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Cities of the Red Night, Page 2

William S. Burroughs

  “Thank you, no. I never touch it.”

  Relief flooded the priest’s face with a beneficent glow. “Something else then?”

  “I’d love some tea.”

  “Of course. I’ll have the boy make it.”

  The priest came back with a bottle of whiskey, a glass, and a soda siphon. Farnsworth surmised that he kept his whiskey under lock and key somewhere out of the reach of his boys. The priest poured himself a generous four fingers and shot in a dash of soda. He took a long drink and beamed at his guest. Farnsworth decided that the moment was propitious to ask a favor, while the good father was still relieved at not having to share his dwindling supply of whiskey, and before he had overindulged.

  “I want to get through to Ghadis if possible. I suppose it’s hopeless by road, even if I had enough petrol?”

  The priest got a map and spread it out on the table. “Absolutely out of the question. This whole area is flooded. Only possibility is by boat to here … from there it’s forty miles downriver to Ghadis. I could lend you a boat with a boy and outboard, but there’s no petrol here.…”

  “I think I have enough petrol for that, considering it’s all downstream.”

  “You’ll run into logjams—may take hours to cut through … figure how long it could take you at the longest, and then double it … my boy only knows the route as far as here. Now this stretch here is very dangerous … the river narrows quite suddenly, no noise you understand, and no warning … advise you to take the canoe out and carry it down to here … take one extra day, but well worth it at this time of year. Of course you might get through—but if anything goes wrong … the current, you understand … even a strong swimmer…”

  The following day at dawn, Farnsworth’s belongings and the supplies for the trip were loaded into the dugout canoe. The boy, Ali, was a smoky black with sharp features, clearly a mixture of Arab and Negro stock. He was about eighteen, with beautiful teeth and a quick shy smile. The priest waved from the jetty as the boat swung into midstream. Farnsworth sat back lazily, watching the water and the jungle slide past. There was not much sign of life. A few birds and monkeys. Once three alligators wallowing in a mudbank slid into the water, showing their teeth in depraved smiles. Several times logjams had to be cleared with an ax.

  At sundown they made camp on a gravel bank. Farnsworth put water on for tea while Ali walked to the end of the bank and dropped a hook baited with a worm into a deep clear pool. By the time the water was boiling, he was back with an eighteen-inch fish. As Ali cleaned the fish and cut it into sections, Farnsworth washed down his opium pill. He offered one to Ali, who examined it, sniffed at it, smiled, and shook his head.

  “Chinese boy…” He leaned over holding an imaginary opium pipe to a lamp. He drew the smoke in and let his eyes droop. “No get—” He put his hands on his stomach and rocked back and forth.

  By the afternoon of the second day the stream had widened considerably. Towards sundown Farnsworth took an opium pill and dozed off. Suddenly he was wide awake with a start, and he reached for the map. This was the stretch that Father Dupré had warned him about. He turned towards Ali, but Ali knew already. He was steering for shore.

  The silent rush of the current swept the boat broadside, and the rudder wire snapped like a bowstring. The boat twisted out of control, swept towards a logjam. A splintering crash, and Farnsworth was underwater, struggling desperately against the current. He felt a stab of pain as a branch ripped through his coat and along his side.

  He came to on the bank. Ali was pushing water out of his lungs. He sat up breathing heavily and coughing. His coat was in tatters, oozing blood. He felt for the pocket, and looked at his empty hand. The opium was gone. He had sustained a superficial scratch down the left hip and across the buttock. They had salvaged nothing except the short machete that Ali wore in a sheath at his belt, and Farnsworth’s hunting knife.

  Farnsworth drew a map in the sand to approximate their position. He calculated the distance to one of the large tributaries to be about forty miles. Once there, they could fashion a raft and drift downstream to Ghadis, where of course … the words of Father Dupré played back in his mind: “Figure the longest time it could take you and then double it.…”

  Darkness was falling, and they had to stay there for the night, even though he was losing precious travel time. He knew that in seventy-two hours at the outside he would be immobilized for lack of opium. At daybreak they set out heading north. Progress was slow; the undergrowth had to be cut step by step. There were swamps and streams in the way, and from time to time deep gorges that necessitated long detours. The unaccustomed exertion knocked the opium out of his system, and by nightfall he was already feverish and shivering.

  By morning he was barely able to walk, but managed to stagger along for a few miles. The next day he was convulsed by stomach cramps and they barely covered a mile. The third day he could not move. Ali massaged his legs, which were knotted with cramps, and brought him water and fruit. He lay there unable to move for four days and four nights.

  Occasionally he dozed off and woke up screaming from nightmares. These often took the form of attacks by centipedes and scorpions of strange sizes and shapes, moving with great speed, that would suddenly rush at him. Another recurrent nightmare was set in the market of a Near Eastern city. The place was at first unknown to him but more familiar with each step he took, as if some hideous jigsaw of memory were slowly falling into place: the stalls all empty of food and merchandise, the smell of hunger and death, the greenish glow and a strange smoky sun, sulfurous blazing hate in faces that turned to look at him as he passed. Now they were all pointing at him and shouting a word he could not understand.

  On the eighth day he was able to walk again. He was still racked with stomach cramps and diarrhea, but the leg cramps were almost gone. On the tenth day he felt distinctly better and stronger, and was able to eat a fish. On the fourteenth day they reached a sandbank by a wide clear river. This was not the tributary they were looking for, but would certainly lead into it. Ali had saved a piece of carbolic soap in a tin box, and they stripped off their tattered clothes and waded into the cool water. Farnsworth washed off the dirt and sweat and smell of his sickness. Ali was rubbing soap on his back and Farnsworth felt a sudden rush of blood to the crotch. Trying to hide his erection, he waded ashore with his back to Ali, who followed laughing and splashing water to wash the soap off.

  Farnsworth lay down on his shirt and pants and fell into a wordless vacuum, feeling the sun on his back and the faint ache of the healing scratch. He saw Ali sitting naked above him, Ali’s hands massaging his back, moving down to the buttocks. Something was surfacing in his body, drifting up from remote depths of memory, and he saw as if projected on a screen a strange incident from his adolescence. He was in the British Museum at the age of fourteen, standing in front of a glass case. He was alone in the room. In the case was the figure, about two feet long, of a reclining man. The man was naked, the right knee flexed, holding the body a few inches off the ground, the penis exposed. The hands were extended in front of the man palms down, and the face was reptile or animal, something between an alligator and a jaguar.

  The boy was looking at the thighs and buttocks and genitals, breathing through his teeth. He was getting stiff and lubricating, his pants sticking out at the fly. He was squeezing into the figure, a dream tension gathering in his crotch, squeezing and stretching, a strange smell unlike anything he had ever smelled before but familiar as smell itself, a naked man lying by a wide clear river—the twisted figure. Silver spots boiled in front of his eyes and he ejaculated.

  Ali’s hands parted his buttocks, he spit on his rectum—his body opening and the figure entering him in a silent rush, flexing his right knee, stretching his jaw forward into a snout, his head flattening, his brain squeezing out the smell from inside … a hoarse hissing sound was forced from his lips and light popped in his eyes as his body boiled and twisted out scalding spurts.

  * * *
r />   Stage with a jungle backdrop. Frogs croak and birds call from recorder. Farnsworth as an adolescent is lying facedown on sand. Ali is fucking him and he squirms with a slow wallowing movement showing his teeth in a depraved smile. The lights dim for a few seconds. When the lights come up Farnsworth is wearing an alligator suit that leaves his ass bare and Ali is still fucking him. As Ali and Farnsworth slide offstage Farnsworth lifts one webbed finger to the audience while a Marine band plays “Semper Fi.” Offstage splash.


  The scouting party stopped a few hundred yards from the village on the bank of a stream. Yen Lee studied the village through his field glasses while his men sat down and lit cigarettes. The village was built into the side of a mountain. The stream ran through the town, and water had been diverted into pools on a series of cultivated terraces that led up to the monastery. There was no sign of life in the steep winding street or by the pools. The valley was littered with large boulders which would serve as cover if necessary, but he did not expect resistance on a military level. He lowered his glasses, signaling for the men to follow.

  They crossed a stone bridge two at a time, covered by the men behind them. If any defenders were going to open fire, now would be the time and place to do it. Beyond the bridge the street twisted up the mountainside. On both sides there were stone huts, many of them fallen into ruin and obviously deserted. As they moved up the stone street, keeping to the sides and taking cover behind the ruined huts, Yen Lee became increasingly aware of a hideous unknown odor. He motioned the patrol to halt and stood there sniffing.

  Unlike his counterparts in western countries, he had been carefully selected for a high level of intuitive adjustment, and trained accordingly to imagine and explore seemingly fantastic potentials in any situation, while at the same time giving equal consideration to prosaic and practical aspects. He had developed an attitude at once probing and impersonal, remote and alert. He did not know when the training had begun, since in Academy 23 it was carried out in a context of reality. He did not see his teachers, whose instructions were conveyed through a series of real situations.

  He had been born in Hong Kong and had lived there until the age of twelve, so that English was a second language. Then his family had moved to Shanghai. In his early teens he had read the American Beat writers. The volumes had been brought in through Hong Kong and sold under the counter in a bookshop that seemed to enjoy freedom from official interference, although the proprietor was also engaged in currency deals.

  At the age of sixteen he was sent to a military academy, where he received intensive training in the use of weapons. After six months he was summoned to the Colonel’s office and told that he would be leaving the military school and returning to Shanghai. Since he had applied himself to the training and made an excellent showing, he asked the Colonel if this was because his work had not been satisfactory. The Colonel was looking not at him but around him, as if drawing a figure in the air. He indicated obliquely that while a desire to please one’s superiors was laudable, other considerations were in certain cases even more highly emphasized.

  The smell hit him like an invisible wall. He stopped and leaned against a house. It was like rotten metal or metal excrement, he decided. The patrol was still in the ruined outskirts of the village. One man was vomiting violently, his face beaded with sweat. He straightened up and started towards the stream. Yen Lee stopped him: “Don’t drink the water or splash it on your face. The stream runs through the town.”

  Yen Lee sat down and looked once again at the town through his field glasses. There were still no villagers in sight. He put his glasses down and conducted an out-of-body exploration of the village—what westerners call “astral travel.” He was moving up the street now, his gun at the ready. The gun would shoot blasts of energy, and he could feel it tingle in his hands. He kicked open a door.

  One glance told him that interrogation was useless. He would get no information on a verbal level. A man and a woman were in the terminal stages of some disease, their faces eaten to the bone by phosphorescent sores. An older woman was dead. The next hut contained five corpses, all elderly.

  In another hut a youth lay on a pallet, the lower half of his body covered by a blanket. Bright red nipples of flesh about an inch in height, growing in clusters, covered his chest and stomach and sprouted from his face and neck. The growths looked like exotic plants. He noticed that they were oozing a pearly juice that ate into the flesh, leaving luminescent sores. Sensing Yen Lee’s presence the youth turned towards him with a slow idiot smile, arching his body and caressing the flesh clusters with one hand while the other hand slid under the blanket and moved to his crotch. In another hut, Yen Lee glimpsed a scene that he quickly erased from memory.

  Yen Lee advanced towards the monastery. Then he stopped. The gun went heavy and solid in his hands as energy left it. His training had not quite prepared him for the feeling of death that fell in a steady silent rain from the monastery above him. The monastery must contain a deadly force, probably some form of radioactivity, perhaps psychic fission. He surmised further that the illness afflicting the villagers was a radioactive virus strain. He knew that top-secret research in the West was moving in this direction: as early as World War II, England had developed a radioactive virus known as the Doomsday Bug.

  Returning to his body Yen Lee weighed his observations and surmises. What had he glimpsed and hastily looked away from? Tiny creatures like translucent shrimp feeding at the flesh nipples … and something else.… He did not push himself, knowing that a biologic protective reaction was shielding him from knowledge he was unable to assimilate and handle. The monastery probably contained a laboratory and the village had been used as a testing ground. How did the technicians protect themselves from the radiation? Could the laboratory be operated by remote control? Or had the technicians been immunized by gradient exposure? Did the laboratory contain a sophisticated DOR installation?

  He picked up a walkie-talkie. “Pre-Talk calling Dead Line.…”

  “Well?” The Colonel’s voice was cool, edged with abstract impatience. Cadets were expected to use their own initiative on patrol and only call in case of emergency. Yen Lee recounted what he had seen in the village and described the feeling of death that emanated from the monastery. “It’s like a wall. I can’t get through it. Certainly my men can’t.…”

  “Withdraw from the village and make camp. A sanitary squad and a health officer are on the way.”


  Doctor Pierson was a discreet addict who kept himself down to three shots a day, half a grain in each shot—he could always cover for that. Towards the end of an eight-hour shift he tended to be perfunctory, so when he got the call from emergency he hoped it wouldn’t take long or keep him overtime. Of course he could always slip a half-grain under his tongue, but that was wasteful and he liked to be in bed when he took his shot, and feel it hit the back of his neck and move down the backs of his thighs while he blew cigarette smoke towards the ceiling. As he reached for his bag he noticed that he had barked his knuckles. He couldn’t remember where or when—that happens, when you are feeling no pain.

  “It looks like measles, Doctor.”

  The doctor looked at the boy’s face with distaste. He disliked children, adolescents, and animals. The word cute did not exist in his emotional vocabulary. There were red blotches on the boy’s face but they seemed rather large for measles.…

  “Well, get it in here, Nurse, whatever it is … away from the other patients. Not that I care what they catch; it’s just hospital procedure.”

  The boy was wheeled into a cubicle. His fingers cold with reluctance, the doctor folded the sheet down to the boy’s waist and noticed that he was wearing no shorts.

  “Why is he naked?” he snapped at the attendants.

  “He was like that when they picked him up, Doctor.”

  “Well, they might have put something on him.…” He tu
rned back to the attendants. “What are you standing there for? Get out! And you, Nurse, what are you gawking at? Order a bed in isolation.”

  His temper was always evil when he ran over like this, but right after a shot he could be nice in a dead, fishy way. The doctor turned back to the boy on the bed. His duty as a physician was clear—Hippocrates pointing sternly to the sheet. “Well, I suppose I have to look at the little naked beast.” He folded the sheet down to the boy’s knees. The boy had an erection. The genitals and the areas adjacent were bright red like a red bikini.

  The doctor leaped back as he would from a striking snake, but he was too late. A gob of semen hit the back of his hand right on the skinned knuckles. He wiped it off with an exclamation of disgust. He recalled later that he felt a slight tingling sensation which he didn’t notice at the time, being that disgusted with the human body—he wondered why he had chosen the medical profession. And this dirty child was delaying his fix. “You filthy little beast!” he snapped. The boy sniggered. The doctor pulled the sheet up to the boy’s chin.

  He was washing his hands when the nurse came in with a stretcher table and an orderly to take the boy to isolation. The doctor sniffed. “My God, what’s that smell?… I don’t know what this is, Nurse, but it’s rather disgusting. He seems to be in some state of sexual delirium. He also seems to be giving off a horrible odor. Order the broad spectrum … cortisone, of course—it may be an allergic condition red-haired animals are especially liable to—and the usual antibiotics.… If the sexual condition continues, do not hesitate to administer morphine.” The doctor gasped and clasped a handkerchief in front of his mouth and nose. “Get it out of here!” (He always referred to a patient as “the disease.”) “Do you have a typhoid bed in isolation?” he asked.