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Mother Howl

Mother Howl

'Mother Howl' by Craig Clevengerby Craig Clevenger

Icarus fell. Insects peened his skin and sparks trailed him cutting through the sky. The ripping wind stretched his face into a quivering skeletal grin and blew the sparks into a fire that claimed both wings and left nothing to break his accelerating fall but the grace of the same god who had just given him the boot. Flames snapped in the air behind him and a ribbon of black smoke billowed gray in his wake, Icarus only seconds away from an incendiary burst of blood vapor and a cloud of smoking feathers.

He remembered when the Scream first cut the Void in two and the two became Everything, every variation of that mother howl, every pitch and frequency of sound and light coming together from every point in the universe at once. Now he was miles ahead of his own deafening shrill and Icarus heard nothing but the peaceful and dark breathless Void for the first time since the darkness was on the face of the deep, before the Scream begat all of creation.

One-hundred eighty-two pounds of smoking flesh and bone, newly incarnate and traveling at Mach six, Icarus hit the ground beneath a rain of shattered high-rise glass and the geyser from a ruptured water main shooting through the asphalt crater beneath him.

My leg. Fuck. My fucking leg.

Someone shouted, Man down.

I guess that’s it. I’m a man, now. Shit. I got to breathe and bleed and remember to put the seat down. I got to use stairs. Goddamned stairs.

His cocoon of quiet had broken with his fall. The drone of passing traffic, the code-three wails ferrying the dying to their destinations. All sounds were at a single volume, be it a blaring siren two blocks away or the gasping spectators circling his splayed inert body. Icarus opened his eyes to the naked sky.

So, that’s blue.

He knew the frequency, a twitch on the signal scale regarded now with tender eyes of blood and water, blind to all but the dullest middleground sliver of light. Four shapes ringed his vision, men silhouetted against the blank whimper of blue.

What do we got here? Sir. Can you hear me? They wore badges and their belts were laden with all manner of hardware and they had no sense of urgency whatsoever. Blink once if you can understand what I’m saying.

Icarus.

Icarus. What’s that?

My name.

Sure thing. Where are your clothes, Icarus?

Clothes are for primates.

So’s identification. You have an ID on you?

Got no pockets, Captain. You guess where I’m holding an ID, you can pull it out yourself.

Icarus gauged their manner through the discord and reckoned these men begrudged their call of duty. They secured him upright, facing a pair of rear windows and took him away. Icarus fixed blue as his first point of reference and proceeded to calibrate what he knew to be with what he saw of the receding world, observing his transit in reverse with the limits of his new eyes. They took him to a place without such windows and kept him there. He clocked the days by his meals and the rotation of lights in the halls. Men in dull green kept ward over the rooms. Another man in grey dragged a mop head over the floors to no visible effect. The humming tubes overhead cast a pale light that leeched the color and shadows from everything until the walls, floors, patients, staff, bathrobes and labcoats had been drained of distinction.

Two days passed and the pain in his leg subsided. The green men ushered him to different room. A brown vinyl couch with yellow foam swelling through the cracks and swaths of silver tape patching the armrests. Brick walls unadorned but for a coat hook and a framed certificate hung from a nail shot into the cinderblock. A man waiting behind a desk stood in greeting. His blue eyes rimmed in red, his necktie loosely knotted below a two-day growth of beard.

You seem to have bounced back rather well, all things considered. The blue-eyed man regarded the new patient before him. The John Doe stood with his feet shoulder-width apart and his hands folded behind him, a full head taller than either of his escorts. He had the broad chest and tapered form of one idealized and abstracted for a statue atop a fountain. Bald as a monk and likewise as stoic and so still as to not breathe. The light cut hard lines across his face and rendered a band of shadow over his eyes. The sight of him assumed a strange and comic reversal, as though the patient were the authority and the orderlies a pair of truants rousted from their back-alley dice and held aloft by their collars, purloined candy and cigarettes shaken from their pockets, then dropped before the headmaster for a caning.

‘All things.’ Icarus stepped onto a brittle sofa cushion that snapped like tree bark beneath his weight. He crouched atop an armrest like a weathered stone gargoyle, curled his toes over the edge and draped his arms between his knees and stared forward, unmoving.

Excuse me? The man dismissed the orderlies with a nod then seated himself in a chair likewise leaking and leprous in its neglect.

What exactly were you considering, Captain?

It’s just an expression, the man said.

All things. You have no idea, Captain.

I suppose not. Though nobody’s ever addressed me as Captain before.

You ever hunt whales? Fly a plane?

The man stared blankly back at Icarus.

Like a jumbo jet, Icarus said. Like one a them what has those little dollhouse bottles of whiskey?

I can’t say that I have.

Then I would venture to say that’s why nobody ever calls you Captain.

What about you?

Nobody ever calls me Captain, either.

No, I mean you. Why do you call me Captain?

Because my daddy beat me and my momma left me and I’m depressed. No more condors or pandas or grey whales or eight tracks. Global warming from all the antioxidants and polyester melting the North Pole. Bringing me down to where I just want to end it all.

The man said nothing, made quick notes on his clipboard.

That was a joke, said Icarus.

Of course.

But you’re going to write it all down, anyways.

I’m obligated.

Not to me, you ain’t.

The man returned the pen to his pocket, set the clipboard on the armrest of his chair and stood.

What do you say we start over, he said.

People been asking that since they could flap their lips. Icarus bared the faintest smile and said,

It’s your show, Captain.

My name is Dr. Finn. He extended his hand and Icarus took it from where he perched. You may call me Walter. I’m a psychiatrist for the State Department of Mental Health.

The System.

‘The System.’ Dr. Finn returned to his seat. We can agree on that.

I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister Dr. Walter Finn. Mind if I call you Captain?

Not at all. And what should I call you?

You know my name.

Actually, I don’t. You’re still what we call a John Doe. Since that name makes me think of wanted criminals or dead bodies, I’d like to know your real name.

My name is Icarus. First thing out of my mouth. Told those men who brought me here so it ought to be on your chart there, someplace.

Icarus, said Finn.

Correct.

Unusual.

Greek.

The legend.

Myth.

Right. The myth. The man who flew too close to the sun and his wings melted.

Yeah. Didn’t heed his father’s warning. Icarus dipped his head and whispered, Should have seen this whole thing coming.

What whole thing?

Long story.

Well sir, that’s why I’m here. May I ask your last name, Icarus?

You may. But I can’t oblige you with an answer.

Can’t? Or don’t want to?

Neither.

You don’t have a last name.

Well, Icarus glanced to the framed diploma. Somebody most definitely earned their sheepskin.

I did, indeed. Know where that name comes from?

Sheepskin?

Yes, said Finn. They used to use sheepskin to make diplomas. But they don’t do that anymore.

They use it for condoms, now. Icarus shrugged. I’m just saying.

Actually no, they don’t use the skin of the sheep, Finn said.

Sheep.

No. I mean, right. Anyway, they’re mostly latex, now. Safer.

Bet the sheep feel otherwise.

That’s not what I meant.

You know a lot about this stuff.

I’m in public health, Mr. Icarus.

Just Icarus.

Icarus. Yes. Why is that?

Greek names were fashionable for a stretch. Just like y’all with your Jennifers and Lisas one year and your Brittanys and Courtneys the next.

I don’t recall Greek names ever being fashionable during my lifetime.

Wasn’t talking about your lifetime.

They were quiet. Finn wrote something and then stared at his clipboard, though to Icarus he didn’t look as though he were reading anything. The doctor took a deep breath.

Where are you from, Icarus?

Like I told you, it’s a long story.

I’ve got time.

Not near enough.

Trust me, Icarus. I have more than enough time.

You don’t know the meaning of the word. Icarus leaned forward. Listen to me, Captain. I’m not here to cause you grief. You’re doing your job and I know you’re doing good for a lot of folks in this place. But me, I’m just passing through. Y’all patched me up after that spill and have shown me considerable hospitality and I will not forget that. But hear me on this. You can set me up in a five-star suite if y’all want. Have me dining on lobster humidor off a virgin’s bare ass.

Thermidor.

Whatever her name is, it don’t matter. I’m just saying, I get my marching orders, Captain, I march.

Orders from whom? When Finn looked from his notes he saw Icarus beaming. Finn nodded in recognition.

I gather that God speaks to you, Icarus. You’ve had a revelation of some sort.

Now, that ain’t polite. Slings and arrows and shit, I hear you. Sarcasm don’t bother me personally. I’m just saying it ain’t polite.

I didn’t mean to ridicule you, Mr. Icarus.

Icarus.

Icarus. I’m sorry if I was flippant.

It don’t rattle my cage at all. Like I said.

All right, then. But you are a missionary or evangelist of some kind.

Nothing of the kind.

Finn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He returned his clipboard to the armrest once more and closed his eyes. When he opened them, their bright blue had dimmed.

Icarus, you are clearly in need of help and I am here to give it. If you don’t want to answer my questions, I will respect that. Just say so. I’ve got more patients than hours in my day. Otherwise, the more direct you are, the more clear you make yourself, the more I can do for you. And believe me I want to do as much as I can. Not just because it’s my job. Do you understand?

Icarus nodded.

Okay then, Icarus, why would you try to kill yourself?

I wouldn’t.

But you did.

I know what I did, Captain. I was there. And what I did was land.

You jumped from a ledge. A canvas awning and a discarded couch broke your fall, which is a kind of luck on par with winning the lottery twice. I’ve read the report, Icarus.

And who wrote that report, Captain?

The officers who responded to the call.

Must be quite a dispatcher, sends calls out before they happen.

I’m not following you.

Whichever badge wrote that report wasn’t even there when the thing he was reporting about happened. Man didn’t even get my name down after he asked me.

Several witnesses saw you jump.

They saw me hit the ground.

Help me with this, Icarus. You hit the ground but you didn’t jump. Were you pushed?

My own free will.

You fell from heaven, I suppose.

In your quaint manner of phrasing, yes.

You’re an angel, Icarus?

I don’t much care for that term.

Angel?

Too much like fairy for my liking. Frilly bathrobes and faggoty harps.

You have a problem with homosexuals, Icarus?

Now why would I care what one of y’all does with his seed? Ain’t none of my business, Captain.

Got my own affairs to attend to.

The Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination.

I believe it does, said Icarus. You agree with that?

Of course not. But I’m asking if you agree with that. Don’t you follow the Bible?

While I’m walking this sodden clump of dirt, I just might have occasion to wipe my ass with a page or two. Otherwise, I got no use for it. Your people wrote that book Captain, not mine. All that bullshit is on you. Me, I didn’t have a set of balls or a place to hang them until I showed up here and I’ll be rid of them when my job is done. I ain’t the least bit interested in what another man does with his Bible or his bishop.

Okay, but enlighten me a little more. You fell to Earth and now you’re a flesh and blood man.

Why not a woman?

I wouldn’t know. It’s a fifty-fifty thing. Best not read too much into it.

Okay. And when you’re done with your mission here on Earth, you’ll fly back to heaven and become an angel again?

Told you not to call me that.

Finn held up both hands, nodded in silent apology.

Captain, me and my crew cooled the earth. Myself, I’ve crumpled suns in my bare fist. Made those black hole things, pockets in space so dark they bend math. And I’m just one of the clean-up guys. A clock puncher.

So, what brings you to our little planet, then? What is your mission?

Don’t know yet. Still waiting to hear.

Just hoping God speaks to you in your prayers.

I don’t pray.

You don’t pray.

Don’t need to, where I come from.

But you’re here, now. How do you know what God is saying?

I just decide what I want to hear and that’s what He says. That’s been working for y’all down here for some time. Figured it was good enough for me.

Dr. Finn waited, picked a stray thread from his trousers.

Another joke, Captain. When the word comes, I won’t have any choice but to hear it. Believe me.

And once I wrap up this gig, I’m done.

You get your wings back.

Laugh all you want.

I’m being serious. Why did you take the assignment?

Why did you take this gig? Icarus spread his arms and gestured to the room and the rest of the hospital beyond the door. You really want to be here with all of these foilheads and 5150s, Captain? You could be driving some fancy car, one of those built by a bunch of guys named Klaus. Making real money, because you’re a doctor. But you’re here. Why is that?

I’ve got my residency, Icarus. I need to log a certain amount of hours. It’s complicated.

I get it. The System. But there are better gigs than playing wrangler to this Sling Blade brigade. Guy in my ward thinks he’s a cosmetics counter salesman. He was pissing on his hands and offering samples to civilians on the street. Shit, dude can’t even think he’s Hitler or Jesus or somebody. Captain, I understand crazy and I understand stupid, but that’s just sad. Don’t tell me you don’t want to be somewhere else.

No question. I’d would love a more, the doctor paused and looked upward as though the right word might be written on the ceiling, Let’s say comfortable position. But it’s not that simple.

You mean it’s complicated.

Bravo.

And by complicated, you mean political.

You’ve got me, Icarus. That’s the sad truth. The System. It’s about who knows who.

Whom.

Right.

And that’s all I’m saying, Captain. I got a shit detail the same way you did. I pissed off the guy above me.

Hold on. All of you non-angels, you beings. All of you, up there in the heavens. You have politics. You fight. I thought you were all perfect.

Ain’t nothing perfect, Captain.

Fair point.

Ain’t nothing imperfect, either. Things just are. As for me and my crew, you got more than one way to do things and more than one voice saying how they should be done, you’re going to have some name calling. Fact of life. And speaking for myself, I don’t put ceremony before my opinions.

Finn checked his watch and searched the ceiling once more.

Icarus, I think we’re finished for now. But I’d like to speak with you again. That sound okay to you?

Suture self. I’ll talk as much as you want while I’m here. But when I get the word, I’m gone.

As long as your word comes when I’ve signed you out.

I know you mean well, Captain, and I mean you no disrespect. You got your people to report to and I got mine. Thing is, someday after your sun’s turned black and the bones of your ancestors and all your future generations have crumbled to dust miles below the miles of ice, I will still be humbly serving at the beck and call of the Scream. When word comes, I am walking out of here.

With or without your signature.

Icarus unfolded from his gargoyle crouch. He stood above the doctor and put his fingers to his brow as though tipping his hat. It’s been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain. Have a pleasant afternoon.


For more short fiction by Craig Clevenger, visit his official site and read 'The Fade'!