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Fahrenheit 451, Page 2

Ray Bradbury

  An instant before his foot hit the object on the floor he knew he would hit such an object. It was not unlike the feeling he had experienced before turning the corner and almost knocking the girl down. His foot, sending vibrations ahead, received back echoes of the small barrier across its path even as the foot swung. His foot kicked. The object gave a dull clink and slid off in darkness.

  He stood very straight and listened to the person on the dark bed in the completely featureless night. The breath coming out the nostrils was so faint it stirred only the furthest fringes of life, a small leaf, a black feather, a single fiber of hair.

  He still did not want outside light. He pulled out his igniter, felt the salamander etched on its silver disc, gave it a flick. . . .

  Two moonstones looked up at him in the light of his small hand-held fire; two pale moonstones buried in a creek of clear water over which the life of the world ran, not touching them.


  Her face was like a snow-covered island upon which rain might fall, but it felt no rain; over which clouds might pass their moving shadows, but she felt no shadow. There was only the singing of the thimble-wasps in her tamped-shut ears, and her eyes all glass, and breath going in and out, softly, faintly, in and out her nostrils, and her not caring whether it came or went, went or came.

  The object he had sent tumbling with his foot now glinted under the edge of his own bed. The small crystal bottle of sleeping tablets which earlier today had been filled with thirty capsules and which now lay uncapped and empty in the light of the tiny flare.

  As he stood there the sky over the house screamed. There was a tremendous ripping sound as if two giant hands had torn ten thousand miles of black linen down the seam. Montag was cut in half. He felt his chest chopped down and split apart. The jet bombers going over, going over, going over, one two, one two, one two, six of them, nine of them, twelve of them, one and one and one and another and another and another, did all the screaming for him. He opened his own mouth and let their shriek come down and out between his bared teeth. The house shook. The flare went out in his hand. The moonstones vanished. He felt his hand plunge toward the telephone.

  The jets were gone. He felt his lips move, brushing the mouthpiece of the phone. "Emergency Hospital." A terrible whisper.

  He felt that the stars had been pulverized by the sound of the black jets and that in the morning the earth would be covered with their dust like a strange snow. That was his idiot thought as he stood shivering in the dark, and let his lips go on moving and moving.

  They had this machine. They had two machines, really. One of them slid down into your stomach like a black cobra down an echoing well looking for all the old water and the old time gathered there. It drank up the green matter that flowed to the top in a slow boil. Did it drink of the darkness? Did it suck out all the poisons accumulated with the years? It fed in silence with an occasional sound of inner suffocation and blind searching. It had an Eye. The impersonal operator of the machine could, by wearing a special optical helmet, gaze into the soul of the person whom he was pumping out. What did the Eye see? He did not say. He saw but did not see what the Eye saw. The entire operation was not unlike the digging of a trench in one's yard. The woman on the bed was no more than a hard stratum of marble they had reached. Go on, anyway, shove the bore down, slush up the emptiness, if such a thing could be brought out in the throb of the suction snake. The operator stood smoking a cigarette. The other machine was working, too.

  The other machine, operated by an equally impersonal fellow in nonstainable reddish-brown coveralls. This machine pumped all of the blood from the body and replaced it with fresh blood and serum.

  "Got to clean 'em out both ways," said the operator, standing over the silent woman. "No use getting the stomach if you don't clean the blood. Leave that stuff in the blood and the blood hits the brain like a mallet, bang, a couple thousand times and the brain just gives up, just quits."

  "Stop it!" said Montag.

  "I was just sayin'," said the operator.

  "Are you done?" said Montag.

  They shut the machines up tight. "We're done." His anger did not even touch them. They stood with the cigarette smoke curling around their noses and into their eyes without making them blink or squint. "That's fifty bucks."

  "First, why don't you tell me if she'll be all right?"

  "Sure, she'll be okay. We got all the mean stuff right in our suitcase here, it can't get at her now. As I said, you take out the old and put in the new and you're okay."

  "Neither of you is an M.D. Why didn't they send an M.D. from Emergency?"

  "Hell!" The operator's cigarette moved on his lip. "We get these cases nine or ten a night. Got so many, starting a few years ago, we had the special machines built. With the optical lens, of course, that was new; the rest is ancient. You don't need an M.D., case like this; all you need is two handymen, clean up the problem in half an hour. Look"--he started for the door--"we gotta go. Just had another call on the old ear-thimble. Ten blocks from here. Someone else just jumped off the cap of a pillbox. Call if you need us again. Keep her quiet. We got a contrasedative in her. She'll wake up hungry. So long."

  And the men with the cigarettes in their straight-lined mouths, the men with the eyes of puff adders, took up their load of machine and tube, their case of liquid melancholy and the slow dark sludge of nameless stuff, and strolled out the door.

  Montag sank down into a chair and looked at this woman. Her eyes were closed now, gently, and he put out his hand to feel the warmness of breath on his palm.

  "Mildred," he said, at last.

  There are too many of us, he thought. There are billions of us and that's too many. Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and violate you. Strangers come and cut your heart out. Strangers come and take your blood. Good God, who were those men? I never saw them before in my life!

  Half an hour passed.

  The bloodstream in this woman was new and it seemed to have done a new thing to her. Her cheeks were very pink and her lips were very fresh and full of color and they looked soft and relaxed. Someone else's blood there. If only someone else's flesh and brain and memory. If only they could have taken her mind along to the dry cleaner's and emptied the pockets and steamed and cleansed it and reblocked it and brought it back in the morning. If only . . .

  He got up and put back the drapes and opened the windows wide to let the night air in. It was two o'clock in the morning. Was it only an hour ago, Clarisse McClellan in the street, and him coming in, and the dark room and his foot kicking the little crystal bottle? Only an hour, but the word had melted down and sprung up in a new and colorless form.

  Laughter blew across the moon-colored lawn from the house of Clarisse and her father and mother and the uncle who smiled so quietly and so earnestly. Above all, their laughter was relaxed and hearty and not forced in any way, coming from the house that was so brightly lit this late at night while all the other houses were kept to themselves in darkness. Montag heard the voices talking, talking, talking, giving, talking, weaving, reweaving their hypnotic web.

  Montag moved out through the French windows and crossed the lawn, without even thinking of it. He stood outside the talking house in the shadows, thinking he might even tap on their door and whisper, "Let me come in. I won't say anything. I just want to listen. What is it you're saying?"

  But instead he stood there, very cold, his face a mask of ice, listening to a man's voice (the uncle?) moving along at an easy pace: "Well, after all, this is the age of the disposable tissue. Blow your nose on a person, wad them, flush them away, reach for another, blow, wad, flush. Everyone using everyone else's coattails. How are you supposed to root for the home team when you don't even have a program or know the names? For that matter, what color jerseys are they wearing as they trot out on the field?"

  Montag moved back to his own house, left the window wide, checked Mildred, tucked the covers about her carefully, and then lay down with the moonlight on his che
ekbones and on the frowning ridges in his brow, with the moonlight distilled in each eye to form a silver cataract there.

  One drop of rain. Clarisse. Another drop. Mildred. A third. The uncle. A fourth. The fire tonight. One, Clarisse. Two, Mildred. Three, uncle. Four, fire. One, Mildred, two, Clarisse. One, two, three, four, five, Clarisse, Mildred, uncle, fire, sleeping tablets, men, disposable tissue, coattails, blow, wad, flush, Clarisse, Mildred, uncle, fire, tablets, tissues, blow, wad, flush. One, two, three, one, two, three! Rain. The storm. The uncle laughing. Thunder falling downstairs. The whole world pouring down. The fire gushing up in a volcano. All rushing on down around in a spouting roar and rivering stream toward morning.

  "I don't know anything any more." he said, and let a sleep lozenge dissolve on his tongue.

  At nine in the morning, Mildred's bed was empty.

  Montag got up quickly, his heart pumping, and ran down the hall and stopped at the kitchen door.

  Toast popped out of the silver toaster, was seized by a spidery metal hand that drenched it with melted butter.

  Mildred watched the toast delivered to her plate. She had both ears plugged with electronic bees that were humming the hour away. She looked up suddenly, saw him and nodded.

  "You all right?" he asked.

  She was an expert at lip reading from ten years of apprenticeship at Seashell ear-thimbles. She nodded again. She set the toaster clicking away at another piece of bread.

  Montag sat down.

  His wife said, "I don't know why I should be so hungry."


  "I'm hungry."

  "Last night," he began.

  "Didn't sleep well. Feel terrible," she said. "God, I'm hungry. I can't figure it."

  "Last night--" he said again.

  She watched his lips casually. "What about last night?"

  "Don't you remember?"

  "What? Did we have a wild party or something? Feel like I've a hangover. God, I'm hungry. Who was here?"

  "A few people," he said.

  "That's what I thought." She chewed her toast. "Sore stomach, but I'm hungry as all get-out. Hope I didn't do anything foolish at the party."

  "No," he said, quietly.

  The toaster spidered out a piece of buttered bread for him. He held it in his hand, feeling obligated.

  "You don't look so hot yourself," said his wife.

  In the late aftenoon it rained and the entire world was dark gray. He stood in the hall of his house, putting on his badge with the orange salamander burning across it. He stood looking up at the air-conditioning vent in the hall for a long time. His wife in the TV parlor paused long enough from reading her script to glance up. "Hey," she said. "The man's thinking!"

  "Yes," he said. "I wanted to talk to you." He paused. "You took all the pills in your bottle last night."

  "Oh, I wouldn't do that," she said, surprised.

  "The bottle was empty."

  "I wouldn't do a thing like that. Why would I do a thing like that?" she said.

  "Maybe you took two pills and forgot and took two more, and forgot again and took two more, and were so dopey you kept right on until you had thirty or forty of them in you."

  "Heck," she said, "what would I want to go and do a silly thing like that for?"

  "I don't know," he said.

  She was quite obviously waiting for him to go. "I didn't do that," she said. "Never in a billion years."

  "All right if you say so," he said.

  "That's what the lady said." She turned back to her script.

  "What's on this afternoon?" he asked, tiredly.

  She didn't look up from the script again. "Well, this is a play comes on the wall-to-wall circuit in ten minutes.

  "They mailed me my part this morning. I sent in some box tops. They write the script with one part missing. It's a new idea. The homemaker, that's me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, 'What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?' And he looks at me sitting here center stage, see? And I say, I say--" She paused and ran her finger under a line on the script. "'I think that's fine!' And then they go on with the play until he says, 'Do you agree to that, Helen?' and I say, 'I sure do!' Isn't that fun, Guy?"

  He stood in the hall looking at her.

  "It's sure fun," she said.

  "What's the play about?"

  "I just told you. There are these people named Bob and Ruth and Helen."


  "It's really fun. It'll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed. How long you figure before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? It's only two thousand dollars."

  "That's one-third of my yearly pay."

  "It's only two thousand dollars," she replied. "And I should think you'd consider me sometimes. If we had a fourth wall, why it'd be just like this room wasn't ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people's rooms. We could do without a few things."

  "We're already doing without a few things to pay for the third wall. It was put in only two months ago, remember?"

  "Is that all it was?" She sat looking at him for a long moment. "Well, goodbye, dear."

  "Goodbye," he said. He stopped and turned around. "Does it have a happy ending?"

  "I haven't read that far."

  He walked over, read the last page, nodded, folded the script, and handed it back to her. He walked out of the house into the rain.

  The rain was thinning away and the girl was walking in the center of the sidewalk with her head up and the few drops falling on her face. She smiled when she saw Montag.


  He said hello and then said, "What are you up to now?"

  "I'm still crazy. The rain feels good. I love to walk in it."

  "I don't think I'd like that," he said.

  "You might if you tried."

  "I never have."

  She licked her lips. "Rain even tastes good."

  "What do you do, go around trying everything once?" he asked.

  "Sometimes twice." She looked at something in her hand.

  "What've you got there?" he said.

  "I guess it's the last of the dandelions this year. I didn't think I'd find one on the lawn this late. Have you ever heard of rubbing it under your chin? Look." She touched her chin with the flower, laughing.


  "If it rubs off, it means I'm in love. Has it?"

  He could hardly do anything else but look.

  "Well?" she said.

  "You're yellow under there."

  "Fine! Let's try you now."

  "It won't work for me."

  "Here." Before he could move she had put the dandelion under his chin. He drew back and she laughed. "Hold still!" She peered under his chin and frowned.

  "Well?" he said.

  "What a shame," she said. "You're not in love with anyone."

  "Yes, I am!"

  "It doesn't show."

  "I am, very much in love!" He tried to conjure up a face to fit the words, but there was no face. "I am!"

  "Oh, please don't look that way."

  "It's that dandelion," he said. "You've used it all up on yourself. That's why it won't work for me."

  "Of course, that must be it. Oh now I've upset you, I can see I have; I'm sorry, really I am." She touched his elbow.

  "No, no," he said, quickly, "I'm all right."

  "I've got to be going, so say you forgive me, I don't want you angry with me."

  "I'm not angry. Upset, yes."

  "I've got to go see my psychiatrist now. They make me go. I make up things to say. I don't know what he thinks of me. He says I'm a regular onion! I keep him busy peeling away the layers."

  "I'm inclined to believe you need the psychiatrist," said Montag.

  "You don't mean that."

  He took a breath and let it out and at last said, "No, I don't meant that."

p; "The psychiatrist wants to know why I go out and hike around in the forests and watch the birds and collect butterflies. I'll show you my collection some day."


  "They want to know what I do with all my time. I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think. But I won't tell them what. I've got them running. And sometimes, I tell them, I like to put my head back, like this, and let the rain fall in my mouth. It tastes just like wine. Have you ever tried it?"

  "No, I--"

  "You have forgiven me, haven't you?"

  "Yes." He thought about it. "Yes, I have. God knows why. You're peculiar, you're aggravating, yet you're easy to forgive. You say you're seventeen?"

  "Well--next month."

  "How odd. How strange. And my wife thirty and yet you seem so much older at times. I can't get over it."

  "You're peculiar yourself, Mr. Montag. Sometimes I even forget you're a fireman. Now, may I make you angry again?"

  "Go ahead."

  "How did it start? How did you get into it? How did you pick your work and how did you happen to think to take the job you have? You're not like the others. I've seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that. The others would walk off and leave me talking. Or threaten me. No one has time any more for anyone else. You're one of the few who put up with me. That's why I think it's so strange you're a fireman, it just doesn't seem right for you, somehow."

  He felt his body divide itself into a hotness and a coldness, a softness and a hardness, a trembling and a not trembling, the two halves grinding one upon the other.

  "You'd better run on to your appointment," he said.

  And she ran off and left him standing there in the rain. Only after a long time did he move.

  And then, very slowly, as he walked, he tilted his head back in the rain, for just a few moments, and opened his mouth. . . .

  The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and the copper and the steel of the faintly trembling beast. Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber-padded paws.