5.05 / May 2010

Extispicy

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The men of the 110th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division sprinted through the Huertgen Forest, the bowels of Europe.   Bowels is a synonym for entrails.   Later on the 28th would be known as the Bloody Bucket Division, but at the moment they were the Keystone Division, having yet to discover, use or in any way interact with buckets of any sort, much less one filled with blood.   They had abandoned their pursuit of the Nazis, which was okay from a historical perspective, since most historians agree that the battle of Huertgen Forest was a pretty silly endeavor to begin with, though these men, not yet privy to what would later be called history, hadn’t abandoned the idea of chasing Nazis through the forest altogether, but were temporarily sidetracked chasing a rabbit.

It wasn’t an ordinary rabbit, or so the men of the 110th Infantry Regiment would later tell you, those of them that didn’t die.   It was a war after all, and the presence of a cute animal such as a rabbit doesn’t preclude the fact that soldiers die in battle, which would come later, after the rabbit itself had been killed.   For the record, the rabbit was actually killed after the first artillery round was fired, and historians who argue that the slaying of the rabbit is what began the skirmish are misled.   But yes, this was not an ordinary rabbit.   It was an enchanted rabbit, and that’s why the fine men of the 110th Infantry Regiment abandoned their mission to run after it through the dark, ancient woods of Europe.   There was nothing obviously enchanted about the rabbit, it was just something the men felt in their guts, like if indigestion meant something.   Indigestion happens in the digestive system, which is also called a person’s entrails, though usually only if they are dangling out after some sort of severe trauma.   The rabbit had entrails, too.   So the soldiers’ entrails told them there was something special about this rabbit, and there probably was though there’s no way to prove it now.

The soldiers and the rabbit ahead of them neared the Kall River, and the rabbit slowed, not sure whether it could swim, and less sure that drowning might not be a better fate than being captured by the men who followed it with crazed looks in their eyes, the kind of look a person gets when their guts, or entrails, take over the thinking for them.

Now the focus moves to a single soldier, because he is the one involved in all important action.   We’ll call him Jim, because he’s dead now and won’t protest this obvious fabrication of a name.   He was born with a different name, when he popped slimy and gross from the womb, which was a location close to his mother’s entrails.   Corporal Jim, as his fellow soldiers would have called him if that had been his actual rank and name, was near the front of the wave of soldiers as they jumped over the underbrush and dodged around slender black tree trunks, and it was his keen eyes that kept the 110th Infantry Regiment on the trail of the rabbit.

When the rabbit stopped by the river, Jim motioned for the soldiers behind him to stop as well.   The rabbit turned around, having decided the water of the river was too cold, or perhaps it had not yet been twenty minutes since its last meal, and swimming with food still swirling around in the entrails is a recipe for cramping which leads to drowning, but for whatever reason the rabbit stared straight into the eyes of Corporal Jim, and the Corporal felt the enchantment of the situation, and enchantment is a distant thud.

But no, it was not enchantment, but artillery fire, and somebody from the middle of the Regiment yelled incoming! because that’s what they do in war movies.   The soldiers all ran to nearby trees and hugged them like they hoped they’d hug their wives and girlfriends if they ever got out of this godawful forest and back to America.   When you hug someone you love, your stomach flutters, as if butterflies were in your entrails.   In the forest they hugged the trees because the artillery shells would strike the trunks above them sending down great timbers and splinters of wood, and lying flat on the ground was a sure way to get impaled and/or crushed like an insect such as a butterfly under a boot.

Corporal Jim, however, did not hug a tree.   He crouched down on one knee, sighted his rifle at the enchanted rabbit, and fired.   The rabbit practically exploded, or that’s what Jim thought it looked like, which would be the next to the next to the last thought he’d have.   Pride swelled in him for a moment, for he knew that he’d deprived the Nazis of the services of the enchanted rabbit.   And then the artillery shell that the soldiers had heard fired a few seconds before passed through the forest canopy without so much as rustling a leaf, a near impossibility but believable here because the enchanted rabbit was already dead, its entrails splattered into the Kall River where the bloody water emptied into the Roer River which in turn emptied into some other body of water which is too irrelevant to this story to be named.   The artillery shell, clear of the canopy, fell straight into the middle of Corporal Jim’s hunched back, passed out through his stomach, and lodged in the black, fertile soil below the cover of decaying leaves on the floor of the Huertgen Forest.

In his hands, Corporal Jim held his own entrails, and said to himself, this is fucking disgusting.

*         *         *

The teacher held a gear in his hand.   It was shiny like it had never been used and bronze colored, but it was probably made from something that wasn’t bronze.   He was explaining mechanical devices to his third grade class.   Jim sat near the back of the room because he was 37.    He felt awkward surrounded by all the children, but mechanical devices fascinated him, and that’s the price you pay for learning.   A diagram on the blackboard (the board was actually green, but still the old name survived the changing of the colors, like a tree is still a tree when the leaves turn to red and orange in the autumn) illustrated the inner workings of the cotton gin, invented by some guy named Eli back before even the much-older-than-the-rest-of-the-class Jim was born, and being older, he was in a position to question the practicality of learning the inner workings of something so old because it was surely obsolete by now.

The entrails of industry, the teacher said, waving the gear in front of him like he was twirling an invisible lasso to rope invisible cattle.   The entrails of cattle are used to make sausage, which is pretty gross to think about.   From a corrugated cardboard box sitting on his desk next to a clichéd apple, the teacher pulled out a metal device with a crank on the side and a receptacle on top and a horn-shaped protrusion on the other side.   This is a meat grinder, the teacher said.   Does anybody know what a meat grinder does? A girl in the front row answered, it grinds meat.   She was a know-it-all and that’s why she sat in the front row.   Everyone resented her because she was smart and pretty and her parents let her know it so she let the other students know it and they felt the resentment deep in their guts, most of all right before lunch when they were already hungry.

A meat grinder grinds meat into foods like ground beef, said the girl.   Someone shot a spitball at her, but she didn’t notice because it was deflected before impact by her protective shield of self-righteousness, which made the class even more resentful.   In a few years the resentment of the boys would give way to more hormonal reactions and their entrails would churn at just the thought of her, but the girls would resent her even more.

Also sausage, said Jim.   The whole class looked at him, because they didn’t know him and why was this man in the class in the first place and more importantly why was he siding with the girl in the front row with her knowledge and her beauty.   Jim felt good to be called beautiful, though no one had said that he was beautiful out loud, but the students’ diaphragms stopped working momentarily when they looked at him and they lost their breath and the room was very quiet without even motion in the air.   After a moment the students gasped collectively and their lungs pushed down on their entrails.

Who the hell are you? asked the teacher.   Jim realized he had given himself away, and looked for the nearest exit.   The door was too far, so he jumped through the closed window in the back of the classroom.   The glass shattered and fell with Jim the two stories to the playground below.   Jim landed on his back, and with a snap one of his ribs splintered and poked out of his side.   Broken glass showered across him, and when the smart and pretty girl from the front row looked out the window Jim’s once beautiful face looked very much like bloody ground beef.

That’s fucking disgusting, said the pretty, smart girl.

*         *         *

Jim opened the freezer and removed a covered dish containing leftovers.   He was unsure how long ago they were left over from.   Also in the freezer was a fetal pig, though Jim couldn’t remember why he had put it there.   Maybe it was his roommate’s.   The fetal pig said, Dude, that stuff has been in here forever.   Jim nodded.   Even if he hadn’t agreed he would have nodded.   It’s difficult and rather pointless to argue with a frozen fetal pig.

He pried the lid off the container.   It was frozen on, and finally released with a ripping sound.   Inside was some sort of pasta, pink and red and covered with frost.   Jim, having once seen his own entrails, was reminded of them again.   This is what entrails look like, he said to the pig.   He showed the contents of the container to the fetal pig in the freezer, but the pig became sullen.   Not wanting to upset the pig, Jim pulled the container away, and put it in the microwave to defrost the pasta.   Hummmmmm went the microwave.

Sorry about that, said the pig, but you see I haven’t any entrails.   As everyone knows, the liver starts developing before the digestive tract and I don’t even have that yet.   I’m kind of sensitive about it. The pig turned away and stared at the icy wall of the freezer with the two mounds that would have become eyes if he had been allowed to remain in the womb for even just a few more weeks.   The pig thought back fondly on the warmth of the womb and the gurgling sounds of his mother’s entrails processing the slop she gobbled up from the trough.

The microwave dinged, and Jim removed the pasta.   The noodles were limp and the sauce was stuck together in unappetizing clumps, like maybe what blood clots would look like if they were bigger but probably not because one is blood and the other marinara.

If only my digestive epithelium layer had been given time to differentiate, said the frozen fetal pig, and even though Jim wasn’t quite sure what that meant he thought it meant about the same thing that he was thinking so he agreed with a precise nod of his head.   He stirred the pasta as if he were letting it cool before eating, but he was actually in the process of finding it inedible.

This is fucking disgusting, Jim said.

*         *         *

The stomach of the sheep was slit open with a bronze knife, and the entrails spilled out across the stone floor like spaghetti, because this was in Ancient Rome which would later become Italy and that’s where spaghetti comes from.   Jim picked up the liver and held it close to his face pretending to inspect it.   He was a haruspex for the Emperor Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, practicing the art of extispicy, a form of divination that involved the study of the entrails of ritually sacrificed animals.   Jim was too smart to believe such silly superstitions, but hey, a job is a job.

Jim wound the intestines around and around, hand to elbow, like how one might wind a rope if one were in a situation where rope-winding was required, like mountain climbing.   Jim was not climbing mountains.   He was buying time to come up with a believable prophesy.   It was difficult to lie about what the entrails said, given their limited vocabulary.   Good weather, good crops, fertile women.   His employer the emperor looked at him eagerly.   Jim kept winding.

He never knew what to do with the intestines, so he laid them in a coil beside the gutted sheep.   Perhaps he would make Italian Sausage, but he wasn’t sure if that had been invented yet, and he himself wasn’t the inventing type.

Why don’t you just ask me what they mean? asked the dead sheep to the emperor.   After all, the entrails belong to me.   Who better to interpret them than the owner? Jim looked at the intestines and the liver and all the other parts he probably should have learned the names of in third grade biology, and wondered if at this point they actually belonged to the sheep any more or had entered the public domain.   What claim has a dead sheep to the matter that once comprised the living version of the sheep?   He asked this of the emperor.   The emperor agreed that the dead sheep probably had no claim to the entrails, and told the sheep to be silent, which is a phrase only men in positions of great power can get away with using.

But the sheep, being already dead so pretty much beyond the jurisdiction of even an emperor, ignored the command.   This guy here doesn’t even know what he’s talking about, said the sheep about Jim.   He’s making everything up as he goes along.

The emperor looked at Jim and asked him if this were true, and Jim being honest in most ways said Yes, sorry about that.   The emperor looked genuinely sad as he ordered the guards to take Jim away, and later he looked sad seated in the Coliseum as Jim stood lonely in the middle of the arena as the lions were released from their underground cages and even the joyous roar of his people could not cheer this cheerless emperor.   A knot grew in his entrails.   The gutted sheep beside him offered condolences.   You made the right decision, said the sheep, but the emperor did not respond.

Ten lions raced at Jim and he ran from them.   The lions roared and the crowd in the Coliseum roared and everywhere there was roaring.   Jim ran as far as he could, which wasn’t far because soon he came to the pit that the lions had been released from.   He stopped, and looked at the pit, wondering if he could clear it with a jump, but unsure of his jumping ability because really how often do you test something like that.   The lions stopped and watched him.   Jim turned around and looked the closest lion directly in the eyes, and felt something like enchantment stir in his entrails.   The sad emperor, at the prompting of the dead sheep, gave a thumbs-down signal to the head lion, and the lion said okie-dokie.

Jim sank to his knees and felt the world swirling around him, though it wasn’t actually swirling, but it seems like that is a safe assumption of the reaction of a man facing his mortality.   The head lion crouched down one knee, sighted his rifle at Jim, and fired.   Jim’s torso practically exploded.   The crowd became silent at the shot, save for the dead sheep, who proclaimed proudly, In this man’s entrails I see a bright and endless future for the Roman Empire!

The nine lions that had not been anthropomorphized into gun-toting impossibilities now pounced on the body of Jim and ripped the living flesh from his bones, and his entrails were gulped down into their entrails with sick squishing noises.

The emperor turned his head away and covered his eyes with his hand.   That’s fucking disgusting, he said.


5.05 / May 2010

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