A Pursuit Race, by Alex M. Pruteanu

The curiosity on the semi-circular horizon vacillated between the shape of a small, vertical line and a semicolon. It must surely be an optical illusion of a simple rock formation or the parasitic cone of the volcano itself, Paasili thought and then he screamed. Nothing up here echoed. Nothing ever replied to his periodic howling requests. It had become a farce, the calling out, but he kept it up almost by habit. It was hope of sorts. The heat rolled in regiments made from broiling iron that advanced into the body like the horns of a feral, saddled bull. The waves of murderous heat formed a weird, giant lens through which everything danced and undulated. Paasili fixed on the shape again. Now it was split into three very short segments and had changed to a horizontal position like an unstable ellipsis shaking with either fear or rage. The curiosity seemed to be moving clockwise toward him rapidly.

It’s impossible to be even afraid, Paasili thought. Nothing lives up here. Nothing has ever lived up here. The black earth that soiled his shoes was sometimes muddy and thick like a hot paste and other times dry and powdery, depending on which side of the circumferential crater he found himself. He checked the shape again. It was most definitely in motion, coming around like an opponent in a cycling pursuit race.

A shiv would be helpful to have now, Paasili thought and touched all around his waist feeling even inside at the gusset to confirm he wasn’t carrying anything that could be fashioned into a weapon to defend himself. In the worst case, he thought, I’ll feign nervousness and push him into the throat of the fiery mountain. But why did he think the curiosity was a man? It could be a dog or a parched hyena or a forgotten sister hurrying to bring cheese and water. It could be anything—from nothing could be created everything—a semicolon, an ellipsis. God created everything from nothing.

Even a semicolon! Paasili shouted but did not await an echo. He walked faster, away from the pursuing entity but losing ground. How helpful a shiv could have been, still.

For as long as he could remember, Paasili had lived on the crater of the volcano. He had no memory of a childhood. For as long as he was aware, he walked the rim of the fiery mountain. Continuously. Perpetually. Years ago, he would pinch various parts of his underarm throughout the day or cut into his thigh with cooled but sharp volcanic rocks in order to violently awaken himself from what he thought was a Sisyphusian dream. But all that rendered was a series of wounds and scratches that would take an unusually long time to heal. Because of the heat, blood couldn’t coagulate and form a proper crust. That’s what he conjured as an explanation.

He had no idea when he was born or by whom. In the time spent on the volcano, which now seemed neither long nor short, Paasili formed certain inflexible thoughts about his own character: he fancied himself a chivalrous romantic and a lover of all animals. He was sure were he ever to meet either a woman or, say, a defenseless hare in search of fresh clover on the unfortunate scorched earth of the crater, he would offer everything that a chivalrous, romantic man—a lover of all animals—would be expected to provide. Though he didn’t truly know what that would be. Nor was he sure if he would be able recognize a hare.

Another look askance at the pursuing curiosity filled Paasili with a strange melancholy for not ever having had anything against which to measure his chivalry, courage, or kindness. He was an untried, incomplete man. He wasn’t sure he would ever die, and that made him well up with further anger at the futility of his condition and situation. He decided he would use the curiosity, soon to catch up to his hurried pace, as a scapegoat for his discontent and failures. Yes, he would feign innocence and nervousness when confronted, and simply shove it down the main vent into the magma chamber, no matter what it was or what it wanted.

From the cloud of toxic steam into which Paasili was about to enter (hoping to hide from the ever-closing curiosity in order that he may ambush it and crush its head with a rock), a long, sinewy shape dislodged and halted to ascertain the situation before him. Paasili had never encountered a living being on the rim of the crater before, and upon seeing this emaciated lad he urinated a little stream down the leg of his pants but from the happiness of curiosity and expected interaction not fear. Fear was expelled the moment Paasili decided to murder whatever it was that was coming for him. The man was a stretched shadow with peculiar, nonlinear burns on his face, especially below the jaw and down his neck. The burns had healed as best the flesh could offer, but the disfigurement provided the man with a menacing look even when not engaged in conflict and, in fact, at ease or relaxing as he seemed to be now.

What is the weather like up ahead, the man asked Paasili. What do you mean weather, Paasili answered. No one has ever asked such a question. No one has ever lived up here, in fact; who are you? The man, despite his contorted face, smiled and excused himself for forgetting his manners. His scarred physiognomy contorted grotesquely from the laborious smile (the cheek grossly invaded the space usually occupied by his left eye and covered it) yet Paasili felt at ease. The man introduced himself as a scout of Prussian descent. A scout for what, Paasili asked. For the fleeing party of refugees coming soon behind me, said the man. I don’t understand, Paasili said. No one has ever lived here. No one has ever existed. We are war refugees, the scout said. And historical precedence is none of my concern. I cannot do anything about that. But please excuse my direct manner, the scout said. I don’t have very much time and I’m under pressure to lead and report details of the environment to the war refugees commanding unit. What war, Paasili asked. The war that first started as a game being played with markers and mathematical calculations on an innocent board but then slowly dispersed onto the continents, the scout said. Preposterous, that could be any war, Paasili said.

The scout agreed and laughed; when he shook from chuckling he steadied himself on Paasili’s shoulder. Paasili noticed that the man’s hands were soft and quite smooth—the opposite of his face—and they smelled like black tobacco and gunpowder. The scout said that Prussians made the most efficient soldiers in the war but also the most perspicacious scouts, and that the history books and the world may have been quite aware of the former but had absolutely no idea of the latter. That is why he was suited to conduct the exploration ahead of the convoy of refugees. Are the scars on your face from battle, Paasili asked. The scout said no. I was born with them just as anyone is born with two arms or two ears. The scout said it didn’t bother him that Paasili studied his burns like a map. You may have very well made a competent general, the man said and saluted. Paasili raised his arm and tried to mimic the gesture but could not. He stood with a fist in the air and felt self-conscious and then he also felt like he was being mocked.

What about the weather up ahead, said the scout. It is clear but noxious, Paasili answered. But I suppose you would be used to that by now. Yes, everything is clear but noxious, the scout laughed again but this time did not need the shoulder to steady himself. He was perfectly stable. If you think that, he said and looked at Paasili with one grey eye, wait until you enter the cloud of toxic steam you’re headed for. It will make the inside of your throat close in agony. No one can get used to that. Not even some of us who’ve been gassed. Paasili stood there with his arm raised awkwardly, still not understanding why he couldn’t return the scout’s salute. His brain wasn’t sending the signal. He wasn’t worried about the fumes. He had gone through them several hundred times before. They were banded together like quilts and hung everywhere. Are you a Prussian, the scout said. I don’t know, Paasili answered. Then more than likely you are. What does that mean, thought Paasili. That doesn’t make any sense. This burned lad was certainly the strangest fellow with the most peculiar mannerisms. Now mind your way, as very soon you’ll be encountering the convoy, said the scout. Even though it’s quite a large party, don’t let that intimidate you. Mind your way and let them pass. They will be rushing through with great impunity.

Sidetracked by the details of the abnormal event that had just transpired and the conversation, Paasili forgot about the curiosity in pursuit and as the scout took leave and tended to his duties, Paasili neglected to inform him or warn about the inevitable encounter he was about to have with a semi-colon or ellipsis that was following. In addition, he thought about the very certainty of encountering this same scout and the party of refugees on the move at one point again in the future, since the crater, as any crater, was circumferential. Again and again and again and again they would meet. Paasili became amused at the possibility of re-living the same conversation with the scarred man in perpetuity. It could be comical if the same line of discussion would be repeated word for word. The feeling of giddiness that overcame Paasili as he thought of all the available permutations for his future encounters with the man erased his plans of violence perpetrated upon the approaching creature. He was in an uncomparable better mood than before. And how long had it been since he’d checked on that strange curiosity? He looked but did not step into the cloud of steam, expecting the convoy of war refugees to emerge at any point now.

They came with the roar of a long night train hauling coal and sand and wounded prisoners. It was a formidable apparition, first emerging from the toxic fog like a victorious but bleeding snake. The line of sleighs pulled by odd, almost miniature horses slid easily on cutter runners that slashed the volcanic soil as if it were freshly fallen, powdery snow. Piled stories high upon the vehicles were objects that seemed burned or irradiated by modern weapons. An entire village was being transported onto these odd sleds. Homes and animal coups and barns and outdoor kitchens were balanced expertly, secured with ropes that passed in loops several times from the tops of the structures to the bottoms of the toboggans. Streets and pebbled alleyways had been nestled into the narrow spaces and fissures created by the gargantuan puzzle of material being transported. They stuck out like lances left behind by fallen knights. Rectangular fields of wheat and corn were geometrically arranged to minimize drag on the vehicles, while the drivers whistled, spat, and swung the whips upon the horses’ wet backs, pushing them into a froth-induced haze.

Despite the haste of the convoy, Paasili spotted the charred bodies of those who had fallen as collateral in whatever war they were escaping. There were naked peasants with burned, flappy skin or missing limbs wedged into every available space at the bottom of each passing sleigh. Everything had been taken, it seemed. No spoils were left for the victors. There were women and infants charred beyond recognition, their faces shrunken and reduced to contorted figs. Some had been scalped.

Paasili tried to imagine what was there left in place of where the village had been: scarred earth, infertile, a massive hole filled with boiling mud and ash, hills like white elephants with gaping, tuskless mouths where defensive positions for machine guns had been dug and abandoned. The victors would come upon nothing that could sustain life. What had they gained after all? What type of territory?

Suddenly from the back of the last sleigh, several objects tumbled out toward Paasili. They looked like big wooden pieces of a brown and red puzzle and as the convoy sped away, Paasili walked toward the strewn material soiled by the viscous mush on the crater.

They were icons—religious scenes painted by hand directly onto thick planks of timber and encased in plywood frames held together at the corners by minuscule nails, buttressed on the inside with rolled-up pages of newspaper. There were painted images of saints with what Paasili identified as some type of golden coronas encircling their heads in a rudimentary, two-dimensional style reminiscent of children’s drawings. Paasili laughed at the badly executed, gold circles, which were probably meant to be crowns or halos floating above the heads. Each saint was depicted with his hands clasped together in a solemn, trance-like state of repose. In one such representation, Jesus himself was being christened with water by John the Baptist. The scene was comical. John the Baptist’s hand, presumably making a gesture of blessing, seemed to be shading Christ from the glare of an unseen sun, providing an amusing visor made of flesh, while with the other he was pouring water from a jug with a long neck like a swan’s.

Ridiculous symbols, but something must be done with them, Paasili thought. Some type of respectful entombment must be allowed them. There were no materials to construct a mausoleum or a sepulcher for the icons, so Paasili took to digging with his hands a shallow hole into the sticky, hot mud in order that he could bury the painted wood. But as quickly as he would excavate the material, just as expeditiously the hole would fill itself back up from the bottom. Paasili found this odd, this strange regeneration of the earth, this adamant refusal to receive the icons in a proper way. He worked twice as hard and fast now, digging with both hands joined at the fingers like a dipper shovel on an excavating machine. The work was futile. It yielded nothing but burned flesh and dirty fingernails.

Paasili stood and looked behind at the approaching entity. It was neither a punctuation mark now nor an organism filled with life. The wooden religious objects strewn about angered him. They derailed him. He spat into the steaming soil and picked up the material with disgust. And then, with one swift, violent motion, he heaved the pile of painted wood down the throat of the volcano, into the magma chamber.

And then he turned and faced the approaching entity, now showing its intent clearly. Paasili suddenly became filled with lucidity and purpose. He pointed to the earth all about him.

What kind of place is this, he yelled at the oncoming force. What kind of a cursed place is this that you can’t even bury the dead.

Alex is author of novella Short Lean Cuts, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  He is also author ofGears, a collection of stories from Independent Talent Group also available at the aforementioned retailers. He has published fiction in NY Arts Magazine, Guernica Magazine, [PANK], Specter Literary Magazine, and many others. He lives with his family and works out of Raleigh, NC, USA.

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