If Djingo Bottom Belfree could have one wish, it would be for the material to be able to live after the body has been decorticated. Because of this, he must always terminate the material before he begins the skin removal process.
This is an act of love.
Before he was aware of the nature of the material, Djingo Bottom Belfree would remove the skin first, then attempt to provide the material with food and shelter after. The material would often live for a few minutes before expiring, but it would be offensive to call those few minutes of life living. His aim is not to hurt the material. Nowhere in the guidebooks does it say that the material must suffer before the skin is appropriated.
Djingo Bottom Belfree’s sole purpose—his only reason for existing—is to complete the tapestry. The work must continue. As long as he is alive, the work is what drives him.
Djingo Bottom Belfree commands a drum decanter with the purpose of converting solids into liquids. Oh, look at that! Oil flows through the heating chamber, releasing hot gases. My goodness, that is gorgeous.
Djingo Bottom Belfree removes the heavy covers of the bitumen barrels, then uses the hydraulically operated arms to place them, inverted, into the apparatus. The combination of hot gases and heat transfer fluid allows the heating of the chamber. This, in turn, heats the barrels. He has taken overflow into account and compensated with sufficient storage space beneath the titanium housing. Waste not, want not.
The interloper struggles against his restraints. “I fear I’ve made a grave mistake.”
Djingo Bottom Belfree has designed and manufactured his very own drum decanter out of titanium and tungsten. His bitumen barrels are made of iron, alloyed with vanadium, to create shock and corrosion resistance.
His work is truly magnificent.
“I suppose there is no reasoning with that which cannot be reasoned with,” the interloper says.
Djingo Bottom Belfree loads another barrel into the decanter. Moonlit reflections of his regal features flash across the surface of the drum. The air is thick with the smell of gas and machine oil. He breathes it in. What a night, what a beauty, what a life.
“Vacuous,” scoffs the interloper. “Mindless.”
The interloper spits. He lays on his back, so the spit goes up in the air and then falls back onto his molded leather vest. He lies upon the armature, restrained at the ankles, waist and wrists. Djingo Bottom Belfree will use the forehead restraint if he has to. He will. He has absolutely no qualms with running the strap around the interloper’s head, but instead of across the forehead, running the leather through his mouth. No qualms.
“I’ve lived a good life, I have.” The interloper clenches his jaw. “I’ve hunted down and slaughtered worse beasts.”
The interloper observes his surroundings. The walls are covered with bloody parchment or what appears to be human skin, stretched taut.
Djingo Bottom Belfree inserts his proboscis into the interloper’s mouth. The force of the impact causes the interloper’s head to come apart. The maxilla is shattered and pushed upwards into the zygomatic bones. The interloper dies immediately.
This is an act of love.
Djingo Bottom Belfree utilizes the roller conveyors to feed and discharge the bitumen barrels—one at a time—onto the drum-weighing platform. The skin has been removed from the interloper’s corpse, which is placed to the side for safekeeping. The decorticated corpse is placed into an empty barrel and then fed in sequence onto the platform. The platform is mounted on compression load cells that weigh the amount of each material, and a tilting device is included to ensure maximum product recovery and removal. The drum is heated and agitated until the interloper’s corpse loses solidity. In addition, a suction lance and swivel arm are inserted into the drum to withdraw any remaining liquid. When the liquified material has been withdrawn from the barrel, Djingo Bottom Belfree removes the lance and cleans it in a rinse tube.
Why do I continue to do this? he wonders. Why am I the one chosen, tethered to the penetralium, fated to complete the skin tapestry? And for whom do I do it for?
For a brief moment, Djingo Bottom Belfree pauses.
For a brief moment, the room is silent except for the insect buzzing of the conveyor belt.
Am I not also worthy of love?
After the winter hibernation period, Djingo Bottom Belfree will wade into the river to collect mollusks. He does this by lowering his body into the water and parting his ribs, spreading his chest open until the skin stretches out and floats on the surface of the water like the pectoral fins of the manta ray.
Year after year, men with swords and spears have come to test their courage. They too, would eventually be decorticated and buried under the baobab tree. To this day, they still come to try their hand, but less than before.
Perhaps in this narrative, I am not the monster he thinks to himself.
To build something is an act of love.
To create, is to become closer to the radiant light. Djingo Bottom Belfree loves his work, so the love is in his work. Although he has been inside of all of the material, he has never felt an intimate connection with any of them. Love is rarely reciprocated. Everything is superficial for him, fleeting. He does not want it to be this way. At times, he has felt like debris, floating in the ocean, the waves of destiny carrying him back and forth on their back so that he never truly makes it anywhere. The ebb and flow of love escapes him. He is always here and there, always has been. This is a life, and yet it is not his own.
Someday, the villagers will come for him. Someday, they will take it from him, this life. Someday, they will commandeer a military frigate, push it through the sand dunes, put it out on the river and track him to his lair. They will all fail. And yet, the possibility is always there.
This is no kind of life.
In the penetralium, Djingo Bottom Belfree applies a coat of rubber cement to both sheets of skin, then presses them together when the epoxy is nearly dry. He uses an overstitch wheel to mark the thread spacing which creates a shallow channel to sink the stitches further into the sheets. Next, a stitching awl is used to pierce through the skins on each of the dots created by the overstitch wheel. The awl is reminiscent of an ice pick. Djingo Bottom Belfree works the diamond-shaped blade at a ninety-degree angle when piercing the skins to ensure that the spacing is consistent on each side. In life, he knows, there is no point in doing anything unless you do it to the best of your ability.
Djingo Bottom Belfree scans the domed ceiling of the penetralium, searching, looking for a bare spot to place the new sheets of flesh. He finds a bald spot amongst the tapestry of skins. Unfurling his torso and extending himself towards the ceiling, he stretches the new sheet across the bare surface and uses a saddle stitch to sew the waxed thread in place.
At some point he will run out of naked space to stretch skin across. The guidebooks indicate that eventually the Durgaa will come for him, but what the books do not say is what will happen if he runs out of empty ceiling before that.
Djingo Bottom Belfree is awakened by flames. Someone, or something, has set fire to his lair. He bursts through the entrance and is blinded by torchlight. This time, the whole village has come for him. He can smell their hate, see the disgust in their red-rimmed eyes. Djingo Bottom Belfree roars, swiping outward with one of his chelipeds, slaughtering the villagers closest to him.
“The legs!” bellows the priestess. “Go for the legs!”
Djingo Bottom Belfree’s legs are pulled out from under him. Barbed chains tighten around his lower half, the metal barbs tear open his chitinous integument. He flails, struggles impotently. Railroad spikes are driven down into his chelipeds and tentacles, pinning him to the ground. The air is filled with the acrid smell of blood. Djingo Bottom Belfree has never smelled his own blood. The metallic scent frightens him; his many eyes roll wildly in his head.
The priestess stares down at him. “We’ve got you now kekere eṣu. There will be no escaping this.”
The strongest men of the village approach with axes and scythes. The moonlight flickers off the steel of their blades.
“Cut out the heart first, then burn it,” the priestess instructs the men. “Next, skin the body. The integument has incredible protective properties.”
The men begin to saw into Djingo Bottom Belfree’s breastplate, pulling back the skin as they go. The larger men help the smaller men up onto his body, who then begin to dig into his chest cavity with spades.
“Quarter and section the rest,” says the priestess. “The meat will fill our storehouses for weeks!”
Something warm drips into Djingo Bottom Belfree’s eyes. He squints against the sting of it. When he opens his eyes, he is no longer restrained by barbed chains, no longer nailed to the ground with spikes. His face is bathed in warm, radiant light. The warm goodness frightens him. At first he resists it, blocking the light with his chelipeds.
“Do not be afraid, child,” says the Durgaa. “There is nothing to fear any longer.”
Is this death? He asks. And what of the skin tapestry? Who will complete the work?
The emptiness is a bottomless well inside of him.
The Durgaa smiles. “The pain you feel now, this pain is sorrow. The sorrow of knowing you will not live to finish the work. This pain is love. Knowing that you must leave the thing you care about most. Without the knowledge of loss, we can never know how much we truly knew love.”
Djingo Bottom Belfree feels the sorrow. He feels the loss.
Perhaps I am not the monster in this narrative? he asks.
“We are all capable of being the monster in someone else’s narrative. This is the nature of the work.”
Am I, too, worthy of love?
“We are all worthy of love, my child. And this love we crave is in the work we leave behind. In the time before the Awakening, the soft-fleshed men built great monuments for their Durgaas, carved from metal ore and chiseled out of mountain ranges. Many men died in the process of these colossal undertakings. Most spent their whole lives working on these monuments, and sometimes generations of men would work the same project, father and son and grandson, all contributing to a construct that none would be able to see finished. The soft-fleshed men knew this. And for that, they felt great sorrow as they worked.
Centuries passed and the soft-fleshed men grew arrogant. Why should we build our monuments out of metal and stone when wood will do just as well? they asked. This way, we would be able to see our great works completed. And so they built their temples out of wood and clay, spreading their superficial monuments across the earth like a rash.
The men enjoyed their monuments in their lifetimes, yes, but then those men died and their sons died and at some point their temples burned down, for they were only wood and clay. And then, there were no men left who remembered these monuments, no men left to tell their stories, and the stories of the men who built them. Legacies, lost forever.
And yet, the monuments of stone and metal—these obelisks and temples withstood the sands of time. Do you understand the meaning of this?”
Djingo Bottom Belfree looks down at his broken body, observes himself. He has been washed in understanding—cleansed with holy light.
So, this is to say that I will live forever? Through the work?
“The work will always continue, and so too, shall you.”
Djingo Bottom Belfree feels a warmth unlike any he has felt before. For the first time, he feels safe. No more running, hiding. It is inside of him. The warm, dry winds of the chinook swirl within.
The Durgaa wraps him in her arms of light. “Be still, child. All will be well.”
— David Simmons lives in Baltimore where he has worked as an optician, rapper, electrical estimator, and drug dealer. His debut novel, Ghosts of East Baltimore is out now via Broken River Books. Some of his work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Another Chicago Magazine, Snarl, 3 Moon Magazine, The Manifest Station, Bridge Eight, Across The Margin, the Washington City Paper and more.