I’m a drowner. I see to it that men receive their dues in accordance with His Honour’s command. Eight buckets in each crate and then I wait until the pounding stops—but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself; or, rather, of you.
Yes, I can tell from a league away that you’re either unfamiliar with what I do, which is a surprise, or maybe even disdainful of it, which is even more of a surprise. In either case, you shouldn’t be. You are one of His Honour’s fortunes, after all. An ill-behaved one, at that, or you’d not be here.
But I suppose that’s why we’ve brought you forward today: to learn. Why you’re the only one, though, that I can’t resolve, but I can assure you that more will be along, due enough. There’s never just one. I should think it really very strange if there were only one, and investigate the source of the congestion immediately. Granted, we’ve been slowing lately, but there’s always a half-dozen, at least. Not one. They’ll be here—they’ll just have to miss the lecture.
Which brings me to the point. You may wonder Why all the talk? Why the description? You may ask yourself why I don’t just remove the hood and show you what it is I’ll be talking about. To that I say to you: each to its due time. Now, I have my label, and you yours; and I abide by the rule of label. The time is not yet, you know. I see you’re shaking now; positively quivering all over. I understand that it’s cold in here, and that they don’t exactly give you much in the way of clothing (though they used to), but try to bear it for a while longer. Unless you’re… oh, hey, now, don’t get like that. Come, don’t be afraid, it’s alright, really, and not so bad as all that. I promise you, lad.
First, I know you’re innocent. Oh, you probably have an astonished look on your face, I’d guess, if I could see it. How do I know, you’d probably ask, if you could say it—don’t worry, we’ll be taking the gag before you step in (it’s called a stopper), and the hood as well, for that matter. With half a dozen or more coming in here each day we should, as a nation, go completely under were we not to share: all for bits and pieces like that. Everything for good reason, you know. Each to their time. Oh, there you’ve been set off again; I apologize, truly. I don’t mean any discomfort, to rub any wounds.
Where was I, though? Your innocence, yes. I know you’re innocent because everyone is. The tale is well-worn. It’s why you’ve been fitted with all the equipment, after all. So we don’t hear it again, among other things. But you’re such a skinny fellow, almost a skeleton, really, that I don’t see what harm you’d do unleashed from the harness (do they spare the food now, too?). Don’t try to answer; the other branches aren’t my responsibility, and my body’s laden enough with duties here. I’m no judge, but a metonym. In any event, it’s all about efficiency; there are committees; I’m certain the state knows its business. And I know mine. For everything is very much a business these days—you wouldn’t believe how many laws went unenforced (especially the newer ones) until the agents and the arbiters were incentivized—after all, an institution testifies its worth only through continued relevancy. Policy is beyond me, but I follow commands to their letter, you’ll find.
You’re in the final chamber. That’s what it’s really called: the final chamber—although others have their own colloquial names for it. The mud room. The long room. The wet room. At least they’re all in agreement about one thing: it is a room. And that room is wide and rectangular, with grates along its regular walls. We’re in the farthest side of it now, on the benches, but it moves down like a grand hallway or a promenade; with the vaulted ceilings, too, you’d hardly guess it’s underground but for the drip.
As we start to walk you’ll feel a mounting tilt as the floor begins to move towards the outermost edges (you’re not so giddy as to imagine it)—which is why the crates themselves are shaped irregularly at the bottom: to accommodate this slant and to ensure a tight, flat seal against the top. Twelve and twelve crates, side to side, exactly one meter apart from one another and two from the walls. That’s the pattern. The three small holes at the top are first for the funnels, and later to drag them for transport. The tracks are there for something else. It’s not important that you remember all of the figures so long as you appreciate the grander, indelible organization.
We’ll approach the crates, and one is placed inside—not forced: one can choose to situate himself inside or be pushed in manually; really, it’s up to him—though nearly everyone decides to curl in upon their back with their face straight up, towards where the sky would be. To be honest I hate that, I truly do. I hate the look on pale faces, stamped with wet eyes aghast in the light like wet moons when the hoods come off, that expression like a little guppy retreats just before the lid slides over and snaps in place. They have an unexpected kind of fail-safe, these lids: you see, the mechanism of them ensures that once they lock themselves they can’t be opened by anyone. I don’t mean just the condemned, I mean anyone at all: I can’t open it; no man can, and I mean that. So you see it’s usually best simply to resign after that point (I tell this advice to everyone and to this day it’s never once been followed). But we each follow a course. We have a direction spread before us and we must go, which is why there is a mutual forgiveness here.
The water enters through the three holes, via the three-pronged funnel. They’re massive, metal devices, these funnels, that are actually painful to lift. A chain-operated conveyer does the other lifting, with my guidance. Then eight buckets. Then pounding like a gavel in my head. But really that’s all it takes; eight buckets and bit of time until stillness reigns again. The struts fall aside. And then it all flows back out, winding across the flagstones and back up to the main trough. And then I’m left here and – well I doubt you care about any of that, after all… gosh, I wonder whether I’ve been using the same twelve-times-two-times-eight buckets of water for nine – ten – years…?
Look, I’m sorry for going off like this. But where on earth are the others? You must recognize that I’m not used to such an… intimate audience. I suppose I’m prone to gambol on when there’s no crowd. It’s so much easier to face the whole than the part: the finer details are obscured. You see, it doesn’t happen, this: only one, how queer… I’m sure they’ll be along, though; we can wait…
…once (I’m sorry, did I frighten you?)…
Once I heard the most incredible hissing, like a jet of spray issuing from the sea, a quick and powerful fssst, but as if squeezed only through a fissure, far off, or coming to me through a conch. You should have seen this man: wide and sinewy, with bulbous features as if he were banged from birch-wood with a stone. And he had somehow managed to force his nose through one of the holes like a snorkel! Never before had I seen such a thing, and never since. He was still breathing through it.
So I had to take my finger, of course, and push him a little ways back down. What else was there to do? And these holes are small, really so tiny, as you’ll see, and my index finger couldn’t even fit—and yet his nose, of all goddamn things, could. Why? I often ask that, knowing well there’s no reply. I eventually arrived at the ring finger, by degrees: yes, that one worked. And I just kind of, you know, touched him a bit with the tip of it, with the very pad of my finger, almost a caress, really. I didn’t want to be harsh, didn’t want to admonish him or anything; we both knew he was wrong, there was no point in making it embarrassing for him. And so I just pressed my finger down an inch, barely up to the knuckle, for my joints aren’t as they used to be and that’s all that would fit. And left it there until the pounding stopped.
The third finger of the right hand… Oh? That noise is the squeal of my gloves; I wear gloves now. I had the oil from his skin on my skin; and of all the ironies, oil and water are immiscible. Do you know what that means? Saturate, desiccate, saturate again, and something still stays behind. The amount of water one displaces is due to body size; that man really wet the mortar, for all the good it did him. Do you know what that’s called? Displacement. Take your case, for example: would eight buckets even…? What I mean to say is that not everyone’s the same, though they’re all condemned. You won’t catch anyone else telling you that around here, though—and you wouldn’t have caught me, under normal circumstances. For even to this day, fresh after the rain, if I stroke the knot of a tree, or if a dog brushes its snout against my palm… but it’s just the arm of His Honour, the hand of the Nation. I think we’ll wait for the superintendent in quiet, now.
I’ve decided to tell you something more. It appears that we’re going to be here for a while yet and, to be honest, I find the silence positively unbearable. The echoes from the walls, the noise of your snot beneath the mask (how I wish they let them breathe through the stopper). It’s my duty to deliver the procedure of the final chamber, so I’ll be exhaustive today.
Do you know what happens after the crates have been left alone? (Stay with me. Don’t topple away like that.) You should pay attention to this. It happens after three hours like clockwork – you’ll know why in a moment. That whole wall sinks away like a miracle, and with scant sunbeams filtering from the surface, the waggon drives over the rampway from above. These waggons are completely automated; they manoeuvre themselves in here with metal feelers, clasp the top of the crates, and carry them off. Almost nobody knows this, but they bring them through old tunnels, down to the mires, where the crates are elevated by the cargo beds and their contents slid down the hillside. The crates are returned; but the rest washes away, through the Sandy Seas and well beyond the Borders. And one floats in the Sand Seas, it’s said. It’s the only way out without passing through an outpost or a checkpoint; it’s so steep that it’s no way in, though, which is why I suspect there was never any need for sentinels.
Forty minutes behind schedule. Where is the superintendent? He’s absolutely never late. There’s something amiss, and we’ll have to get started. Stand up.
About Kane: Originally from California, Kane Klemic received a Master’s of English from the University of Victoria in 2011 and is currently pursuing a dual Master’s of Library and Archival Studies at the University of British Columbia. Really, he’s just buying time as he works on his first novel, The Castlerat. As of 2013, he shares a home in Vancouver with his wife, his daughter, and a bird.