Fiction / September 2012 (Issue 18)

The Last Of The Mohicans, The Dream Of Orson Welles And The Coming Of The Martians

by Philip John

The Last of the Mohicans

The Metro goes up like a dream in Bangalore. Night and day, scores of workers labour over it soundlessly but steadily, like hypnotised slaves erecting a Sphinx under orders of a Pharaoh. But the Metro is no Sphinx, no lush ode to myth. If it is an ode at all, it is an ode to the spare prose of the everyman. And what is wrong with that? The Metro will carry people, materials and hopes across M. G. Road. It will link the east end with the centre of the city. But before it does any of that, the Metro will kill David's morning run.

Every morning, David steps out of his house on Richmond Road at 6 a.m. and starts to run. He runs through Residency Road and Brigade Road, the streets still dormant in the blue haze of early morning. Then on M. G. Road, he hits his stride. Crossing the street, he jumps onto the elevated sidewalk and starts to run past trees, park benches and spiralling leaves, until they fuse in his head to create a private, inner geography. Images from treasured books enter his brain. His favourite is that of the Indians in The Last of the Mohicans, running with great purpose and grace, the last survivors of a noble race. Buoyed by this vision, David runs faster. He imagines the trees are speaking to him in urgent whispers, imparting him with ancient wisdom. He imagines the leaves on the ground are organising themselves into a magic carpet that will swing up to catch him if he falls.

Towards the tail-end of this fever sprint, at the intersection of M. G. Road and Marks Street, David leaps off the sidewalk and hits the road, pumping the air with his fists, the sweat on his skin singeing like oil in a frying pan, his body climaxing as though in orgasm. All the heaviness inside him lifts and there is only the clear taste of possibility, the rich tapestry of dreams.

Then he hops back on the sidewalk and collapses onto a bench. As his body cools, he puts on the headphones of his iPod and pushes "play." Into the still expanse of the morning waltzes the beautifully inflected narration of the audiobook he has just purchased. "One morning, Gregor Samsa awoke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant insect."

As he bathes in the pleasant fatigue following the run, David settles back in his seat and resumes the other obsession of his life besides running: his long-running love affair with the liberating inventions of literature.

The Dream of Orson Welles

The Metro climbs into the air. It sucks in the trees, the park benches and the spiralling leaves. Piece by piece, its numberless girders and bridges rise up inevitably. David imagines a concrete tsunami in slow motion. He stops running. There is no choice. How can you run amongst columns and dust? Once the Metro is functional he refuses to get on it, even out of sheer curiosity. One morning, he walks through the litter-strewn road under the Metro. His feet crunch down on handbills, empty cigarette packs and plastic bags thrown by passengers from the train. It is 6.30 a.m. and the cleaning women are picking up trash off the road. He picks up a handbill, smooths out its wrinkles against the ground, fishes out a pencil from his pocket and writes on its back. A furious, glistening script:

Organic hum of tree bark
And confetti of leaves
Betrayed by Time
And other thieves

Then he crushes the paper into a little ball and throws it up into the incoming train. The paper ball whizzes right through a gap between two bars on a window and enters the compartment. He imagines his hapless Haiku breaking down into little pieces in the body of a giant beast, getting pushed along a twisting, slimy intestinal canal. He hangs his head and walks back home.

That night, as he browses the Internet, David finds an audio recording of The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells' classic imagining of a complacent earth coming under attack by Martians. He opens the audio file and a deep, majestic voice fills his ears. The voice crackles with intelligence and authority. Whose voice is this? He spots the brief descriptor under the file title. Recorded in October of 1938, it is a Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast of a radio adaption of the novel by Orson Welles.

...a sudden chill came over me. There was a loud shriek from a woman behind. I half turned, keeping my eyes fixed upon the huge cylindrical object, from which long, white tentacles were now projecting. The tumultuous breathing of its invisible lungs filled the air...

He consumes it in one sitting. When it is over, he unplugs the headphones and walks around in his apartment. He stops at the large, screen window. Far away, he sees the two buildings on M. G. Road that dominate his view. A year earlier, the space between these two buildings would shimmer at night with stars, clouds and the spidery silhouettes of trees. Now he sees only an indistinct mass of grey. It is the Metro's bridge, running along between them.

A second later, a dozen small squares of white light run along the bridge. The tumultuous breathing of its invisible lungs.

David's hair stands on end.

The Coming of the Martians

The following Tuesday morning, David stands at the beginning of M. G. Road, waiting. It is 6.25 a.m. The air is still and cold. He stands directly underneath the Metro bridge, in track pants and a t-shirt. His feet tap the ground in rhythmic intervals. His body is tightly coiled as a spring. He bends down and touches his toes.

Then he hears it. A low, faraway rumble. He stands up straight. All motion and inner thought collapse to form a vacuum. He pricks up his ears. There it is again. He looks at his watch. Yes. Unmistakable. He closes his eyes. It is time.

When he opens his eyes, he sees a slow but steady movement in the distance. High up in the air, something long and cylindrical is proceeding along the bridge. Even from where he is standing on the ground, he can tell it is hurtling through the air. And getting closer by the second. He turns around and faces the other way. The rumbling edges closer.

The tumultuous breathing of its invisible lungs.

A sudden chill floods his brain and body. But it is not fear. It is a familiar exhilaration, let loose by the liberating inventions of literature.

When he knows the train is about a hundred yards behind him, he breaks into a run.

And he doesn't stop. He doesn't stop as the train catches up with him and the rumbling rises to a deafening roar in his ears. He doesn't stop for the alien screech of metal as the engine shifts gears and vomits a hail of sparks down on him from the bridge. He doesn't stop for the dizzying blur formed by its scores of long, white tentacles on either side of him. He doesn't stop to look up at its massive, glistening underbelly. He doesn't even stop for the Martians, the little green men, who bay at him from the windows. He stops at nothing. He ducks to avoid a white fireball that flies out at him. He clenches his fists so tightly his nails are wet with blood. He starts to scream above the loud flap-flap-flap of his clothes buffeting in the wind.

Then his stunned legs rise up from the ground and his whole body meteorically lifts into the air.

As he pulls ahead and leaves his opponent screeching in his wake, David, last of the Mohicans, starts to laugh. His blood pounds in his head like a fist exultantly coming down on a table, his damp hands come together in ecstatic claps that reverberate under the bridge and his triumphant laughter drowns everything around him. It drowns the inarticulate exclamations issuing from people on all sides. It drowns the shriek of a female cyclist who swerves to avoid him. It drowns the wail of a biker policeman's siren. And it drowns the piercing, defeated hiss of the engine as the train grinds to a halt on its tracks.

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