Nicholas Rombes – Matthisen

Koji swore he would never come back to this place out in the desolate fields, but here he is, in his faded corduroys and denim shirt. He could easily have dispatched with the tall man and the short man with the humped back but he didn’t. Why? The faces of his guides are new, but where they are they going is not. When was the last time he was here? When was the last time he had felt such trapdoor dread? He can’t remember. There is, in fact, a lot he can’t remember.

He had paid good money for the procedure, and it had worked, mostly. And yet there were still stray memories that floated up, like small, soft underinflated balloons. They were wobbly fragments mostly, slender threads of a past that was his: the face of his sister in the hammock in the sun; the distant wail of an ambulance siren racing with futility to the already crushed body in the car wreck at the corner of Livernois and McNichols in west Detroit; the static-y shape of a tornado on television; a rain-warped porno magazine he found in the bushes on the way home from school in the sixth grade. These fragmented memories came and went, but they left him with no feelings.

The men behind him now—the tall one who smoked and the short hump-backed one—who were they? Emissaries of the group that had dogged Koji since his brief, botched time as a radical untenured theorist who said too much. They want him to show them the way to the tunnel entrance. The tall, scar-faced man looks vaguely familiar, someone from the deep and distant past.

They have driven him here, to this field, in the middle of the night. There is a reason, and he knows the reason, although he pretends not to know. They have stopped the car. The moon shines across the barren field, casting it in a weird silver hue like an image out of a silent film. They tell him to get out and walk towards the dim orange light in the distance. Koji walks in front, awkwardly in the blank lumpy farmer’s field that gradually gives way to volcanic sand. The men behind him talk to each other in low, indistinguishable voices. Even though it’s completely black, Koji knows which direction to walk. Towards the drifting sour smell of sulphur. Towards Mount Norikura.

Eventually, the field becomes flatter and firmer and then is not a pure field at all but a field melding with vast beach. Not far in the distance, he knows (without knowing how he knows) is a thin line of scrappy trees on a black-sand and lava dune, and just beyond that a discolored wooden shed with a tin roof. He can hear, already, the sound of the surf. The door will be unlocked, but difficult to open from disuse.

His sheathed knife moves in his pocket against his leg as he walks.
“Does he know where he’s going?” the hump back asks the tall man. His “guides.” His captors.
“Does he know where he’s going?”
The tall man stops and stoops down to the hunchback, bringing his ear closer to his mouth. “Does he know . . .?”
“WHERE HE’S GOING,” the hump back says slowly.
“He appears to.”
“Can he hear us talking about him?”
“Can he HEAR US talking about him?” the humpback screams.
“Now he can,” replies the tall one.

Soon they are at the line of trees, the night air cool and damp. Koji pauses and the men come closer, one on either side of him. For a few moments, the sky clears and there, very close, is the shed. A flicker of recognition, like the spark from a cap gun in the dark, occurs to Koji, and then disappears just as quickly. And then he suddenly knows that the door will be—must be—on the other side, and that there will be a black-iron wood-burning stove inside. And a plain wooden table and three chairs.

Well, he is wrong about the door. There it is, right in front of them as they approach.
“Go ahead,” the tall one says. “Open it.”
“You open it,” replies Koji.
“What he say?” the tall one asks the hump back.
“He said, ‘you open it.’”
“You pin it?”
“YOU. OPEN. IT,” the hunchback says slowly and fully-volumed into the ear of the tall man.
“You penit.”
“. . . nit . . .”
“OPEN. IT,” he screams.
“We’re supposed to leave you here Koji,” the tall one says. “We’re supposed to watch you go in. You can guess what will happen inside. When it happens, we’re supposed to go back to the car. What do you think about that? What do you think about fucking that?”
Something screeches from above them in a nearby tree. In the distance, the faint wail of a steamship, interrupted by a volcanic cough.

“Do I have a choice?”
“Do you have a choice,” the tall man repeats flatly.
“Then why do you care what I think?”
“Then why do you care.”

Something larger than a bird screeches again from the branches of the close-by tree. A dull orange light now glows from behind the dirty window of the shed. Koji senses the two men have stepped back into the shadows.

The noise again from the trees. Clouds darken the moon in an inky smudge for a few moments and then clear, the light showing what appears to be something hanging from the branch of the tree not far above him. A cage, rusted, enormous, swinging slightly in the breeze. Inside the cage, some object, whether human or not impossible to tell. Beneath his feet Koji feels the black, volcanic sand shifting. The ocean waves now sound as if they are coming from inside the shed.

In the virtual equivalent of a jump cut, Koji is now inside the shed. A wavering flame from a lone candle on the primitive wooden table. Below his feet, beneath the wide-planked pine floorboards, lay the entrance to the tunnels, waiting there for him like open decay. He can feel the slight vibration and the distant hum of the molten moving not far beneath his feet.

And then, once his eyes adjust, he sees it in the corner. The figure of a human being, crouched. Hiding but not hidden. Koji’s heart lifts suddenly. He smiles, forgetting for a moment the men who brought him here and the terror of the cage hanging from the tree outside.

He approaches the figure crouched in the corner. He kneels down and brushes the man’s filthy hair away from his eyes. The stench makes his nose burn.

“Matthisen,” Koji asks, “is that you?”
But he doesn’t need to ask.

Rombes pic (1)Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as contributing editor. He is a professor in Detroit, Michigan.


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