The dead gunslinger climbed from the sea onto the rocks north of Faxaflói Bay. From a distance it appeared a large devilfish was wriggling up the short cliff face, smacked hard on the back by crashing waves. This would be the long nights of winter. Too cold to snow. The couple of feet that had already fallen crusted over from the subzero treatment. When the gunslinger stood to face the lights squirming on the horizon, the bullet holes in his trunk sucked and breathed. Ever since he’d died—at least a dozen times in as many towns and slums—they’d been his primary nostrils. That’s how he came to oxygenate twenty times faster than any living man: the holes in his guts were always breathing.
The dark puts him five, six miles from the city. And hasn’t he seen this place before? It was written like a love letter in all his nightmares. An inverted kind of desert, bone-cold exactly where that other kind, the kind that had educated him, would fry one’s flesh just from a minute’s exposure.
A thought. No one ever mentioned melanoma as a prominent killer among gunslingers of the desert. Just as much as frostbite would never take any part in the literature either.
Another thought. Everyone wants to talk about bad men with gun skills, but no one wants to pull up at the end of the barrel of one. Think about all those cosy middle-classers watching visionary redneck murder shows in the post-mortem comfort of their homes. Sure as heaven no bullet will ever speed out of their television to drill even deeper thoughts into them. Right there, lickety split, leaving a third eye in their foreheads.
Off he goes then, in the old style of walking. The wind passing through his holes and whistling, each in a different key, depending on the size and depth of passage, the dryness or coagulation of his wounds. A messy barbershop quintet of tone-deaf catcalls. Footsteps appear just there on the crust, milliseconds ahead of him. In an hour he’ll set foot on a road, in another he’ll be cutting a harsh figure in the outermost neighborhoods. Reykjavík. Border city like a beached whale in the territories. On one side land. On the other, massive oceanic snow.
Remember those weird lodges in New Mexico—holy rollers boiling alive in some scrambled tongue, sprouting armloads of Medusa’s hair? This is about what blizzards put him to mind. All that writhing from another world. Full of specific predatory fire, just a peck and a bite’s kiss away from a quick kill.
Just like that, swirls reared up and struck at him. He took the bites and kept striding.
What good is dead if you aren’t looking for something?
This time, who is it? At the end of those lights, somewhere, The Ragnarök Gang. Come to town on a bounty. In each life, always a change of form; he shoots one or all of them and they dematerialize into some distant recombination of self. But always: the same ugly. No matter what hovel, city or country. Once they were even extras in a Sergio Leone flick. That was a difficult one to negotiate. He let them finish their scenes then one by one followed them back to their trailers, then did them in just like their mothers.
Word is, they’ve shaved heads now, and not for the lice. Skinheads. In some sick little underground. Black metal, Scandinavian import. Some wear corpse paint to try on death, but really just to get some tail; others primp up to hide themselves. Skinhead metal heads? Such contradictions are not good for one’s health.
A chest-bump of chill wind kicks him with a flashback: mesas poking out of the ground, hard as nipples. Where was that? How long and when? If he weren’t so dead, he’d stop and lick his wounds and live a while. But such affections only belong to disembodied carpetbaggers with memories.
The Easter roofs, bunched up under the huge dome of collective lights. The dark around this place so huge and irrefutable, every small grain of luminescence adds to a mound that lifts to the sky. Is it late? In his flesh there’s no time. Even the twenty-four-hour convenient stores look closed. Maybe it’s the twenty-fifth, and here he is, per usual, swigging life like a ghost.
A couple in matching wool coats bump into each other along the sight lines of their liquor. The language of their mouths sounds intricately sheep-like, wicked with lilts.
In a third floor window of a hexagonal apartment complex, a large woman lifts her arms to yawn at her shadow on the street below. He steps into that shadow. Fits like a mass grave. But not now. Off he goes.
The only way to kill him would be to remove all the bullets from him. And not just in any order, but in the exact reverse order in which he collected them. God pity the impatient chooser. Once, in Paristown, fifty years ago, some boys of the Ragnarök had him pinned down on the floor of some unfinished prefab bit of housing. They set their smartest, most intuitive kid to numbering each wound on his bare chest with a marker. Each number, of course, was a guess. Sometimes he’d pause over one, write a number, contradict it, rub and remark it. Must have taken three days just to get it right. And even then, only on a daisy chain of hunches. With a pocket knife the brawniest of them set to gutting each wound for its plug. At the fifth, they knew something was wrong. By the way the blood started to suck back into its holes. Soon the suction was so strong they all got gobbled, corpus and soul—for surely they had them—right into those inverted proboscis.
The most prominent fools had a way of dying off that way. Bending over him, thinking they were kings to show their strength. Soon as they were absorbed he’d button up, dust off, stand back upright where the lord long ago shat him. Light a cigarillo and follow wherever the wind sent its smoke drifting.
Every town he ends up in, he bows a head to his abdomen. Down in there an odd little compass. Wherever the bad is hidden, it pulls at that needle. As sure as he can stand still, he feels it. No different here. Just beyond the lit zero of a streetlight on pavement, he feels a spinning down there, then a sharp, sure point five blocks away, southwest. His prick hard as that eschatological north no one, not anymore, believes in.
A door right down in the sidewalk. Huge double metal bruisers, locked from the inside. Amplified strafing of bass and treble beneath. Where’s he heard this music before? At one of his dozen funerals? More like at the last rites he delivered in a hundred dozen scuzzy little rooms, emerging from the floor like an ambiguous hit man. Of this world, or against it? No time for answers. The bullets from his sixers go quick into flesh to hibernate for the winter.
But here, winter’s out and proud, content to bury even the living.
He stamps on the doors.
He taps on them with the ivory end of his gun.
Even more exactly nothing.
So he reaches for his surer gun, unzips, pisses along the buckled seam of the crease and lock. A man who is nothing but holes, exposed to the elements, absorbs more than a cloud’s share of water. Out it rolls like one continuous steaming bullet.
A muffled goddamn, he assumes, in some Ausländer language.
The doors lift, crest, fall, crash. Two punks grab his ankles and coat-length, drag him down. When the doors crash again like amplified lightning, pink air breeds eyes all around him.
Where had he seen this before? Oh, yeah, prairie dogs. Their queer way of typing at the earth while waist deep in it, as if it could submit to their will like a keyboard.
The eyes around him were kids. Not even a handful had the wisdom of bullets. He fetched a bottle of cobra wine from his duster—about four hands leapt to their hips at that. Those. Those would be killers he was after.
The wine came from a bar in Vietnam. Can’t remember the name, or the city. There were these tanks, almost classic terrariums, filled with drowsy cobras. The patron’s indulgence was: lift a finger and settle it on the glass, pick one. Then the snake was lifted over one’s goblet, split in instant surgery with a knife, blood squeezed from its conscious length like juice from a towel. And after that, the crowning action. Pluck the still beating heart from its ribby clutch, drop it like some priapic turd into the liquored blood. Whoever drank from it was supposedly armed with the hard-ons of a hundred young men. An eerie place, adorned with a confusion of elder gentlemen. The buzz on one’s lips, when one supped it, he determined later, was due to faint traces of neurotoxic venom.
Those lidless eyes in the tank, how different were they from these looking at him right now. One, two, three, four, at various positions throughout the bar. When he lowered the bottle, he could already hear the microscopic screaming in them. The fear.
These Ragnarök boys. Running Headmilk from Munich and Berlin through here to the States. And offering live shows of corpse porn. All the sexiest dead bundled on a round lit revolving stage, grouping like mulch in an orgy. Down here anyone could smell it. Commerce raging everywhere, in every possible dimension, like brush fire. Even the innocents burned in place at stakes they weren’t even conscious of, like saintly jokes. These four, he could count them, but could he not kill them? Mere titty hairs of some criminal syndicate called, in Wild West circles, The Black Wave. Or Odin’s Daughters. Over here, that was the name.
He recalled that little piece of verbal dollar while twisting the ear of the last survivor. The kid was young. Head shaved. Dubbed head to toe in dumb black. He’d tried to draw his gun but then realized: his was just too young. While the others fell around him like the seasons.
Since a gunslinger is negative capability in the raw, silent as crickets after the boot falls, one doesn’t need to ask expecting an answer. As sure as he can measure a walk to death with something drawn, he can holster it again by just looking in someone’s eyes. When he stands in a crowd, everyone’s head splits. The undertow of his intuition hungry as a vacuum, draws every inch of spaciousness within them to itself, to fetch a new god from the awful.
This kid’s eyes said: two floors below are the rest of them.
Dead, dead, dead. Not bang. No gun ever said that. It transliterates its final destination from the silence that comes back after it’s groveled down at the feet of its victims, well-fed. Dead said the guy on the bar stool. Dead said the bruiser with the long knife. Dead said the douche behind the desk counting money.
Ragnarök, said the leader, a monster of glistening scalp this time—not like in the last life. Ragnarök, which, in the tongue of this snow-forsaken country, might as well sound out as a strong, definitive “fuck you.” Just as quickly he turned coat and leapt through the cinderblock wall, so, equally dead, he jumped after him. In this next dark there was a shower in a corner, really just a drain screwed into the floor looking up at the bee’s eyes of a nozzle. Rain was making like water. The head of the gang standing defeated and naked. If you want a clean kill, he said, puckering, you’ll have to wait ‘till I’m finished.
No worries, gun said, it’s clear enough you were born dirty.
A bullet through each nipple, sputtering.
Ragnarök, the dying dead man muttered. Rag. Rag.
What’s a rag but something filthy sent to wipe off something of equal dirtiness?
Time for the next town and next life, the gunslinger said, deeply not himself and kneeling under speckles of bright water.
And so brought the lifesaving gun to his head.
A pull of the trigger, on to the next savior. But not before admiring without awe the wobbly dots of water blurry upon the hairs of his lids.
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