CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
But Max didn’t sail back through a day and a night. He didn’t return across a tumbling sea. His dinner wasn’t still warm. None of that is true.
There are places hidden in the seams of the world. In the lacuna between “I love you” and “Please leave.” In the breath between the whiskey and the rage. No one had cooked a meal in months. Cobwebs gathered in corners, gossamer and evil. The glint of his father’s brass ring in the dying light of October bespoke a form of destitution that the young boy felt in the hollows of his bones. His mother’s nails tapped on dishes and counters, filling the time-holes between cigarettes. Yellow smoke curling. Tap tap tap. Countdown to detonation.
She called him wild thing. But of all the breathing things in that domestic experiment he was the least wild. Hiding in closets, concealed among fanciful garments his parents would never again wear, the mothball-fumes stinging his tender flesh. Kneeling on the cold and fissured concrete of their front yard and imagining the lives of ants as they descended into their dark, unknowable canyons. Blind, stupid lives unstained by fear. He sometimes felt as if his heart were a colander straining heavy black cream. The wolf suit? Among monsters one becomes a monster, or perishes.
You might find a seam. You might slip inside its lush turquoise interior. But a return ticket? The rocky shores of the fourth world receive but do not deliver.
His little boat awash on the waves in the center of the Nothing, and then suddenly the island materializing from silver smoke and sea foam. The beach rising up not from a distance but all at once. On its coarse pink sand they waited. Flashing their terrible claws. Gnashing their terrible teeth. Rolling their terrible eyes. But wild in name only, the boy could see that plainly enough.
Justice is the advantage of the stronger.
We’ll eat you up, they said. But Max felt a power coursing through his scabrous veins. He had known things far wilder and his terrible history poured from his eyes and entranced this motley grotesquery. They bowed and trembled, scales and talons rattling. The boy-king led them through the island’s tropical interior, howling beneath a canopy of towering catalpas strewn with darkly tattooed pythons and spiders the size of human heads.
It took time to feel the wolf-suit constricting. It was the Time of the Wild Rumpus, and he and his acolytes feasted on the steaming innards of lower beasts, opossum and capybara and hollow-eyed sloths. He would thrust his face into the still-steaming carcasses and scream insanely into the razor-sharp scythe of a never-changing moon.
But they, too, had once been children. Each had worn a suit. A suit of fur, or of feathers. A mask of vulpine teeth. A bull-horned helmet that slashed the air. Each had once been a king or a queen or a dark prince of the Wild Things. It was an island of lost children become found. The wolf-suit grew tighter and the rumpus raged on and before long he had made a truth-teller of his brittle-skinned mother, whose voice he could sometimes still hear, in the dark, in the night, resonating in the bone-hollows of his little-boy frame. Please don’t go. We love you so. And he would dream of warm bread steaming from the oven, and of checkered flags and cotton sheets.
He would not turn. This is a story of exception, as are all stories worth telling. His mother’s hands still fluttered like ivory birds in the deep caverns of his being. Every memory of his father’s hot, dry palms was struck through by a flash of her smoky embrace. A weakness throbbed inside his terrible chest. He began to imagine a recursion not only to his bedroom in the dark interior of that wretched domicile held up by adjacent row houses at the outskirts of a gray city, but also to his own deepest past, to a time before his father had begun to stink of rust and anger, a time before the cigarettes had marked out the dissipation of his mother’s love.
One early morning while his followers belched the off-gases of their fantastic nightmares out across the moon-drenched bluffs, he reached for the long-forgotten zipper. It was embedded like scar tissue within his hide. He grunted and hopped in the luminous sand, toiling to rip the mask from his face He was horrified by the length of his lupine jaws. He opened his mouth to speak but could feel a howl rising from the pit of his stomach and he clapped his jaws shut with his own terrible claws. The Wild Things slept on. He understood that soon the next child would arrive from across the sea, as they always had. Then it would be too late. He struggled to emerge whole and pink-skinned from the enormous wolf-body. It was like trying to push a ball of putty through a strainer.
He rolled his eyes in a mad pantomime of his bizarre freedom-quest until finally he dropped to his knees and raised his head and howled madly at the pink and opalescent moon.
It had been a year of days and weeks when he left them sleeping in that high clearing and stumbled wildly for the island’s center, its fabled dark and fecund heart. He had been warned that these precincts were replete with horrors that would laugh at any simple Wild Thing. But what choice was there? Soon he would be assimilated, or else devoured for his imposture. (All problems here were devoured, the boy knew that now; consumption was the singular diplomacy of Wild Things.) He developed a ceaseless prayer or mantra: Inside this suit lives a boy named Max. This he chanted inwardly, beneath his hot meat-stained breath, as he began his descent. He traveled by night and rested by day, sipping from cold streams hidden beneath swirling blankets of sulfur-fog and cowering from the blinding white hole of the sun.
The deep interior was a place of phantasmagoric strangeness. He buried his fangs into the throats of jackrabbits that gurgled with laughter even as he siphoned their blood down his black and pitted gullet. He walked erect and plucked baby deer from their hiding places, gripping them in his scimitar-claws as they spoke to him in his father’s raspy voice, told him what they intended to do to that soft pink body of his.
Sometimes he would come across his mother. Sitting in a field of soft emerald ferns or ruby-lit razor-grass, a strange animal on her lap, a raccoon maybe, or a monkey, or on one occasion one of them, an infant Wild Thing with terrible claws scratching at the air. He would approach her, his heart pounding in his skull, and her face would blacken and wither away, a dusty corpse beneath her dress—the same dress she’d worn the night he left. A blue paisley print manufactured in another distant land. Then she was ash and only the animal remained and he devoured it.
The mantra survived as a series of sounds no more meaningful than the grunts he grunted in his sleep, or the howl he thrust toward the full moon as if to shatter it into bright ceramic shards. The interior was changing him, but into what?
One early evening he came across a tree-ringed clearing replete with empty graves. They were like enormous coin-slots in blue-lit crepuscular loam. He stood awkwardly at the lip of one such aperture, teetering on the brink of self-awareness. He sniffed at the air and he howled and then stumbled over the edge. He fell and he fell for a week and a day and when he landed it was with a great thud that shook the clearing. He was again in the graveyard, only now each hole was filled with the flat, white replica of a child. A palely glowing, two-dimensional simulacrum. He could hear each one whisper, Inside this suit lives a boy named Max. He fled from the clearing sobbing, the canopy quivering in his wake and his tears staining the earth silver.
He had been gone now for decades. The time of the Wild Rumpus was long forgotten, though his boat was fixed with eidetic perfection in the thick amber of his dreams.
He wandered for a time through a barren space of fine white sand that seemed to pulsate in waves beneath a pale blue disc that cast only the weakest of shadows. Still, even in that hazy etching he recognized himself as a creature of tragic enormity, beset by pain and hollow longings for things he could no longer contextualize. A brass ring. A silver ashtray. A lamp whose green glass was etched with flowers and that cast supernatural light across a miniature landscape of slick mahogany tables and soft velvet chairs.
He plucked saguaro cacti from the white earth and ate them like breadsticks. He dumped bright hissing lizards into his toothy maw and they dissolved like dust on his tongue. He scratched often at a spot on the back of his neck where a small metallic chit protruded. Sometimes he would pinch it tweezer-like between two talons and pull gently, and a wave of longing would rush through him and the word Mommy would be extruded through his jaws with the pressure of a cannon-shot.
Who knows why it ended? Back on the pink, wave-crashed shoreline the ranks of Wild Things had multiplied. New children arrived through days and weeks across the tumbling sea. Each knew the magic trick and each briefly wore the crown. At night the Wild Things would tell the extant king of the Refuser, the boy who fled without being healed (and before they could eat him up). The monarch would listen, horrified, before declaring another Wild Rumpus and leading his company through the tall moonlit canopy to carouse in bestial indifference.
Max arrived finally at the still center of the island of the Wild Things. It was a place cinctured by black stones arranged in a half-mile ring around a crumbling domicile. Some ancient sea-memory churned in his lupine brain. He sniffed at the air and it stung his snout like mothballs. It was a tiny row house plucked, like a bad tooth, from its idiom. A box of dusty brick and tar shingles. A window on the bottom floor breathed yellow light into the blue fog of dusk. His wild heart beat madly in his wild chest as his callused talons stepped onto cold concrete whose deep fissures suggested a tiny world of dark, unknowable canyons.
To arrive at the lit window he had to pass several half-shattered panes in which he glimpsed a lycanthropic monstrosity of terrible proportions. He dropped lower, crawling now across the concrete to pause unseen beneath the glowing sill. The warm yellow light flowed above him, thick as cream. He lifted his enormous head cautiously into this stream and his tea-saucer eyes adjusted.
A woman with coarse hair and leathery skin sat at a table, tapping her fingernails on the greasy oak veneer. A cigarette in an ashtray tasted the air with its smoky tongue. At the setting to the woman’s right, a bowl of something warm and wonderful breathed its steam into the yellow kitchen. From some adjacent space a half-bearded man wearing a dull brass ring entered. There was spittle collected at the corner of his lips and he began screaming in a voice like burning coals.
The wolf-thing backed away from the window. It cried the last of its human tears and lifted its eyes to a black-hole moon that seemed to suck the life from all that was good on this strange planet. A voice within the wolf hissed and this hissing rattled a small, metallic growth at the top of its enormous spine. Inside this suit lives a boy named . But what was a boy, after all? He pushed his snout to the glass, the taste of nicotine already on his tongue.
David Hollander is the author of the novel L.I.E. His work has been adapted for film and has appeared in various periodicals and anthologies, including McSweeney’s, Agni, Post Road, The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers, Gulf Coast Review, Unsaid, The Collagist, and Best American Fantasy.