"In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."
Some smartass kid filled the jukebox up with a roll of quarters, few minutes after I walked in. I get the joke, kid. The bar's not too full, and everyone else is putting up with this because they know this is all for me. It's not the kind of bar where they throw the mutants out -- although, as always, I'd like to see them try -- but they'll pull little head games like this. I'm not amused, but I'm liking the beer on tap in this place and don't really want to leave. Maybe I'll just kick the jukebox over, put the kid's head through a wall, and drink until the sirens get here.
I'm in Kingston, and I don't mean Jamaica. No, I'm back in the home and native land, in the Limestone City on the grey, windy edge of Lake Ontario. Place is full of college boys and military fucks (just my type), and up in the west end of town you got the Kingston Penitentiary and Collins Bay, Millhaven, all the big prisons. It's tough to find the right bar in a place you don't know too well, and last time I was in this town, the men still wore hats. 1950s, I think, after the war but before me and Logan headed south again. Most of the bars in this place are full of Lacoste-wearing organ donors from Queen's University, or the bristle-headed primates from the Royal Military College, and you can't get near the girls (they're all right) with so many pencil-dicks squirming around.
"Near the village, the peaceful village..."
What I wanted was a real dive for grownups, for people with no money and no hope for the future, because that's where the beer's cheapest and nobody presses charges. Instead I find a place that's mostly perfect, but like a hair in a glass of milk, there's still a Queen's kid in here. The one with the roll of quarters. That's the type who would slum it in a bar like this and then get pissed off by the sight of an ugly mutant. Yeah, the ugly kind. Not someone who looks normal, like a teen who can make pancakes with her mind or whatever the fuck, but a real twisted-up gene-fucked monster. I'm like Richard III, only bigger. People don't like to look at me. And this kid, in his rugby shirt that sports the school colours (real subtle), has lived for twenty years or so and still thinks he deserves to control everything he sees and hears. Channel-surfing through life.
The barkeep laughs to himself and shakes his head as the song comes on again. Wee-dee-dee-dee... He's got a great attitude to this, which means he agrees with Rugby Shirt that I don't belong here. I make him draw me another pint and ask for a few shots of Bushmills too. "A few?" he says, like that's hard to understand.
"Yeah, a few. Three."
"Well, I can pour you one and you can order more if you feel like it, or I can pour two and that'll be it for the night."
Great, somebody's concerned for my liver. Mine's in better shape than his. "You can pour me three like I asked you, buddy, and you'll pour whatever else I pay for too."
"Listen, it's not up to me," says the bartender. He's just a little guy. "The province has regulations and stuff. We're not supposed to serve alcohol to somebody who's already drunk."
"I ain't even drunk yet, that's the issue." Drunk, for me, lasts about ten minutes. And that's if I chug-a-lug like a frat boy on St. Paddy's Day. This guy doesn't even want me to have ten minutes of sloppy euphoria. We are less than ten a-weem-o-ways away from a situation. "What's the point of a bar that won't get you drunk?"
The bartender grows a spine at this point, and he says, "You could be drinking all you want at home, but you're here instead, so why don't you tell me?"
"All right, man, you got me," I say, and I put a ten down on the bar. It is kind of an interesting mystery, why I bother with drinking in bars when getting drunk is such a production. I guess what I like is being around the other drunks, in case I get to knock somebody ass-over-electric-kettle and have a good time. "Pour me two and we'll call it good for the night."
I don't want to waste time dickering with this guy over the provincial liquor laws when I could be teaching that Queen's kid a valuable lesson about tolerating discomfort. The bartender pours the shots and lines them up next to my pint glass, and I down them all in thirty seconds. Nobody even cheers. What a bunch of snobs.
I drop a couple of loons on the bar, like tipping matters when I'm about to destroy the place, but then the music stops.
"Hush, my darling, don't fear, my darling, the lion--"
A waitress is unplugging the jukebox, bent over to give us all a panoramic vista view of her tight little ass. She's blonde with one of those high-up stripper ponytails, but she's tiny, just a little over five foot. She comes over to the bar and leans over me. "Hey, sorry about the ear torture," she says. "Doug, why don't you give him one on the house? That kid was obviously yanking this guy's chain by turning the jukebox on like that."
Yeah, Doug, why don't you do that? I give the bartender my most beatific smile, and presto, here comes another pint of good Canadian beer. Half fart and half horsepiss and all wonderful yellow flowers.
Once the beer is definitely coming, I tell the waitress, "You didn't have to do that."
"Think I did," she says. "I'm on break, want to sit down with me?"
Well, yup, I sure do. She's small but her tits are perky, real keen team players, and she's wearing a nametag that says Birdy. "Birdy, for real?" I can't help saying as we sit down at a corner table. "That's a name?"
"Everybody calls me Birdy."
"What is it really?"
"Doesn't matter. But your name is Victor Creed, and just now you were thinking about slugging that engineering student into next week, and it wouldn't just be any old barfight. The whole place'd get trashed, right? And this is the only job I got so I'm asking you not to," she says, smiling with a girly little headtilt to get on my good side. "Don't freak out, please don't," she hurries on when she sees that headtilts aren't gonna do the job. "I'm a mutant too, I'm a telepath. I wasn't digging deep -- I didn't have to. You were thinking pretty loudly about how much of this bar you could wreck."
"Lady, right now it's just a matter of whether this place is national news tomorrow night or just local."
"Why?" She reaches out to touch my wrist. I see women do this to other men; they do it to me if they're getting paid, and for a second the rage swells up in me again, as if she's making fun of me. She feels it -- just a little flinch -- but keeps her hand out. "You're angry, right? What are you angry at?"
I close my fist, but it's just to make the claws less noticeable. She really shouldn't be talking to me like this. It'll end badly for her, and I wish I could tell her to head for the door and run. Maybe I will, when the time comes. What are you angry at is a question that never really has an answer. "I been through a lot of shit."
"Let me feel?" Her fingertips make small circles over the back of my hand. I get it now, this is some Beauty and the Beast schtick. "I could help."
"You don't wanna do that."
"Sure I do. If it keeps me employed, why not? Would you actually rather be pissed off? Honestly?" Birdy leans across the table and meets my eyes. "I could make you feel good."
Oh, okay. "How much?"
"Not like that." But she's not offended, and I wonder if maybe she does her little sexy-telepath thing as a sideline. A pro who I scared into offering a freebie.
No, the truth is I don't get her at all. That makes me nervous, but it's not like I couldn't take her. I've fought telepaths before. They can be tricky, but a guy like me has tricks too. "Listen, sweetheart, I been fucked with my whole life and I'm not as dumb as I look. Okay? I'll pay to fuck you if that's on the table, but if you try to get in my head and rob me, it ain't gonna be worth the money. You're cute but I would break you in four pieces and I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. If you want to do something with me, it's your funeral and my trial, but answer the goddamn question: how much? Because it always costs something."
Birdy's still watching me -- her eyes are probably blue but in this dark bar it's hard to tell -- and she's still touching my hand. Finally she says, "Two hundred and I'll make you feel happy. Just in your brain, nowhere else. You leave the bar standing, I keep my job. Everybody wins." She pauses. "And I'd do it for nothing, because I can feel that you got a real head full of snakes and you need help, but since you made a big deal about it? Two hundred. Upfront."
Two hundred is high when I don't even get to come, but she's got a specialised skill, I guess. I'll make you feel happy. That's worth it, if it's for real. If it's not, I'll get my own back. I get out my wallet and pay the traditional way, under the table. She takes the money, counts the twenties, and folds them into the pocket of her bar apron. She doesn't try to book it out the door, which is smart, and she reaches for my hand again with both of hers. Her two tiny little hands barely cover one of mine.
Her mind crashes into mine like a sledgehammer through drywall. The rest of the bar drops away into darkness, red darkness like when the sun comes up and shines through closed eyelids. Memories start to flicker past, disjointed images, filmstrips spinning loose from the reel. Railroad spikes and dynamite. A plastic bag rattling in the wind where it was trapped against the chain-links of a fence. A flower shop in a hospital. The sputter of flying dirt kicked up by a rabbit as it flees. Meaningless images. Birdy settles finally on an image saturated and tangled with blood-guilt: fishing line wrapped around an ankle. She grabs that image and pulls, unravelling the knot.
Almost a century slides away and I'm back at Canoe Lake with Jimmy. We didn't stay here long, just a month or two after Vimy Ridge. 1917. I wouldn't have called us war-weary, because we sure weren't tired of killing yet, but the fact is that heightened senses don't go together so well with artillery fire and the smell of gangrene. We both felt a little sick and we wanted to be someplace wild. Someplace that was still mostly unspoiled.
So we left without so much as a by-your-leave and went to Algonquin Park, and we didn't give a shit if the military police tried to arrest us. We ended up missing Passchendaele. They might've put us on the ten dollar bill or something if we'd stayed to fight that one too. Not that we ever got credit for what we did -- when the Victoria Cross was being handed out, they had a way of forgetting all about those two freaks with the claws who killed Huns like it was going out of style.
Summer of 1917, the humid grey summers you get in the East, up north of Ottawa. Some folks were living at the lodge at Canoe Lake, even over the winter, who worked as guides or firefighters. By summertime they'd worked themselves up into a few good solid grudges, and one guy fucked this ugly woman and got her pregnant. Come summer, she writes to him saying they have to get married and he needs to buy a new suit. Pregnancy, shotgun marriage, fine, but she ain't gonna be seen with a fellow in a raggedy suit.
Who cares, right?
Well, these rough men of the woods were about as tough as glass-jawed schoolgirls. They all got drunk together and got into a pathetic little fistfight over who owed who some money, all so that the one guy could buy a new suit and marry a horse-faced lady. The would-be groom goes down hard. That's where me and Jimmy come in.
We're drinking and a man is blabbering to us. "I killed him, Logan, I didn't mean to but I think I really killed him."
Logan didn't want to get involved in this little soap opera. The runt always was smart. "So go get rid of the body and start running, pal."
"I don't know how to do anything like that, Logan. You fellas were overseas, you could help..."
See, that was the thing. These guys all hadn't made the cut to go into the meat-grinder of Europe, and they had a complex about it while also expecting other people to do their dirty work forever. That's how I saw it, anyway. The guy wouldn't shut up about this horrible thing he'd done, as if killing one guy by accident was anything to get worked up over, and finally I said, "Christ, fine, I'll get rid of it for you."
Logan came too, because we were still brothers then. We did everything together.
The quote-unquote murderer's name was Shannon Fraser, big redheaded Irish guy who didn't know how to handle his own muscle. Fraser brought me to a spot in the woods where the guys had been drinking, and the victim was lying on the ground by the fire. "This guy ain't dead."
"I'm sure he's dead. Look at that bruise--"
"What do you want me to tell you, he ain't dead." I could hear his heart still beating. The guy was lanky and dark-haired, with a big nose that only looked big from the side, and he had a dark blue bruise on one temple, blood leaking out the ear. He wasn't dead, but he might have damage when he came to, and it was going to be hard to call it an accident. "I dunno, you still want me to get rid of him?"
Fraser was panicking and I guess he must have said yes, although I don't really remember the conversation. Birdy can't find the pieces of it, and the next image she finds is me carrying the body down to the water. I'm remembering the guy a little better now: his name was Tom, and he was supposed to be a painter or something. Quiet guy, drank a lot but didn't talk much. Harmless.
It was dawn. We packed up Tom's canoe for him, the paddles lashed for a portage, his fishing gear tucked under the seat in the bow. Tom had fallen and twisted his ankle in the fight (seriously, these guys fought like little girls) so I wrapped the fishing line around it sixteen or seventeen times. I never really had a busted ankle myself, of course -- not for long -- but I was vaguely aware that you had to tie it up somehow and keep it immobile. Logan tied that to a lead weight, a small anchor meant to keep a fishing boat from drifting.
The sun was still invisible behind the trees, colour but no central throb of light, until a sliver of orange slipped over the black line of the horizon. We put the body in a rowboat and tied the canoe. Shannon Fraser rabbited off to secure his alibi, I guess, and Logan and I rowed out to the middle of the lake.
Tom was still breathing. We could both hear him. His skin was still warm. But we rolled him over the side of the boat and watched him sink, then cut loose the canoe to let it drift.
It's not the worst thing I've ever done.
But when we brought the boat back, we opened up the small shack where Tom used to paint. Looking for valuables to maybe make the whole venture worthwhile; we'd heard that the government had bought one of his paintings for $500, which was a lot of money back then. "He's an artist, so he's worth more dead than alive," Logan said.
The shack smelled of turpentine and linseed oil, and old rags, and whiskey and tobacco. There were paintings, and we were ignorant, but I remember one tiny rectangle of canvas smaller than my hand. Tom had trapped a lightning cloud there. In greys and blues and dim purples, the colours of a bruise, a huge thunderhead was brooding over a flat plain, and the gleam of lightning about to emerge made me uneasy -- I kept wanting to shut my eyes.
This guy, he was really good.
I don't know if it matters more that I killed someone with a real talent, or that I killed someone for no reason and no financial benefit, or that I killed someone who was harmless. One of those innocent people that I keep hearing so much about. I didn't kill in a blind rage of bloodlust. It was completely avoidable. Would Tom have died anyway from that blow to the head? Maybe. Does it matter? Is Logan as guilty as me, however guilty I am? Who even measures this stuff? How does anyone decide?
That's why this memory is still roosting in the rafters when Birdy reaches inside me -- I've done a lot of worse things, but they were definitely my fault and they were definitely wrong. This one's a weird outlier, a questionable case, and somehow it's easier to give a shit about Tom because there's just a chance that I might not have been the bad guy. But even when I had that chance to be a bystander, I stumbled in anyway and made it my problem. I ruined something beautiful.
But Birdy reaches in and pushes the memory away. It's not gone, just drifting away into the distance, taking the pain with it, taking the lightning storm away to the pine-tree horizon. It takes a long time to describe these memories, to retell these stupid old stories, but for her it's just a flicker and she bats it away like a moth from a lantern. She does this with a lot of the edge cases that linger in my mind, the ones that make me really hate myself. If it were true that I'm just an animal, it'd be easier to deal with. But sometimes I'm sober and sane and I break shit anyway, because it's a habit, or because...I don't know.
When she pulls out again, I feel both duller and sharper, warmer and colder. I definitely don't see any need to slug that kid from Queen's -- for what, a jukebox prank? Who the hell cares? I feel that orange throb of the remembered sunrise inside my skull, and that's the only thing left right now, the memory of that pretty sunrise over Canoe Lake. Is that the kind of thing normal people remember? It's nice. It's real nice.
"That does feel good," I say out loud when my eyes open and the sounds of the bar come back. I feel like I've just killed someone, that rush of endorphins I guess, but I haven't hurt anybody. It's better than that ten minute buzz from pounding back shots of booze. This will last me awhile. "Goddamn."
Birdy looks like she's only just realised that I'm dangerous. Maybe my threats weren't real to her until she saw inside my head and knew just how many times I've followed through. And yet there's triumph in her face too: I'm dangerous, but she beat me. She made me settle down. Got her way.
In the end we do go back to her room and I do fuck her, but that's not even the point to me anymore. She's a good lay but what I really care about is getting that glow in my head again. That's the only thing I need now -- with my head clear, with the bloodlust just a faded memory, I can live however I want. Only gotta fight the wars I want to fight. Yeah, Birdy's gonna stay around. Birdy's worth whatever she costs.
I fall asleep in her bed (in the jungle, the quiet jungle...) and I dream about that Tom Thomson, and it doesn't hurt. I dream that I am Tom, down there at the lake's bottom, in the bed of dark green weeds, sunk there like a wreck. A cloud of sand blooms up and blocks the thin light of the sun, streaming in gold bands through the green. The sand clears, but there's nothing to see except the passage of the clouds across the sky, distorted by the always-moving surface of the lake. Grey shadows of passing fish glide past silently, stately arrows of motion with quick flickers right or left, trains of attendants following the leader.
I'm the lucky one, down there at the bottom of the water. I don't ever have to do a goddamn thing again. I can hear the lake sounds -- distant noises of motors carried in the water and made bell-like and distorted, and maybe sounds from even further away: waves on a metal hull, foghorns from the ocean, conversations from couples walking by the water, my own heartbeat, the lake's. I could lie here forever like this, listening to the lake talk to me, and I will.