(Video for the ODD? anthology containing “The Fork.”)
Jeffrey Thomas is a prolific writer of science fiction and horror, best known for his stories set in the nightmarish future city called Punktown, such as the novel Deadstock (Solaris Books) and the collection Punktown (Ministry of Whimsy Press), from which a story was reprinted in St. Martin’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #14. His fiction has also been reprinted in Daw’s The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXII, The Year’s Best Fantastic Fiction and Quick Chills II: The Best Horror Fiction from the Specialty Press. He has been a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award (Best First Novel) for Monstrocity, and a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Deadstock.“The Fork,” which features Thomas’s talent in a more surreal mode, first appeared in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Leviathan 3 (2002) and was just reprinted in ODD? Volume 1, available from Cheeky Frawg books. This is its first appearance online. – The Editors
“…are we the dolls themselves,
born but never fed?”
—Anne Sexton, The Falling Dolls
He had no eyelids; his returning vision began at the center and spread out equally to all sides, like his returning consciousness. He lay gazing up at the low ceiling of his compartment, as if it were the sky and he were interpreting the billowing of clouds. Instead, he sought faces and figures in the whorls and knotholes of those splintered, moldering planks of wood. The grain made miniature galaxies and vortexes, like a petrified universe. He couldn’t conceive of the wood that composed his compartment ever having been alive, ever having been trees under a bright and open sky. He had never seen a tree, in fact, but it was like a collective memory etched in the rough grain of his own composition.
Even straining his imagination, he could find no faces in the wood. He was not permitted even imaginary company, so it would seem.
He sat up from the hard boards that formed his bed. Besides this, his only other furniture consisted of a small box positioned in front of a larger box, serving as his chair and table. His furniture was of the same wood that made up the walls, floor, ceiling: scarred, rotting, leeched of even the dingiest color. He had constructed two small windows in his compartment; one directly behind his chair and one on the opposite wall; naked smeared panes held in place by mildewed frames. He stood, and moved to the nearest one, staring out into the gloom. There were two parts of every day. Murky dark and utter dark. The pitch black outside his windows was lightening to an ashy gray, and he could just begin to make out details of the infinite enclosure of the vast outer room.
A sound made him turn, a light tapping or skittering at the opposite window. There was a vague shape beyond the glass, a fluttering darkness that might have been the humped back of a taxidermist’s dusty bird come to life, or the husk of a huge milkweed pod infused with mindless sentience. Its various aspects were suggested to him from the worn hieroglyphics of his collective memory. But as he watched, the quivering black blot withdrew. He knew better than to rush outside to pursue it; he had done so in the past, and encountered nothing. The most he had thought he’d seen, once, was a very large moth with a single wing flying upwards in a jerky blur towards the machinery of the sky.
Moving to the edge of the table, he looked down into his empty bowl. It was part of the sky, having dropped down here; he’d found it in the low scrub of flaked rust. A hemispherical cap that rocked when he touched it because it wasn’t meant to be a bowl, and did not have a flat bottom to rest upon. There was nothing in it. Some stillborn memory indicated to him that he should put something into it, but he could never recall what. He had tried various things, hoping it might connect with him, that he might stumble upon the correct answer. He had placed a handful of rusty screws in there. A half-melted clump of hardened slag. A gray and stinking fragment of flesh, glistening slick with decomposition but still pulsing, its waning electrical and chemical commands wandering in ever slower paths through its cells. All of these things had dropped down from the sky, and been discovered by him half-hidden under the uneven bed of fallen rust outside his compartment.
Beside the bowl lay a fork. He had taken that from outside, as well. It was either a reject, ejected from the mechanisms, or it had simply been fed through the wrong slot somewhere along the line, ending up down here. He had found other forks before, during one period of pitch black had even heard a pelting rain of them, clanging and clattering across the flat roof of his tiny compartment. He had gathered them up, when the gloom lightened, and heaped them in another of the compartments, in case anyone ever came looking for them. If they were defective, rejects, he could not tell; he had never used a fork, as he could summon no recollection of its intended purpose.
This fork had one tine that was slightly bent toward its brother. Was that the problem? He tapped it against the edge of his box table, then swiftly held the vibrating fork to the side of his head. He listened to its brief, humming song. He had once done this again and again, a hundred times successively, hoping that there might be some coded language hidden in the fork’s song, some kind of instruction. Was the fork, then, a device to transmit the voice of the Masters? If so, that voice was beyond his interpretation.
With one slim, stiff finger, he rocked the bowl once more. It seesawed, wobbled, slowly came to be still. He considered rocking the bowl again, as if the sound of its wobbling on the tabletop might contain the message he sought. He decided not to rock it. He went to the door of his compartment, three planks joined together, and creaked it open.
A landscape of wooden boxes of various sizes lay before him, some lying separate and others touching, some piled atop others, some inside of others, all of them compartments much like his own…with the major exception being that none of them were occupied. Some contained items that he had stored or categorized or disposed of himself. Other boxes had been filled by other hands, apparently, long before he had been here…though time was as obscure a concept to him as that of trees. The time he had spent before dwelling down here gaped emptily, like that bowl he didn’t know how to fill.
Between all the compartments, which stretched off into vague duskiness, the floor of this gigantic outer room was covered in something like (strobe-flash images through his mind) deep piles of autumn leaves, dunes of a desert, drifts of snow, ash from a volcanic blast. The carpet was composed of irregular flakes of rust, some as large as his hand and others fine as powder…a mere coating in some places, up to his knees in others. He kept his roof swept clean, so that they didn’t trickle through his ceiling boards, but some roofs were mounded with the fallen particles. Even as he watched, there was a subtle, minute sprinkling of them drifting down from above. The larger flakes tumbled or rocked gently as they floated down, like scales shed from an immense (flash: snake), yes, that was the word, snake. Tilting his head back, shielding his lidless eyes with one hand, he looked upwards.
The light snow of metallic scabs sprinkled down from the machines of the sky. As the grainy air lightened (the source of this very diffuse illumination unknown to him), he was able to make out the general outlines of that high, distant ceiling. Even as he began to do so, he heard a faraway slide and clunk as some massive iron piece slotted into its socket. A faint grinding/rattling, then an echoing click fading away. Silence again. It seldom got very noisy; more like the ghosts, the memories, of sounds. Sometimes he thought that was all they were — more restless memories. But sometimes, especially when it grew pitch dark, he would hear great rumblings up there, and crashes, like (flash: trains) colliding. Like thunder might sound, he thought.
There was only a fine, nearly invisible mist or fog up there now, tendrils unfurling, shredding, reforming. Other times there were fat billowing clouds — either fumes or steam — and he had lain in the scratchy bed of rust gazing up at them. He had never seen faces in those, either.
Occasionally hot slag dripped down from the heavens, whitely incandescent (perhaps it was molten metal, glowing through cracks, seams and vents in the far machinery, that was the source of daylight). Once, when it began to fall, he made the mistake of turning his face up to it. The heavy fluid that spattered his face had blistered it, and when his face cooled his skin cracked and bits flaked away. But it had not hurt him.
When he pressed his palms to his temples, felt the subtle fluttering and twitching inside, sometimes he suspected there was another machine in there, equally as complex as the one that made up the sky, but this machine did not make forks as that one did. This one molded fluid thoughts, solidified them, ground them down, polished them, sent them along conveyors or discarded them if misshapen. This machine had filled endless wooden mail slots with broken bits of seashell, with glass eyes and tea bags, with teeth and clumps of hair and twisted spectacles and all the rest of those things he knew of but had never known.
Sometimes he thought the fluttering in his cracked skull was from a taxidermist’s dusty bird, or a husk of milkweed pod infused with life.
One of the memories he half-divined was of falling from that sky himself, like the forks, the screws, the slag. That was how his hairless head first became cracked, and running his fingertips along those jagged sutures helped him to half-recollect. He had slipped through a chink, slipped between a conveyor track and a walkway, while carrying along a wooden box full of forks. A blur of plummeting, the rush of darkness, forks tumbling all around him, a landing partly broken by the thick carpet of rust. A very long sleep, but at last a small click buried inside and then his head finally lifted. A grinding inside it, as if misaligned gears meshed again in improvised patterns. He stood, looked about him, saw the village of boxes, and began to walk toward them in his hesitant, flickering way. Even now, his jerking movements seemed to suggest that every command his head sent to his body and limbs staggered and skipped a beat before reaching them.
Now, as many times before, he stared up at that sky with a numb longing, caressing the fissures in his smooth head, and dreamed that he might dismantle several of the box-like compartments. Using screws from a pile that filled one of these boxes, he would connect the dismantled planks, building an immense ladder, so as to reach that ceiling. So as to slip through its chinks once again, and return to his labors after this long time that he had been idle. He had a calling. It called to him in a weak, scraping, hissing voice, like the whispers of mechanized angels on high. He had a function, a purpose, a reason to exist. He was a maker of forks.
But the logistics daunted him before he ever started the project. Even if he began his ladder upon the roof of the tallest box, how could he ever build one long enough to reach the sky? He would need to climb arduously back down and up again every time he needed more planks, an immense distance, as he could only hoist with him so many planks at a time. And what if the ladder teetered, fell over while he was at its summit, and he should plummet again? He might not survive such a fall a second time.
He had seldom tried very hard to escape the outer room. It dwarfed and humbled him, made his desires seem minuscule and ridiculous, presumptuous and unrealistic. Instead, he had existed down here cycle after countless cycle, and thought that perhaps one day he would be discovered here and liberated by more capable hands; those of the Masters he had once served. Infrequently, however, his impulses to be freed gathered strength, took on life. As was usually the case, part of him was rising up to smother those impulses. The ladder idea wouldn’t work. Escape did not lie in venturing upward. He very nearly allowed his growing obsession to subside…
Instead, as he had done several times before, he decided to search for his escape down here on the floor of the massive chamber. But in the past, he had only traveled as far as he could go while still being able to return to his compartment before it grew black in the outer room. He tried to never, ever leave his compartment when it was utterly dark outside. There was that perhaps-moth at his panes, on occasion, and he had heard other disturbing things that did not sound like the gnashing of the sky machines. But today he had come upon a new plan.
He had never before been able to journey far enough to reach any of the outer room’s walls. He had only neared one of them close enough to make out its gray surface, misted with distance, before he had to turn back toward the village of boxes.
Yet now he had the idea to bring a box along with him, and he could shelter inside it when the air turned black with night’s rot. A box small enough to tug behind him or push ahead of him, but large enough to contain his curled or seated body. So he commenced his inspection of the boxes, testing their soundness, experimenting with pushing them through the bed of metallic scurf. He preferred the idea of seeing in front of him more clearly, and so began to create a harness that would enable him to pull the box behind him. He found mounds of balled wire in one box, and extricated several strands, twisted them and affixed them in two loops to the outside of the box, using screws to hold them in place. He could then slip his arms through the two loops, so as to drag the box along behind him like a sled.
This work took up most of the lighter part of the cycle, and he decided to rest inside his regular compartment until he could strike out fresh when the light returned.
While lying on his bare cot, staring at the ceiling, he listened to the sounds outside his close walls. A stamp…stamp…stamp, as of a titanic metal hoof stomping on the ceiling far beyond this one. A second or two of scraping at one of his black window panes, then gone. And — perhaps he only imagined this, as his vision closed into a narrower and narrower circle — the feathery sifting of rust tumbling out of the sky and alighting on his roof, like soil upon a (flash: coffin’s) lid.
After a long time of dragging the box behind him (flash of a snail shell), plowing through the rustling fields of corrosion, he decided to rest. The wire hoops were cutting into his shoulders; it didn’t cause him pain, but he was afraid to cause himself a debilitating injury. He flexed his arms, meanwhile standing on his toes as if that might help him see further ahead. Was it? Yes. He could begin to make out the vaguest notion of a looming barrier ahead of him. He was coming upon one of the walls that made up the outer room.
He took a second break later on, and when he finally decided to pitch camp, he could see the wall more clearly than he had on that previous excursion. It was all gray, one apparently solid surface rather than being composed of boards of wood or plates of metal, though it seemed chipped, pocked, even fissured with cracks. Those cracks might yawn like (flash: canyons) when he drew near enough. Might he escape through one of them?
This portable shelter had no windows, but as he rested inside it, clutching his knees to his chest, he heard soft ticking sounds against its exterior, as if stealthy probing fingers were feeling for a way inside. His vision narrowed but never entirely closed up. He was too unnerved by that exploratory sound, and by the feeling of being so far from his village of boxes, the only home he could remember, even though he knew it was not the place he had been intended for. He must be brave. His duties lay elsewhere. He must rediscover his function, must traverse this broad lacuna. He must fill the empty bowl of his skull (cracked like that great wall). Somewhere, there were those that valued and needed him. Those beings who knew how to utilize the beautiful and mysterious metal objects that he had once fashioned out of formless ore. They were his Masters. They would be expecting him back. He must not disappoint them.
Just when it seemed that the wire loops by which he drew his shelter along must slice into his shoulders, saw his very arms from him — and his weakening, overworked legs give out beneath him — he reached the base of the towering gray wall.
The machinery high above him, lost in a heavy layer of steam, chugged and hammered with a regular rhythm. And while no molten metal dripped from it at the moment, it must be a common occurrence here: there was a hill of solidified slag, looking like a hummock made from intertwined worms fossilized in lead, slanting up against the wall like a ramp. Hardened streams of slag marred the wall where they had run down its flank. And there were indeed huge rents and fissures in the wall. They seemed to be concentrated in the area of the slag heap, leading him to conclude that the heat from this fluid metal had caused the wall’s material to split.
The largest of these cracks jagged down to touch the summit of the slag hill. He could see darkness within it. Shrugging off the wire hoops that had dug into his body, he discarded his shelter behind him, the husk of a moth’s chrysalis. He moved to the foot of the slag mound, and began to clamber his way up it…using his hands to find purchase in the gray, convoluted mass.
His long journey had left him fatigued…the climb was slow, and once he lost his hold and slid halfway down the hill again on his belly. But at last the crest of the slag hill was reached, and he straightened up, peering somewhat timidly into the fissure that yawned directly before him now. It was as black as the night cycle in there. Was it night in the world beyond? A warm, humming breeze blew out at him, stirring the frayed edges of his coarsely woven garments.
Steeling himself, his head throbbing with a synchronized echo of that chugging clamor from above, he stepped into the fissure in the wall.
He found himself not passing through the wall, but merely inside of it, where it proved hollow. Dust coated everything like the darkness, but enough faint gray light entered the rift to reveal to him a giant piston sliding greased and nearly soundless, which in turn smoothly rotated a self-oiled crank. And there was an immense grooved belt of segmented metal, which was circulating as a result of the piston’s pumping. This toothed band descended out of the murk above him, sandwiched between the two interior faces of the wall. It then looped and flowed upward again, back into the dissolving gloom.
To his great disappointment, after he had journeyed so far to reach this place, there were no service ladders set into the inner walls. But his gaze returned to consider that looping belt.
Perhaps he could reach the ceiling of machinery after all…that factory in the heavens.
Inching carefully forward, he waited until he thought he could seize onto the moving belt firmly. After several false starts, during which he nearly lost his nerve, he lunged for it, caught it, hugged himself to it, grasping onto two of its blunt teeth. The belt easily bore his slight weight upwards, upwards inside the wall. Looking down, he saw the pale light from the outer room fade away until he was entirely swallowed in blackness, as if he had fallen to sleep. Or ascended into sleep.
Upwards, upwards, and the air grew warmer, warmer, hot, hotter. He heard the increasing hiss of the steam somewhere on the other side of the wall. Higher, higher, the belt soaring with mindless confidence. He passed through a cloud of steam vented from somewhere. He passed through a cloud of loud gnashing sound. Tilting his head up, he saw that at last he was approaching a gray mirage of light, that became more real, more prevalent the higher he rose.
There was a ledge near the top of the shaft, where the belt ran around a great turning wheel. He would have to leap off the belt and onto that narrow walkway. If he missed, he would fall. If he hesitated, the belt would sweep him downward again, if it didn’t tear him to shreds at its apex before that.
He loosened his grip on the notched belt, stood on one of its teeth, leaned far out and prepared to fling himself into space. A bit higher…and now he jumped, an infinite abyss roaring with its emptiness beneath him, but then his feet alighted on the ledge, and he clawed his fingers across the wall desperately until they dug into pocks and found purchase. The belt continued rotating behind him, the teeth he had gripped slipping back down into the pit. Now that he was secure, he looked around him, and then up at the ceiling where the gray light filtered through gaps in a tight and complex weave of cobwebbed struts and girders, pipes and conduits, all of it caked thick with rust.
One pipeline ran vertically up past the ledge, joining the mass above him. Plastered to the wall, he shifted gingerly toward it. He took hold of the pipe, jagged with its corroded skin, and began to hoist himself up along it. His efforts caused scabs of rust to sprinkle down to join the layer that covered the floor even inside the wall.
After all the dreaming, the yearning, the hopeless hope, at last he touched the metal sky.
It was a struggle, but he was able to pull himself up into the nest of pipes and supports, and squeeze his body between several strands in this metallic tapestry. He was through…
He entered the gray light as if it were a sea he had been plunged into, a sea that stunned him with its coldness, that ripped the air from his chest.
But the air was actually molten, rippling, with the heat generated by the machinery. And it wasn’t lack of air that nearly ceased the clockwork motions inside him, but the scene spread before his eyes. This unthinkable vastness of openness and freedom under a featureless sky the color of pewter.
Around him, crumbling chimneys and brick smokestacks and humped, hulking sections of the factory reared and loomed. Distantly, he saw the misted outlines of a (flash: city). But most of all, he saw the forks.
The forks were a sea. A landscape of snow, with drifts swept up against the factory’s external machinery. A desert, with dunes and hills. The forks swallowed the bases of the chimneys and smokestacks. The forks seemed to reach all the way to the distant city itself. They glimmered and glinted under the sunless gray sky. Thousands, millions, more, polished and without a (flash: fingerprint) smudged upon one of them. He knew suddenly what a fingerprint was, though his fingers did not possess them.
The city was silent. But the factory itself chugged and pounded and rang with its ceaseless purpose, even as it crumbled into decay. A sudden crashing/clattering waterfall of sound, and he looked to see even more forks disgorged from a chute in the side of a black machine. They poured across the other forks, settled with a tinkling sound, lay still. For several moments there lingered in the air a loud, ringing hum of a piercingly high register, as if wailing (flash: spirits) had been raised from these mounds and cairns of forks, only to quickly dissipate. It had been the vibration of the many tines. For it was a treacherous vista of sharp tines, tines like myriad mysterious grins.
Some of the forks had plain, unadorned handles, while others boasted flowery filigree. Dinner forks and salad forks and baby forks.
Suddenly, the memory slotted into place with a definitive click. He knew what the forks were for. What the Masters had done with them.
But the Masters were gone. Just the forks, now. The billion forks lying like heaped bones, or fallen stars, fragmented and gone cold.
He wandered unsteadily across the landscape, the forks slithering and shifting under his feet. He didn’t venture far, however, instead sat himself down in the shadow of a smokestack, his back against it.
His cracked eggshell head lowered. He felt his body stilling. There was no purpose for him up here, after all. He had not been prepared for that. He had nothing to insert in its place. The knowledge seemed to empty him, blank him.
He hugged his knees to his chest, and lowered his forehead onto his knees, weary from his long journey. Weary from a disillusionment too hollowed-out to be despair.
The circle of his vision began to diminish, close up, the light at the center growing smaller, smaller, more distant, until darkness consumed it altogether.
Another waterfall of forks swarmed around him. Later, there came more. Gradually, he was buried. Only the top of his bare skull showed. After a long time, not even that.
For a while, he continued to hear the churning of the factory, even in his blind interment. But at last, one day, there was another small click inside him. And then, restful silence.