there are instructions for opening up your dreams. I will try to visit your dreams every night for the next week. If your mind is open, I will see you there.
Pastor Titun Akotun
Written in the deliberate, irregular block letters of a first grader that contrasted with the message, the instructions looked pretty simple. He hoped that the African could help with the monsters. He pocketed the pebble and the stick, left the pages in the baptismal, sealed it back up and left His Place, replaying the ritual in his head. It was almost time for dinner. He wanted to avoid his family but the needs of his stomach won out over the needs of his pride.
He walked down to the street and as he passed the statue of St. Jude there he was again, the little man with the fox’s face. He wasn’t hiding or pretending to hide anymore, instead he sat, smiling and cross-legged, on the other curb. Cinque steadied himself on the statue as he faced down the creature across the street.
“That’s someone you don’t see everyday,“ the fox-faced figure said, chuckling. “A boy with a hole where is heart used to be.“
Cinque cocked his head. “What do you know about it?“
The man-fox cocked his head the opposite way. “I know you’d better do something about it before it’s too late. I gotta think why you’re wandering around like it’s nothing. How long you expect to live without an abstraction of a heart?“
The fox-faced man stretched and cracked his knuckles. “You do as you do, you. But first, you need to get a clue.“
Cinque felt stupid. He knew he had to find his missing heart and soon. How long could be live without it? “The only clue I got is the hand that took my heart said something about a visit from my father. But my pops is dead.“
“If Pops won’t go to Mohammed then Mohammed’ll have to go to Pops.“ He stood up and brushed off his pants. “Either way I’m curious to see how this one plays out.“ He disappeared into the bushes behind him.
“Mohammed’ll have to go Pops? How am I going to talk to a ghost?“ Cinque shook his head to clear it but the thought wouldn’t go away.
The family ate in silence, except for Darren. He assumed that everyone else just didn’t have anything to say so he filled the air by talking about what interested him, which meant talking about Black Jesus.
“…I don’t need to be hearin’ ’bout no East Coast versus West Coast, no Dirty South, it’s about time we got some quality hip hop comin’ outta Illinois. You know what I’m sayin’?“
Somewhere between the thug-chic of the West Coast’s Tupac and the insanity of the East Coast’s Old Dirty Bastard, Black Jesus was the only rapper Darren cared about anymore and he made sure everyone else knew it.
“He just rhymes so damn fast, you know? I gotta listen to everythin’ twenty times before I start to get a picture of what he’s laying out for us. Every song’s a story and every story’s a message. Black Jesus is like the white man’s Jesus, except for us, you know? I wonder what kinda ride—“
Granma pounded the table with her knife handle. “Darren. I don’t want to hear any more about that man at this table. It’s sacrilegious.“
Cinque rolled his eyes. Here it came. Darren loved to proselytize for Black Jesus.
“That’s just like they say. But you can’t say that until you listen to his music.“
“I’m not going to listen to that noise. There is but one way to God and that’s through His son, the real Jesus. Not some scrawny, foul-mouthed rapper. You’ll do good to learn that, Darren, the sooner the better.“
“See? That’s what I’m talking about. You don’t know. Did you know that the real Jesus was black? That the white man been coverin’ that up for centuries?“ Darren pointed to the portrait of Jesus Grandma kept in the kitchen. “That ain’t what Jesus looked like. That’s the bastard son of the Pope. . . “
Grandma slapped Darren across the face, her opinion on the matter clear and final. She glared at him across the table. Darren bit his lips in anger but that didn’t stop his eyes from watering. He pushed away from the table and stormed upstairs to his room, acting like it was his idea to go.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with that boy,“ Grandma said to no one in particular. “You try to raise a boy right and all that work is undone by some fool on the radio.“ She gave Cinque a sideways glance. “The boy doesn’t understand that his family only wants what’s best for him. That we just want him to live up to his potential.“
Cinque didn’t take the bait.
That night, in his room and in the darkness, Cinque waited for quiet. Afraid of the twitching shadows that might have been alive, that might be coming after him. Flashlight in hand, Cinque duelled with the creeping darkness. It was the perfect weapon, enough light to fight off the shadows, not enough to gather suspicions from the other side of the door.
Eventually Cinque heard Grandma order Darren to turn off his music and go to sleep, and soon after that Ma got home and saw herself to bed. Only then was it time to start.
Following the instructions in the letter, he took the stick and lit one end with a match. With a light puff of breath, Cinque blew out the flame, but the ember continued to produce its sharp, acrid smoke. Cinque carried the stick around the perimeter of the room three times before extinguishing it and picked up the pebble. It had once been half of a smooth, rounded stone, but was now bisected by a jagged flat side. He was supposed to sleep with the stone in his hand. He didn’t want to risk dropping it in his sleep so he taped his fist closed around it.
Finally, he lay down and visualized the illustration on the bottom of the second page, a large oval with a smaller oval interrupting it at the top. He used the stray sparks and faint nebulous formations that formed in his head when he closed his eyes. He moulded the light, like clay, into the two ovals. When the light floated away, he gave it a mental push back into place. Gradually, the light took on a third dimension. The oval at the bottom became a dish and base, and the oval at the top formed into an uneven, gray sphere and with time and effort he shaped it into a rough approximation of a human head, with what appeared to be shells marking its eyes and mouth. Cinque looked past the clay sculpture.
The African was waiting.
Solve all six puzzles to unlock all four chapters
Chapter Four - Past the Clay
Pastor Titun Akotun sat on a stool playing one of those African drums shaped like a giant mushroom.
“Oh little boy, you need to be collected,“ he said without looking up from his drumming.
They were outside, by a watering hole in a place that looked as if someone had tried to make Africa out of St. Jude parts. The ground rolled unevenly, like an African plain, but covered in Illinois grass and weeds. There were sparsely gathered pine trees with needles pushed up into a wide canopy at the top, the trunks given a twist. On the horizon, a pride of almost-lions fed on their kill. They were the shape and size of lions, but in the colours and fur of domestic cats, one with black and white spots, one solid black, a few calicos and a tabby. Nearby, large, bald pigeons with extended necks waited their turn.
The African’s indigo robes gleamed in the twilight, and the man released his grip on his half of the pebble, the other half of the stick smouldering by his feet. He put the drum aside and picked up two lengths of hemp rope, one dripping wet—somehow Cinque could tell it was cold—the other smouldering.
Cinque hesitated. Now that he’d crossed this line he didn’t know what to expect or what the African wanted.
“You are drifting apart. This makes it difficult for you to understand, difficult to think. If we are going to talk we should not waste our time. I need you to be as one. Now come here, I anticipated this and prepared a remedy.“
Cinque had to trust the African, at least this little bit, so he took a step closer and the African twisted the two ropes together, indicating that Cinque should raise his arms. As the braid wrapped around the boy’s chest three times Cinque felt the desperate functions of his scattered mind interlace once again. The hot ache in his chest and the persistent anxiety were gone. As the ends were tied, he felt his ability to concentrate and a sense of self returning. He closed his eyes and stretched, he’d forgotten how good it felt to move without pain.
“It is so much better to be together, is it not?“ Pastor Akotun’s eyes returned Cinque’s smile though his lips did not. “Now. Now we can talk. What is your name, little boy?“
“Cinque. Cinque Williams.“
The African offered his hand, and Cinque took it. “It is nice to meet you, Cinque Williams.“ He paused, and when Cinque didn’t say anything he continued, “You have many questions. You have been seeing things you have never seen before, such as myself?“
With Pastor Akotun’s rope around his waist Cinque felt alive again. He was glad he’d trusted the African. It was good to know that with all the weirdness in his life these days, not all of it was trying to eat him. “Yeah, it seems like there be little monsters everywhere, in the corners, in the shadows. And there’s a big monster that looks like a giant cuttlefish that’s been following me to my home, its arms are covered in mouths—“
Pastor Akotun interrupted waving aside Cinque’s words. “Your American living has not prepared you for this. If you had been born in Africa and among those of us who maintain our traditions these things would not be so strange to you. Rare yes, but not unheard of.“ The African picked up his wooden staff and laid it across his lap. “An African would have known that these things are not the real you are used to, the real of Earth and Sun. You are not imagining these things.“
Cinque tilted his head to one side and said, “Uh, how?“ As soon as he opened his mouth Cinque wished he’d kept it shut— he seemed smarter that way. If Pastor Akotun thought less of him for this it didn’t show. “How did I get this way?“
“Your eyes were opened. There are many ways that this could have happened. Most likely, you were touched by something of the spirit.“
Cinque’s hand went to his chest as the memories of the night he received his father’s letter came to the surface. “Someone—something took my heart. It was orange and frozen. Is that what you mean?“
“Possibly. What does the frozen heart mean to you?“
“I don’t know. I was hoping you’d tell me.“
The African held his staff in one hand like a sceptre. “The orange, frozen heart was a symbol. It is a personal thing to be interpreted by you. If you were of my lands, I would be able to help but you come from a strange land with strange ideas. My help might be harmful. What the heart stands for and who took it is a riddle you will have to solve for yourself.“
Cinque shook his head. “I don’t have a lot of clues.“
“There are many clues. If you don’t know them for what they are then you don’t know yourself.“
“So then all this craziness I’ve been seeing—“ Cinque caught himself looking at the pack of almost-lions when he said that and quickly looked back to the African. “—you say they’re spirits?“
Pastor Akotun nodded. “They are spirits and signs of spirits, real, but not solid—at least not usually. You have a sight beyond sight. In Africa you would fall under the tutelage of myself or one of the other Hougan who would teach you the ways of Juju.“
Cinque shook his head. “I can’t go to Africa.“
“Nor can I go to America, though I hope to one day, but that doesn’t matter. In America the ways of Africa would be of limited use to you. Our principles would be the same, but the techniques would be of little value. You need American magic. A new magic.
“Your America has only small, trivial traditions of magic, at least so far. You live in the Black Man’s America and the White Man’s America, a gray America, over pressed stone and between sheets of chalk. Removed from the natural ways you will need to learn new ways.“
Cinque’s fingers twisted. “Then are you going to teach me?“
“No, I will not. I have already said that my teachings would do you little good.“
“Whose magic am I supposed to use?“
The African opened his hands and said, “Why, your own, of course.“
“I don’t have any magic.“
“Then you had better make some and make it soon. This is for the best. It is better to learn magic the hard way.“ He leaned forward and asked, “Do you trust me?“
In the distance, the cat-lions had finished with their kill and the pigeon-vultures moved in to pick at the bloody bones. Distracted, Cinque said, “I guess so.“
“You do or you do not. I am not interested in guesses.“
“Yes.“ He almost shouted in frustration.
“Yes. I trust you.“
“You should not. Trust is to be earned, not given freely. Suspect those who ask for your trust and never trust those who demand it. I will never ask you to trust me,“ said the African. “Either you do, or you do not. I have done nothing to help you. In fact you will regret ever meeting me. But years from now, you should think back to this day and imagine what your life would have been like without me.“
The words stung. Cinque’s hands formed fists. His voice rose, “So I can’t trust you and you won’t be teaching me how to put up with this sight beyond sight! Then what good are you?“
The African looked down at him with that calm look of his and Cinque felt stupid for losing his cool.
“I will help you to know yourself. I will teach you about life.“ He picked up his drum again. “This is something you need far more help with. You cannot know Juju without knowing yourself. What I teach you, you should meditate upon, take the lessons apart, try them on, see if they fit, keep the ones that do.
“You have troubling times ahead. Few who touch the spirit world remain intact. Tonight I will tell you a story. Within my story is a lesson that will help you through the darkness.“
The man sat down on his stool and picked up his drum. Cinque sat cross-legged on the ground. As the African began the first story he tapped the drum in time with his speech, and it was as if the drum was also telling the story in its own language.
The Farmer was desperate. There had been no rain for months. If it rained today it would be too late. The last of his cattle had died, his land was brown and dusty, his family gaunt and thirsty.
Again he knelt before the altar, a head he had formed from mud and clay with the various family heirlooms piled before it, anything from the past: a comb, a knife, a doll, a goad and a bowl. He made the act from himself. Again he cried to his ancestors for help as he had so often before. Only this time it was different. This time someone came. The Farmer heard the footsteps in the darkness, looked up at the approaching figure and, before it hobbled fully into the light, he recognized his mother’s mother, dead some fifteen years. His rising heart sank again. She had been a demanding, unpleasant woman in life, like a dark cloud over the family. No one had been sad to see her go, least of all the Farmer.
“Beg for it,“ she sneered.
“Beg for what?“ asked the Farmer. He knew what he was begging for, he was begging for help. He also knew she would lie to him so he needed to test her.
Ghosts knew secrets, secrets they did not know while alive. That is why the Farmer had called on his ancestors; he wanted one of these secrets.
He spoke to the ground, “Please, Grandmother, my family is starving.“
“What matter is that to me? My bones lie in the graveyard, my spirit sleeps peacefully. Well, it did. You woke me from my long, deserved rest. You must make amends.“
“I need money. Maybe some is buried and forgotten somewhere near? I was hoping—“
“I know why you are here. You are a failure, and you are desperate. You ask me for help because no one else would.“ She was the same in death as she was in life. “I am hungry,“ said the ghost. “It has been long since I have known the taste of honey. Go to your neighbour’s house. He is not home. He has left his door unlocked. Find the jar with the three stripes and bring it here.“
The Farmer went to his neighbour’s house. The door was unlocked and the rooms dark. In the moonlight he found the one with three stripes and brought it back to his grandmother’s ghost.
Again, she stepped out of the darkness. Without a word of thanks to her grandson, she dipped her hand into the jar and gorged herself on the honey.
When she had finally emptied the jar she spoke. “Now I want some cigarettes to take with me. Being dead leaves one with a lot of time that could be better spent smoking.“
“But I just got the honey for you! Now you have to tell me where to find the treasure!“
She sneered back at him, “The honey was payment for waking me. If you want my knowledge of hidden treasure it will cost you further!“ She looked up idly at the moon. “The market in town—the shopkeeper is out and he’s left his young daughter in the store. She’s a foolish girl. If you tell her that you have come for the carton of cigarettes you paid for yesterday, she will believe you.“
The Farmer fought down his rage. There was nothing he could do but give in. He stormed off to the market. The girl was there as his grandmother said. He told the girl the lie given to him by his grandmother, and she believed him, just as the old woman said.
He returned to the altar and laid the carton next to the empty jar. Out of the darkness his grandmother returned and slipped the carton among her burial robes, looked at him and said nothing.
The Farmer lost his patience. “Now! Where is the treasure?“
“You want to know what I know about buried treasure?“ she said with an unfriendly smile.
“I’ve given you what you asked for—“
“What did I ask for?“
“The cigarettes! You asked for them, told me where to get them and I have brought them!“
“I never asked for anything, boy. I was only thinking out loud.“ She gave herself a satisfied chuckle. “We never made a deal.
“If you want to know what I know about buried treasure you’re going to have to bring me a bottle of rum.“
“What?“ The Farmer’s hands went to his hips.
“Wait in the bushes by the nearby road and arm yourself with a good, strong stick.“
“I’ve given you your offerings. By Egungun, tell me where the treasure is!“
She continued as if he had not spoken at all. “Within the hour a man with a bottle will pass by.“
“I have given you your offerings. By Egungun, tell me where the treasure is!“
“He has already finished off half the bottle, but I am feeling generous. . . .“
“I have given you your offerings. By Egungun, tell me where the treasure is!“ the Farmer screamed, feeling his throat go raw.
His grandmother stopped her musings, her eyes glazed and against her will, she spoke, “This is what I know about buried treasure. . . . There is none within a thousand miles of here.“
The Farmer dropped to his knees. “But . . . but you said—“
His grandmother’s foul disposition snapped back, “I’ve given you what I said I would! I’ve given you what I knew! You were born a fool and now you will die a fool with your fool’s family.“
With a sneer she slid back into the darkness.
By the time the African completed his story the pigeon-vultures had finished with the carcass and had flown away.
“Who is Egungun?“ asked Cinque.
“The Collective Dead. He is a ghost who had never lived. Every ghost is also Egungun.“
“I don’t understand.“
“Are you a Christian?“
“Yeah, I guess.“
“What good are your guesses?“ Cinque winced and reminded himself to watch his mouth.
It had been a long time since Cinque had been to church, but he had still thought of himself as a Christian. What he had seen of the world made the faith feel quaint, limited.
“I don’t know anymore.“
This answer satisfied the African. “I will use the god of the Believers as an example, the three who are one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, though they are all spirits. Three beings but one god, they are aspects of one being, a collective. Change the name and you change the aspect.“
“Would I be able to use Egungun to find my Pa’s ghost?“
“Why would you want to do that?“
Cinque wasn’t prepared for that question. “Everything’s telling me to do it. The Black Wire Hand that stole my heart said something about a visit from my father. Then a little fox-faced guy told me I should look for my Pa. This is all after I got a letter saying he died. . . . Maybe this is all because I never got to meet him when he was alive.“
“And by meeting his ghost . . . ?“
“I’ll know where I came from, how I got to be and how I got to be where I am now.“
“I will not tell you to do this thing, but I will say that it is better to know than to not know, especially to know yourself. The Farmer’s magic was personal. If you are going to call on your ancestor then your magic should be too.“
“Could my father help me find my missing heart? Maybe that’s what this is all about. Maybe whatever stole my heart wanted me to find my father’s ghost so he could help me.“ Cinque should have connected the theft of his heart with his father sooner. The Black Wire Hand had said, “The father shall be visited upon the son“ as it left, but he hadn’t connected his father with Juju. It seemed absurd. If this was part of a plan and his father was on his side in this plan, that made him feel better.
“Or,“ the African suggested, “Perhaps it was your enemies and they attempt to mislead you. Perhaps they strike at you out of vengeance toward your father. This black wire curse could be lethal. Perhaps your father is the one who stole your heart. You said yourself that you don’t know the man.“ The African’s voice faded and Cinque realized he was the one drifting away. He tried to fight it but that just woke him up.
When Cinque returned from the liminal dream-not-a-dream the clock by his bed read 3:14 AM. He sat up grateful that after everything that had happened to him over the last couple of days, he’d finally found someone who was on his side. He finally had hope. The curse of the Black Wire Hand was going to be the death of him if he didn’t act fast. But he had to take care of the Cuttlefish first.
Inspired by the African’s story he put a plan together as he threw on his clothes and dug into his hamper for bait: a light blue t-shirt with a ringer collar. It was once his favourite, but it was getting too small. He had worn it on the hottest day of last week, and it was rank. It was perfect.
A bit of himself to evoke himself, like when the Farmer used bits of his grandmother to evoke her ghost. With his t-shirt and a wire hanger from his closet he went to find the Cuttlefish.
In the darkness the Cuttlefish looked solid, floating listlessly in the moonlight. It had made it to the Belmont sidewalk, hovering just outside a chain link fence. It had pushed most of itself through one of the openings. One bloated limb hung behind it, slowly passing through the metal link. Sluggish, w-shaped pupils spied Cinque immediately, and its arms grasped toward the boy.
Cinque kept back, holding the t-shirt on the hanger between himself and the creature, edging around the monster in a circle to the left. It turned after him, tugging its arm free from the fence while Cinque moved the t-shirt up between them like a puppet. Agitated by the closeness of its prey the Cuttlefish grabbed at the shirt and Cinque stumbled backward, almost tripping with every step as the creature oozed after him barely beyond the reach of the gibbering mouths.
“—let me tell you about my mother—“
“Do you know how it feels to know you never cared?“
“I wouldn’t have to go—“
“You’ll never find your father—“
“—viously we’re especially concerned about—“
Did it just say something about his father? Cinque almost stopped in his tracks, but with a mighty push of its arms the Cuttlefish shot at him. Cinque ran back, off the street, away from Loyston, among the ruined buildings that used to be St. Jude’s business district. Twisting and circling, crossing his own trail more than once, he led the monster out into a nearby residential area that had been burned out for as long as he could remember. Then, he went up to the door of a one bedroom that had been decimated by fire. The Cuttlefish followed, moving in short fast rushes, drifting to a stop in between bursts of speed to pull its arms forward for another stroke.
Panting, Cinque stepped over the fallen doorway and into the building’s remains, back behind the remaining walls, inside what might have been a bedroom. If family heirlooms can attract the Farmer’s grandmother’s ghost, he thought, if things taste of the people who owned them then the Cuttlefish should like the taste of this. He put himself into the shirt every way he could think of: he used it to wipe the sweat of his face before he took a deep breath and blew through the shirt, pushing a thought of himself out with it. Then he hooked the t-shirt and hanger on the deteriorating ceiling. He wrote his full name across the front of the shirt with a black magic marker. While writing, he called up his fear of the Cuttlefish. Concentrating, he pushed that fear down his arm, through his trembling hand, and into the shirt. He used his fear like the Farmer used his desperation.
He hoped no one he knew would find the shirt. He didn’t want to explain what it was and what it was doing here.
His ritual over and his concentration fading, Cinque noticed a train of black ants encircling the room in a twisting line along the wall, running over the glass window and across the doors, including the door he’d just closed behind him. Just below the train of black ants another train, this one of red ants, rode up right next to the black train in the opposite direction, like traffic on the highway.
Careful to leave every ant uncrushed and undisturbed, he left the building through an open window, the ants running across the top half while Cinque slipped through the bottom. He ran a wide circle around town to make sure he wouldn’t cross paths with the Cuttlefish on the way home.
Back in bed, Cinque slept hard through the rest of the morning and into the alarm clock’s wail. He’d taken care of the Cuttlefish, at least for now and the pain in his chest was gone. He felt good. So good that he forgot he was angry with his Ma until that afternoon, by then it didn’t matter so much.
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Cut Scene #1
This was an opening chapter that was added on in the third draft to provide a mundane satus quo for Cinque before the supernatural entered his life. It was replaced with a alter scene that was considered redundent.
Night swept across the cold, Illinois sky. Cinque (pronounced "sink") Williams stumbled after his cousin, unsure where the older boy was leading him or how they were going to get back. A misstep on the dirt road sent him falling forward. His arms shooting out, desperate to grab something solid and dependable. Instead he grabbed Darren.
"Whatchu doin', man?"
"Nothing!" he released his grip on the older boy. His hands were the only thing he could see in what little light reflected off the clouds from their city, St. Jude, Illinois, but his darker cousin was invisible in the night, he'd worn his black hoodie and baggy jeans when they'd left home that afternoon.
"Darren, I can't see nothing out here. You sure you know where we’re going?"
Darren turned back to say, "When don' I know where I'm goin'?", his eyes and teeth flashed.
Never. At least it always seemed that way to Cinque. His cousin had two years on the thirteen year old and seemed twice as worldly wise for it. So Cinque followed Darren’s lead, even when it took them both over a cliff.
Cinque followed Darren until the road curved into the yellow lights. He brushed his dreads out of his face and felt smaller than usual. The boys stood on the edge of a dozen acres of colossal, rusting, corrugated silos and grain elevators: a Narnia of industrial decay.
"Yo, check it." On the other side of the silo Darren stopped and pointed. A huge roll of chain link and a bundle of aluminum poles leaned against a building, parts of a fence that was never put up.
Cinque walked over to the bundle and lifted it by one end. It was lighter than it looked. "And they're gonna let us on the bus with this?"
"I seen little old ladies bring a dozen shoppin' bags on the bus. They'll let us bring this if'n we stand it up on end." Darren took the pipe in front and Cinque the one in back. The bulk of the bundle dangled between them like a kill held by a pair of hunters, Darren in the lead. The aluminum pipes, as vague as Cinque's skin, swayed hypnotically back and forth as they walked.
The deep bass of a riverboat horn bellowed across ten miles of damp, night air all the way from here to the East side, breaking Cinque out of his trance. He turned to look for the ship lights through the trees. "Hey, Darren. You ever been on the Mississippi?"
"Ugh." Darren sounded disgusted by the thought. "You ever smelled the Mississippi?"
Cinque shrugged. "It's just that the river is why St. Jude is here- so it’s why we're here. Shouldn't we know about it?"
"All I need to know about the river is how to stay outta it."
"What if you fall in?"
"I won’t. Can't swim."
They walked back up the road into town and made it to the bus stop in time for the last bus. The city could only afford to run the bus twice a day. Darren was right, the bus driver didn't bat an eye at the two kids and their bundle.
It'd be rush hour any other place but there wasn't much to rush for in St. Jude. There weren't many jobs left in the city. Cinque remembered when the meat-packing industry had packed up and left, half his life ago, just after they laid off Grandpa. Fortunately for the Williams family, Grandma had a good job as a court clerk in the federal building. In St. Jude there was still work sending men to prison.
Back in the day, when Grandma and Grandpa had bought this house here on the east side it was the better side of town. Far away from the chemical plants and their smoke and frequent spills. Built well over a hundred years ago, Grandpa had done a good job keeping it up until he passed away three years past. The mortgage was paid but there were times when their home felt like an anchor. Even if Grandma could sell it, she could only afford to move to a city just as bad, or worse.
When they got to their stop Darren pushed the pipes out of the bus with a crash stood on top of the bundle and told Cinque, "When we get home we’d better take this ‘round the back. Grandma won’t like us dragging this mess through the house."
Cinque was confused, "You didn’t ask Grandma if it was okay if we bring this home?"
Darren just smiled and said, "When did askin’ ever get me anywhere?"
After a three block walk, the boys were home and forcing their burden around the side of the house under the big maple tree, bumping into the building and the fence and cursing each other in the dark. When the light cut on inside they knew it was going to be Grandma before she opened the window and stuck her head out. Grandma looked down at the two boys with suspicion. The boys looked up at her with innocence in their eyes, Darren’s fake, Cinque’s real.
"Darren. What fool thing are you up to now?" she asked, ignoring the younger cousin.
Darren put down his side of the bundle and smiled. "Hey, Grandma. Cinque and me found this off the side of the road an..."
Grandma interrupted him with her, "Um-hmm." Um-hmms meant that you shouldn't bother talking because she wasn't going to buy it. Darren was the only one who ever got an Um-hmm.
The other window opened and Cinque’s Ma, Olamide, looked out, her face tired and amused. "Hi, Ma!", Cinque said smiling and she waved a small wave back. Cinque didn't get to see his ma much since she started going to night school, but he had it better than Darren. No one had seen Darren's ma since she left him here ten years ago. Neither boy had ever seen his own father. The family resemblance across the four faces was clear. Cinque was lighter, Darren had a stronger jaw, Grandma had the fullest lips and Olamide had the smallest eyes, but everyone in the Williams family had the same thin eyebrows and wide nose.
Darren kept on, "...an we was gonna take it around the neighborhood tomorrow and see if anyone was missing..."
Cinque interrupted again, "No they wasn't. They was from that yard you said didn't belong to anybody." Cinque didn’t know why Darren cringed and looked down at the ground when he helped the older boy remember. Up above, Grandma kept scowling her subtle scowl and Cinque’s Ma kept trying to hide her smile.
"You boys take that out to my car." With that the women closed the windows behind them.
Darren scowled at Cinque who shrugged and asked, "What?"
It took the boys awhile to fit the aluminum pipes in the back seat of Grandma's car. Enough time for Cinque to figure out what had happened, Darren had tricked him into being an accomplice again. The two boys stood in the driveway until Grandma came out wearing a coat over her house dress and fishing through her purse for her keys. Without looking up she said, "Get in the car, Darren."
"Um," Cinque asked, "Should I come too?"
"Of course not," she said to Cinque with a kindness Darren wouldn’t experience tonight, "You just wait here till we get back."
As the car backed up, Darren's face was one part jealousy, nine parts resignation though the windshield. Grandma was going to take Darren back to where they'd got the pipes, make him put them back and then she'd give him a whoopin'. Cinque stood in the driveway and watched until the lights disappeared and then turned to face his mother who was standing in the doorway. "Why am I not in trouble?"
"Because, Cinque, we know you and we know Darren. So we know what's what. It’s getting cold, baby, why don’t you get he mail and come inside?" And his mother went back into the kitchen to finish her homework.
Cinque always got the mail, a habit that started when he was younger, he thought that if he checked the mail often enough then maybe mail would arrive for him. It never had. But today's load included a manila envelope from the City of Chicago to Mr. Cinque Williams. He opened and read it in the porch light.
Cut Scene #2
This was the very first scene I wrote for this book and for a moment it was the longest piece of prose I'd ever written. But the novel took a different direction and Ouroboros never came back so the scene was cut.
Cinque's knees and hips hurt as pulled from the sheets. The little lamp illuminated the room as best it could from the corner. There wasn't much to see - just clothes, a few pieces of art he'd made in school, an old encyclopedia set and a few other books. In the hazy gray of the carpet two spots grabbed Cinque's attention, one black and one white, squashed ovals a few steps apart. They looked back, an odd pair of eyes that he knew from somewhere, white on the left and black on the right, under a huge brow of gray. Cinque's chest burned as he fell onto his bed and the rest of the face, a serpent's head, broke from the gloomy floor like a crocodile rising from the water.
The snake immediately became The Snake to Cinque, it seemed more real than anything he’d ever seen. The Snake’s snout had the gentle curved structure of a constrictor and he could smell the wet earth between its scales, each the size of frying pans. Worn and scratched, the way fingernails looked after digging in dirt, each scale was dark with blurry veins of blue and red light like clusters of stars in the night sky. It’s head filled the room. Cinque felt its cold breath on his face unafraid. He has just lost his heart, what could The Snake do that was worse?
The Snake's indigo tongue darted out and whipped around Cinque twice. It spoke with a deep, slow voice. "I'm following... my tail."
Snake and boy locked eyes until Cinque realized he was being drawn into conversation. Not sure if The Snake was asking a question, making statement, or if any of this was real he said, "Um... I ain't seen it.... I'm pretty sure."
"Few have." The Snake took deep breaths mid-sentence, "It's somewhere ahead... of me."
Cinque's head tilted with curiosity, "Shouldn't your tail be somewhere behind you?"
"It is that too... but it is closer going forward... than it is going back." It gestured backwards with its massive chin.
"You must be huge."
"I am...." The Snake nodded, "I once circled the world... and held my tail in my mouth... as I crawled."
Cinque didn't ask The Snake why he would hold his own tail in his mouth, that was The Snake's business, but he did wonder why he was looking for it in Cinque's room.
Since they were talking about loss, Cinque said, "I think I just lost my heart."
The Snake studied him before it said, "You did... and you didn't.... You will find it again... soon."
Cinque didn't understand how he could lose his heart, not lose his heart and find it again soon but he didn’t want to test The Snake’s patience so he changed the subject. "What happened with your tail?" Cinque asked. "Did someone take it?"
"No it is still.... attached.... The world grew.... and I did not.... But this has been before... the world will be small again."
Since The Snake was answering questions Cinque asked another one, "What's wrong with your eyes?"
The Snake turned the white eye towards the boy, "They are as they've always been."
"But one eye's white and the other's black."
"You are both white... and black... but there is nothing wrong with you...." Cinque was light, one of the lightest kids at his middle school, but that didn't make him white. In America the only way to be white was to be white. But the Snake didn't need to be set straight on his genealogy, so Cinque let it slide.
The Snake spoke on, "I see inside things... With the white eye... as they were." The massive head turned the other way, black eye forward. "With the black eye... as they will be."
"When you look at me what do you see?"
"A fool.... Welcome... to the world." And the serpent's head lowered, slipping into the dark under Cinque's bed. Its scaly back continued to crest for a long time, submerging into the bleak gray carpet. As the sun's rays pierced through the worn curtains, Cinque wished The Snake had told him which eye he’d been looking with.