Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (7 page)

 
          
I
am a literary man, however, and the answer came to me quickly. I had the taxi
stop long enough for me to buy some shoe polish. I began to apply the disguise
to El C6rdoba. I painted him black all over.

 
          
"Listen,"
I said, bending down to whisper into the cage as we drove across
Havana
.
"Nevermore."

 
          
I
repeated it several times to give him the idea. The sound would be new to him,
because, I guessed, Papa would never have quoted a middleweight contender he
had knocked out years ago. There was silence under the shawl while the word was
recorded.

 
          
Then,
at last, it came back to me. "Nevermore," in Papa's old, familiar,
tenor voice, "nevermore," it said.

 
The Burning Man

 

 

 
          
 

 
          
The
rickety Ford came along a road that plowed up dust in yellow plumes which took
an hour to lie back down and move no more in that special slumber that stuns
the world in mid-July. Far away, the lake waited, a cool-blue gem in a
hot-green lake of grass, but it was indeed still far away, and Neva and Doug
were bucketing along in their barrelful of red-hot bolts with lemonade slopping
around in a thermos on the back seat and deviled-ham sandwiches fermenting on
Doug's lap. Both boy and aunt sucked in hot air and talked out even hotter.

 
          
"Fire-eater,"
said
Douglas
. "I'm eating fire. Heck, I can hardly
wait
for that lake!"

 
          
Suddenly,
up ahead, there was a man by the side of the road.

 
          
Shirt
open to reveal his bronzed body to the waist, his hair ripened to wheat color
by July, the man's eyes burned fiery blue in a nest of sun wrinkles. He waved,
dying in the heat, tromped on the brake. Fierce dust clouds rose to make the
man vanish. When the golden dust sifted away his hot yellow eyes glared
balefully, like a cat's, defying the weather and the burning wind.

 
          
He
stared at
Douglas
.

 
          
Douglas
glanced away, nervously.

 
          
For
you could see where the man had come across a field high with yellow grass
baked and burnt by eight weeks of no rain. There was a path where the man had
broken the grass and cleaved a passage to the road. The path went as far as one
could see down to a dry swamp and an empty creek bed with nothing but baked hot
stones in it and fried rock and melting sand.

 
          
"I'll
be damned, you stopped!" cried the man, angrily.

 
          
'
Til
be damned, I did,"
Neva
yelled back. "Where you going?"

 
          
"I'll
think of someplace." The man hopped up like a cat and swung into the
rumble seat. "Get going. It's
after
us!
The sun, I mean, of
coursel
" He pointed straight
up. "
Git
! Or we'll
all
go mad!"

 
          
Neva
stomped on the gas. The car left gravel and
glided on pure white-hot dust, coming down only now and then to careen off a
boulder or lass a stone. They cut the land in half with racket. Above it, the
man shouted:

 
          
"Put
'
er
up to seventy, eighty, hell! why not
ninety!"

 
          
Neva
gave a quick, critical look at the lion, the intruder in the back seat, to see
if she could shut his jaws with a glance. They shut.

 
          
And
that, of course, is how Doug felt about the beast. Not a stranger, no, not
hitchhiker, but intruder. In just two minutes of leaping into the red-hot car,
with his jungle hair and jungle smell, he had managed to
dis
-ingratiate
himself with the climate, the automobile, Doug, and the honorable and
perspiring aunt. Now she hunched over the wheel and nursed the car through
further storms of heat and backlashes of gravel.

 
          
Meanwhile,
the creature in the back, with his great lion ruff of hair and mint-fresh
yellow eyes, licked his lips and looked straight on at Doug
ia
the rearview mirror. He gave a wink. Douglas tried to wink back, but somehow
the lid never came down.

 
          
"You
ever try to figure—" yelled the man.

 
          
"What?"
cried Neva.

 
          
"You
ever try to figure," shouted the man, leaning forward between them "—whether
or not the weather is driving you crazy, or you're crazy
already?"

 
          
It
was a surprise of a question, which suddenly cooled them on this blast-furnace
day.

 
          
"I
don't quite understand—" said Neva.

 
          
"Nor
does anyone!" The man smelled like a lion house. His thin arms hung over
and down between them, nervously tying and untying an invisible string. He
moved as if there were nests of burning hair under each armpit. "Day like
today, all hell breaks loose inside your head. Lucifer was born on a day like
this, in a wilderness like this," said the man. "With just fire and
flame and smoke everywhere," said the man. "And everything so hot you
can't touch it, and people not wanting to be touched," said the man.

 
          
He
gave a nudge to her elbow, a nudge to the boy.

 
          
They
jumped a mile.

 
          
"You
see?" The man smiled. "Day like today, you get to thinking lots of
things." He smiled. "
Ain't
this the summer
when the seventeen-year locusts are supposed to come back like pure holocaust?
Simple but multitudinous plagues?"

 
          
"Don't
know!" Neva drove fast, staring ahead.

 
          
"This
is
the summer. Holocaust just around
the bend. I'm thinking so swift it hurts my eyeballs, cracks my head. I'm
liable to explode in a fireball with just plain disconnected thought. Why—why—why—"

 
          
Neva
swallowed hard. Doug held his breath.

 
          
Quite
suddenly they were terrified. For the man simply idled on with his talk,
looking at the shimmering green fire trees that burned by on both sides,
sniffing the rich hot dust that flailed up around the tin car, his voice
neither high nor low, but steady and calm now in describing his life:

 
          
"Yes,
sir, there's more to the world than people appreciate. If there can be
seventeen-year locusts, why not seventeen-year people? Ever
thought
of that?"

 
          
"Never
did," said someone.

 
          
Probably
me, thought Doug, for his mouth had moved like a mouse.

 
          
"Or
how about twenty-four-year people, or fifty-seven-year people? I mean, we're
all so used to people growing up, marrying, having kids, we never stop to think
maybe there's other ways for people coming into the world, maybe like locusts,
once in a while, who can tell, one hot day, middle of summer!"

 
          
"Who
can tell?" There was the mouse again. Doug's lips trembled.

 
          
"And
who's to say there
ain't
genetic evil in the
world?" asked the man of the sun, glaring right up at it without blinking.

 
          
"What
kind of evil?" asked
Neva.

 
          
"Genetic,
ma'am. In the blood, that is to say. People born evil,
growed
evil, evil, no changes all the way down the line."

 
          
"
Whewl
" said Douglas. "You mean people who start
out mean and stay
at
it?"

 
          
"You
got the sum, boy. Why not? If there are people everyone thinks are angel-fine
from their first sweet breath to their last -pure declaration, why not sheer
orneriness from January first to December, three hundred sixty-five days
later?"

 
          
"I
never thought of that," said the mouse.

 
          
"Think,"
said the man.
"Think."

 
          
They
thought for above five seconds.

 
          
"Now,"
said the man, squinting one eye at the cool lake five miles ahead, his other
eye shut into darkness and ruminating on coal-bins of fact there, "listen.
What if the intense heat, I mean the really hot
hot
heat of a month like this, week like this, day like today, just baked the
Ornery Man right out of the river mud. Been there buried in the mud for
forty-seven years, like a damn larva, waiting to be born. And he shook himself
awake and looked around, full grown, and climbed out of the hot mud into the
world and said, 'I think I'll eat me some summer.'"

 
          
"How's
that again?"

 
          
"Eat
me some summer, boy, summer, ma'am. Just devour it whole. Look at them trees,
ain't
they a whole dinner? Look at that field of wheat,
ain't
that a feast? Them sunflowers by the road, by golly,
there's breakfast. Tarpaper on top that house, there's lunch. And the lake, way
up ahead,
Jehoshaphat
, that's dinner wine, drink it
all!"

 
          
"I'm
thirsty, all right," said Doug.

 
          
"Thirsty,
hell, boy, thirst don't begin to describe the state of a man, come to think
about him, come to talk, who's been waiting in the hot mud thirty years and is
born but to die in one day! Thirst! Ye Gods! Your ignorance is complete."

 
          
"Well,"
said Doug.

 
          
"Well,"
said the man. "Not only thirst but hunger. Hunger. Look around. Not only
eat the trees and then the flowers blazing by the roads but then the white-hot
panting dogs. There's one. There's another! And all the cats in the country.
There's two, just passed three! And then just glutton-happy begin to why, why
not, begin to get around to, let me tell you, how's this strike you, eat
people? I mean—people! Fried, cooked, boiled, and parboiled people.
Sunburnt
beauties of people. Old men, young. Old ladies'
hats and then old ladies under their hats and then young ladies' scarves and
young ladies, and then young boys' swim-trunks, by God, and young boys, elbows,
ankles, ears, toes, and eyebrows! Eyebrows, by God, men, women, boys, ladies,
dogs, fill up the menu, sharpen your teeth, lick your lips, dinner's
on?'

 
          
"Wait!"
someone cried.

 
          
Not
me, thought Doug. I said nothing.

 
          
"Hold
on!" someone yelled.

 
          
It
was Neva.

 
          
He
saw her knee fly up as if by intuition and down as if by finalized gumption.

 
          
Stomp!
went her heel on the floor.

 
          
The
car braked. Neva had the door open, pointing, shouting, pointing, shouting, her
mouth flapping, one hand seized out to grab the man's shirt and rip it.

 
          
"Out!
Get out!"

 
          
"Here,
ma'am?" The man was
astonished.

 
          
"Here,
here, here, out, out, out!"

 
          
"But,
ma'am . . . !"

 
          
"Out,
or you're finished, through!" cried
Neva
, wildly. "I got a load of Bibles in
the back trunk, a pistol with a silver bullet here under the steering wheel. A
box of crucifixes under the seat! A wooden stake taped to the axle, with a
hammer. I got holy water in the carburetor, blessed before it boiled early this
morning at three churches on the way: St. Matthew's Catholic, the Green Town
Baptist, and the Zion City High Episcopal. The steam from that will get you
alone. Following us, one mile behind, and due to arrive in one minute, is the
Revered Bishop Kelly from Chicago. Up at the lake is Father Rooney from
Milwaukee, and Doug, why, Doug here has in his back pocket at this minute one
sprig of
wolfbane
and two chunks of mandrake root.
Out! out! out!"

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