Cortez and Mavise

by RW Spryszak


In a room beyond the bridge Cortez watched the spiders. The little ones wept over their mother who was fingering the dust on the sill for a last remaining morsel of dried blood in the chaff. They knew what had to happen. It was to be her last meal before these sorrowful children moved from tears to venom. She knew it too. There was never a question about it. It is the function of generations.

Her fumbling in the lint and soot found her nothing and she paused, quiet, atop what was no more than the useless, dried carcass of some meal from long ago. The children began to move. Positioning. Circling. Once they were all around her they closed in. The dance inevitable. There was no resistance. No struggle. Still eyeing the little ones as they tried to manage the bigness of her old body. They peck and poke, mounting her at every angle until, at last, they tear her apart to a beautiful song and retreat to their individual territories on their universe of the sill. The only world they've ever known. They feast with the lonely greed of thieves. When they finish they are grown and disperse to find their own homes. The sill will have too many memories for them to stay there.

Beyond this window, in the fog, the morning men moved along. The warning of a soft steam whistle penetrating the glass. Cortez moved unwilling legs across the bed and slid himself from under damp covers. The air in the room black with the cold. It isn't the legs that are unwilling, but something inside his chest. Down in his stomach. The grinding bulb of the terrible sameness eating at his nerves. His brain. The lining of his stomach. He ignored the old man staring at him from the darkest corner as he shaved and dressed.

Out the door and down the narrow passage connecting dozens of closed rooms and to the narrow stairway hemmed in by leaning walls. He was lucky to find a room at all, there being so many buildings roofless, broken, and made unfit from the fighting.

The fat man sat at his desk beneath a single stunning light, making an animal spotlight in the perfect dark all around. Everything wet and acrid. An attic unopened for a century filled with unwashed clothes and disintegrating paper. A basement of standing water. And a fat man watching him go from stairway to front door in a brooding, pudgy kind of silence usually saved for the watching of a dim parade.

From that place, the place he was lucky to get, into the street, into a gray light writhing with bodies. But always the rain hitting everything as if with microscopic shells. When the war ended, the rain came. It never stopped since. It came down so long and hard there was grave concern for the lowlands. Some of the voices in the air predicted that half the island would be under the lip of the North Sea soon if the rain didn't stop. There were already rumors of mudslides. To this point, as far as Cortez was concerned, these were other people's problems. They were no concern of his. Let them move to the city if their life was so hard. What are they doing living in such an obviously dangerous place anyway?

He dodged people moving along in all directions, avoiding contact at all cost. Slow and quiet, but constant. Shoulders up, umbrellas here and there, a few wet hats against the rain. He moved just as careful as them, concentrating ahead to his next street. Next corner. And the one after that. Wet people. Wet pavement. Wet buildings, rain weeping down the sides. Finally, the work site. Through the tunnel dug under the bridge he could see from his window and out the other end, crawling over the cinders, unable to straighten up again until he'd reached the iron gateway that stood crooked and blackened from the soot of the blast forges. The distant chimneys, tall and busy at every horizon, blazing. Smoke and hard ash.

There were six small fires in the courtyard, the flames dancing from the pelting rain. The smoke from the pyres rose and combined with the mist overhead as they stomped their feet and blew into cupped hands. Spitting. Unwashed. Unbothered by each other's dreary humor. Hateful commentaries on those not present. Cigarettes. Shoulders pushed up to their ears. All the workman's techniques.

Cortez sized up the separate gatherings, seeing which one would be the easiest to slip into, but found none he cared for. Instead, above the scene, the smoke and rain and low clouds and mist combined to form the unmistakable face of a woman, formed in the tangled vapors. He tried to squint it away and he even shook his head. But the image remained in place like some seabird in a fisherman's fog waiting for heads and tails. Dancing on the wind. Patient. And it stayed there until the last steam whistle blew and the men made their way to the second gate.

He is one of all the other empty men with lampless faces in the line, shuffling along, one man at a time. The dead bodies from the night shift set against the fence, covered in burlap, waiting to be delivered to the authorities once the day shift was all through the narrow gate. Three this time. It was terrible to be up on the cranes at night. A waste of effort, since so little got done in the dark. The rain. The wind. No light. But it was what the engineers demanded. There were timetables.

From the gate to the support building where he kept his helmet and a thin pole with a sharp metal tip on one end like a pointed gray diamond. Then out the other door, ignoring the conversations of the other men and, in fact, avoiding them as best he could. Nodding at those who said his name or innocuously announced that it was morning. Just to keep from being seen as unfriendly. Uninterested. Unengaged. All the while just trying to get through the day as fast as possible without getting involved in the petty squabbles. The cheap criticisms. The red Spanish eye.

His post was beyond the cranes and the tower. Beyond the heavy, black locomotive suspended in the air by cables and hooks from the iron arms of the diesel cranes. Hulking machines that formed an oval just below the raised locomotive they were lifting, their arms soaring into the low clouds. The old tower that stood beside it all was barely visible as it was the same color as the morning haze, tall and fat like a drum made of brick. Only once in a while, depending on the weather, could anyone at street level see the heads of the men atop the structure, looking down through the crenellations.

Once through the support building every man went off to his own work station, each to his assigned position. The engineers set up atop a covered wooden platform across the street from the tower so they could observe and direct the progress. Binoculars. Blueprints. Sheets and notebooks and print-outs if all their calculations. The crane operators climbed up the huge treads to get to their cabins where the controls and levers were. The wire walkers and cable handlers scaled up the mammoth arms, stationing themselves at the joints and weights.

On the flat roof of the tower, inside the ancient battlements, the topside men continued to construct the tangle of girders that would support the heavy arm that will eventually pull the old steam engine onto the tower once the cranes finished their lift. Up there, the men said, the rain felt more like salt hitting them than mere water.

And Cortez, along with four other men each with a similar helmet and “pike,” as they preferred to call it, went to his station as well. Each man to his own drain up and down the street, where they will spend the day making certain that the street doesn't flood by keeping debris off their assigned grates. The drains were fed by the gutters that outlined the street, and if the street was allowed to flood through being careless with the drainage the whole project would be compromised. It was a simple job, stabbing garbage as it came down the gutters and depositing it into bins, but vital if the cranes were to maintain solid footing. Moving them through the streets to the tower had already torn up some of the concrete with their iron treads. If these sections, churned up by the monsters, were allowed to turn to mud or quagmires the entire project could turn into a disaster. The engineers thought of everything, they wanted to believe.

It was easy money. A regular job so long as the rain never stopped — and it hadn't in quite some time. The only problem was the tedium. Poking trash. Turning around. Depositing it into the wire bin behind him. Keeping a lookout down the gutter. Making sure nothing but water fell through into the sewers. It allowed his mind to wander. This was a complication that sometimes turned painful, depending on the thoughts or memory he engaged. Like the bite of a dry hangover. Ideas for things he would never accomplish. Memories he would have rather remained buried. When this happened, the money was not so easy.


(When the fighting raged for so many years between so many factions that it was impossible to tell who was who, he kept out of it. He kept himself hidden. Like most people in the country he never got involved in it one way or another. He never declared for or otherwise allowed himself to be seen favoring any faction. It was all armed gangs, so far as he was concerned. Nothing more than highly organized common, armed, street gangs. Except with uniforms and flags and manifestos. He managed, somehow. Like most everybody else he wanted things to get back to normal. After it went on and on he didn't care who ran the country anymore. He stole when he had to. Robbed people when desperate enough. He picked up what odd jobs could be had here and there. He stayed in shelled-out buildings until the fighting caught up with him again. Those were days you dared not “drop a crumb in a crowd” for your own safety's sake. Everyone watched over their own pile of junk like jealous ravens. A holiday for crows. He didn't do anything worse than what other people trying to survive did in those days.)


He didn't like thinking of those bad old days but, when the work turned boring, it was as if his brain was its own conductor leading him back to it all. Nudging him to recall the times he did things to others just to keep himself alive. He wished he could have lived an honest life. A comfortable life. But those people who didn't do what he did weren't alive now. Wasn't that the important thing?

He didn't know who eventually won. No one did, it seemed. There was peace now. And after all the rancor and arguing, the generated hate and the open killing that resulted from it all, what difference did it end up making anyway? None, so far as he was concerned. He still had to live. Had to eat. Had to have shelter. Stability. And when the Central Government, whoever they were, announced plans to raise old locomotives on a total of seven ancient towers around the country, and said it was looking for willing workers — he jumped at the chance. Who wouldn't have, in his position? As long as it kept raining there'd always be a job for drain men. This would all be steady work for a long while, he figured. And since no one was allowed in or out of the country any longer, an island surrounded by the North Sea as it was, what else was there to do?

For what he did, and for what it was, it was enough. Because the worksite was still an open city street there were enough people to watch and occupy some time. There was always someone hurrying around. The pretty girls were especially welcomed, though he wouldn't be the man to trouble any of them. Especially the ones in uniform, who were rumored to be dangerous if you misbehaved with them. He wasn't the least bit jealous of those better-dressed than him. Society had its grades, after all. The civil war didn't change that, for sure. He ate regularly. He had a place to stay out of the rain.

There were always police nearby if anything went terribly wrong. There were tradesmen. Nurses. Shops here and there. He watched children. He watched the old soldiers, trying to get along. He saw the girl, wet from the rain, too thin, long red hair in squirrely tangles hanging down from her head. Her clothes were soaked because she had no cover or umbrella, and they clung to her like skin itself. Clinging to her though she wasn't much more than skin and bone herself. She saw him watching and crossed the street to take up a place next to him, most quietly, slipping her hand in the crook of his arm.