Joyland

The South |

In the South the Sand Winds are Our Greatest Enemy

by Rita Bullwinkel

Gleb and Oleg were banished brothers. They lived together in a prison infirmary surrounded by snow. Gleb was a surgeon and Oleg a sculptor. When the brothers were banished Gleb convinced an officer that in order to be of use they had to stay together.

“I have bad eyesight,” Gleb had said. “And a poor sense of proportion. I need my brother’s eyes to make sure I sew things on in perfection.”

“It’s true,” Oleg had said. “Anatomy has never been Gleb’s forté.”

The officer had squinted his eyes at Gleb and Oleg in consideration. Oleg was infinitely more handsome then Gleb, but far thinner. How can one work with such a pretty face? Oleg-faced people were never much use anyway.

“Alright,” the officer had said. “If you need your brother’s eyes so be it. People often lose limbs around here, so I expect, with the two of you on job, there to be no excuse for failed attempts at reattachment.”

“Thank you,” Gleb said. “We’ll do just fine.”

Gleb and Oleg sat at a desk during the day and slept in the sick beds during the evening. The sick beds were comfy, straw filled-mattresses. The sheets were good, blue wool with stripes. Ten days after their arrival Oleg took to wearing a nurse’s hat that he found under one of the blankets.

“You’ve always liked looking womanly,” Gleb grumbled.

“Your just jealous mom used to let me wear her Sunday dress,” Oleg batted his eyes.

As Oleg giggled to himself a man came in the front door with a missing digit. “My God!” Oleg said. “Where is your thumb?”

“No idea,” said the man. “One of my prison-mates accidentally lopped it off with a shovel. It took me a good moment to realize it had gotten away. My hand was nearly frozen solid from bricklaying out by the west wing. I had my whole squad looking for it in the snow but we found nothing. White snow, white thumb. A needle in a haystack.”

“More like a butter cookie in a pile of powdered sugar!” Oleg exclaimed. “In the south the sand winds are our enemy,” Oleg continued. “But here in the north our enemy is the snow.” Oleg tried to exhibit appropriate bedside manners and show his sympathy for the loss of this man’s digit. He was still wearing a nurse’s hat and sat down on the side of one of the beds and sighed.

The man looked confused and slightly put out by Oleg’s melancholy.

Gleb said, “Well, let’s look among the recent corpses and see if we might be able to find something suitable.”

In search of a digit Oleg, Gleb and the nine-fingered man walked out in to the cold and over to the burial pit. The ground was frozen solid so the corpses lay exposed. Gleb crawled over the dead men, occasionally picking up their hands and examining. He pulled the corpses’ fingers apart and tried to look into the muscles of the hands.

“Hold up your hand!” Gleb yelled to the nine-fingered man standing at the edge of the burial pit. The nine-fingered man lifted his four-fingered hand above his head.

“Solidly medium-sized,” Gleb said. He kept looking among the corpses until he found a suitable replacement. Then he pulled out his pocket-knife, took the serrated edge, and sawed through the bone.

“Look away!” Oleg screamed and jumped to cover the nine-fingered man’s open sockets. “It’s like seeing your bride’s gown before you are married! Bad luck bad luck! Give the thumb some privacy, you’ll be in union soon enough!”

The nine-fingered man dutifully closed his eyes and was led back to the thumb marriage bed in the infirmary. Oleg tucked him in, read his palm, told him a story and then put the man to sleep. Oleg dipped a rag in a pot of ether and draped it over the nine-fingered man’s face until his breathing was deep and steady.

Gleb came back in soon there after. He took the thumb out from his pocket and laid it next to the sleeping man’s nub to make sure it fit for size.

“Damn,” Gleb said. “I took off the left instead of the right thumb.”

Oleg rolled his eyes and stroked the hair of the sleeping patient. Gleb went back out into the cold and then returned promptly with the right thumb.

Oleg looked at the two thumbs on the counter and thought of the now eight-fingered corpse in the burial pit.

“Get the water boiling,” Gleb ordered.

Oleg took a pot outside and filled it with snow. He lit the flame on the gas stove and placed the pot to boil. In a matter of minutes the snow melted to water which bubbled over. Gleb took the nine-fingered man’s thumb-to-be and plopped it in.

The thumb had been frozen solid so it took a good ten minutes to thaw and become pliable. Once the veins had melted blood started to seep into the water and make it pink. When the blood really started pouring Gleb fished it out with a serving spoon. He bent the thumb and then straightened it to make sure it was working. After he verified the thumb’s suitability he opened many of the drawers to see if he could find some suture needles and stitch string.

“Should we name the thumb?” Oleg asked. Gleb was annoyed with Oleg and his nurse hat so he didn’t respond.

When Gleb finally found the appropriate materials he went to work. He yanked the nine-fingered man’s veins out of his hand and attached them to veins in the corpse thumb. After he was done attaching the veins he knitted the muscles together and, lastly, attached the two pieces of flesh by the skin. As the thumb became connected blood pumped into it in earnest. It turned from white to pink and twitched slightly in its sleep.

The nine-fingered man, now ten-fingered mutant, came to and looked at Oleg and Gleb with starry appreciation. He wiggled his new thumb and kissed it to welcome it in.

“You’re going to use that thumb for a lot of nasty things,” Oleg raised his eyebrows in insinuation.

The ten-fingered mutant man was too grateful to catch the hint of insult. Gleb looked satisfied with the end result. Oleg sang some folk songs to the patient to wake him up and bring him back to his regular self. Oleg and Gleb congratulated themselves on a successful operation and sent their perfect patient back to the barracks.

Within three days time word of Gleb and Oleg’s surgical magic spread throughout the prison. People made long lines outside the infirmary and when the officer finally called on Gleb and Oleg to congratulate them on the reattachment it was too crowded for him to even push himself in. Oleg was on a table demonstrating the latest waltz trends from the continent. Gleb had diluted some ether with water and was drunk as a new-born bull.

It was then that the officer realized that Gleb and Oleg were basically just having a gigantic party. He was furious, and decided he needed to give them some work, show them who was boss and what they were here for. Determined to prove a point, the officer marched into the barracks and found an innocent old man alone reading the bible.

“Get dressed!” the officer shouted. “Report to the ninth ward!”

Startled, the old man got up and quickly dressed himself. He shuffled slowly over to the ninth ward where the officer sat and wait. There, the officer took an icepick and gouged out the old man’s eye sockets. The old man screamed and fell to his knees writhing in pain. Eyeball flesh oozed out of his face and onto the floor planks.

“Fix that Gleb and Oleg!” the officer proclaimed.

Shortly after the old man’s gouging a prison-mate found the old man comatose on the floor of the ninth ward.

“Help!” the concerned prisoner yelped. “Help! Someone help me carry this old man to Oleg and Gleb!”

Several other prisoners quickly materialized and helped carry the old man’s body out through the snow and into the infirmary.

Gleb and Oleg were recovering from an ether binge from the night before and were still slightly drunk. When Oleg saw the old man’s eyes he vomited into a cup.

“Ew!” said Oleg.

“My God,” said Gleb.

The concerned prisoners and Gleb and Oleg all looked at the old man gravely. Gleb asked to speak to Oleg alone so they could decide what should be done.

“Well,” said Oleg. “At least he was an old man who was already mostly dead anyway.”

“Fool,” said Gleb. “He isn’t going to die. The issue is that he’ll never again be able to see.”

“Well,” said Oleg. “What’s at stake here?”

“Our pride,” said Gleb. “And possibly our standing with the other prisoners. The officer did this to this poor man to show us that we weren’t deities.”

“What a tiresome thing to try and prove,” Oleg said. “If you are asking me to make an ice sculpture pietà, forget it.”

“It is worse than that,” said Gleb. “I think we have to figure out a way to make this blind man see.”

Wind swung outside the infirmary. For Gleb and Oleg this seemed like it could be the end of the line. But then, Oleg remembered having seen a nervous looking prisoner who slept with a stuffed doll that had glass eyeballs.

“That’s it!” Oleg shouted. “What is better than seeing beauty but being beautiful?”

His plan hatched and he shared it with his brother. The two of them reached a consensus for a plan of attack and then asked the concerned prisoner who had brought in the old man to find the nervous prisoner with the doll and steal his beloved figurine.

In the mean time, Gleb prepared the old man’s eye sockets. He scooped the remaining eyeball matter out and cauterized the nerves. A calm came over the old man when he realized he was being taken care of and he barely whimpered. When the cleaning was done the old man blinked his empty sockets in repose.

“The deepest black,” the old man said. “Bluer than anything else I have ever seen. Like the depths of the sea.”

“How lovely,” said Oleg. “It sounds relaxing. Take note, Gleb. If they ever really get a hold of me be sure to first gouge out my sight.”

Finally, the concerned prisoner re-entered the infirmary with the doll with the glass eyeballs.

“It’s perfect!” said Gleb.

Oleg examined the doll and then took a razor and cut out the glass eyes. While Gleb went to work sterilizing them, Oleg sewed the doll’s eyes shut and painted some eyelashes onto its face with coal.

“Now it’s sleeping,” Oleg whispered to the concerned prisoner who had brought the doll in. “See if you can’t find the man who this doll belongs to and return it to him. Tell him the doll told us she was tired of seeing the horrors of this prison. We only took out her eyes on her own request, just following a patient’s orders, explain to him. I am sure he’ll be quick to understand.”

The concerned man looked skeptical about the returning of the doll but hurried away regardless. Gleb had almost finished sterilizing the glass eyeballs and was picking off some stubborn glue.

Oleg turned to the old man on the operating table and said, “The sight this operation is going to restore for you will be slightly different. It will require a bit more imagination than your previous eyes allowed. One could, however, say that you’ll have a true artist’s eyesight. You’ll be able to see the kind of beauty of which I dream. Also, the images these eyes will show you will be closer to Godliness. The usual eyes we are born with don’t really do us much service in that regard. So, just be aware that these new eyes will give you images that you’ll have to see through. Just crack the images you see like an egg and part the canvas.”

And with that Oleg leaned in and kissed the old man on the forehead. The old man looked into the space in front of him and relaxed. He blinked his empty sockets in anticipation. The pits of his eyes looked ready for filling and Gleb put on his operating gloves and readied himself to insert the new eyeballs in.

“Alright,” said Gleb. “This shouldn’t hurt, but let me know if you feel anything.”

Gleb took forceps and pulled the right lids of the old man apart.

“Oleg! Grab the ball!” Gleb ordered. Oleg grabbed the glass eyeball and inserted it in. There was a sudden pop and the eye was sucked into the socket. The old man blinked over the glass eyeball and grinned.

“The other one! Quick!” said Gleb. He wanted to keep the momentum going.

When both of the eyeballs were in the old man sat up and blinked his eyelids over his new appendages.

“Saints,” said the old man. “I was blind but now I can see!”

The old man gripped Oleg’s hand and squeezed it in appreciation. “It’s how you said it was going to be, my dear fellow. A different type of sight, but perhaps with time, when I learn how to use it properly, it will reveal more than I used to know.”

Oleg helped the old man to stand and walked him back to the barracks. When the prisoners saw that Oleg and Gleb had restored the old man’s sight they cheered.

“Gods!” yelled one of the prisoners. “True prophets!”

Gleb looked bashful and tried to shake off the compliments over the roar of appreciation. Oleg soaked it up and took a deep, graceful bow.

The officer heard the ruckus from his sleeping quarters and marched over in a huff to investigate. When he arrived at the barracks he found the old man whose eyes he had gouged sitting before him restored to perfect health and cheering. It was as if the gouging had in fact inserted in the old man some renewed youth. The old man’s arms were above his head thrusting in celebration. The officer could not look away from the old man’s perfect, new blue eyes.

In fear, the officer frantically scanned the barracks and looked around him. In the far corner of the room he spotted Gleb and Oleg being lifted up into a crowd. The prisoners were shouting, “Gleb and Oleg! Gleb and Oleg!” The sound of the prisoners’ voices was deafening. The cheers grew louder, and the officer could no longer remember which name belonged to which brother, and whether or not they were two men or two different names for the same.

“Gleb and Oleg!” the prisoners shouted. “Oleg and Gleb! Oleb and Gleg!”

Gleb and Oleg were hoisted by the prisoners up onto one of the rafters where they did a jig and danced with each other. The prisoners continued to cheer and sing. Oleg, being the ham that he was, convinced Gleb to waltz on the rafter and swung him around and dipped him over the edge of a railing. The prisoners went wild and stamped their feet. Oleg winked at the crowd and then kissed Gleb on the lips in mock courtship. Soon every prisoner in the barracks was waltzing in pairs and singing the same tune. The old man, overjoyed by this celebration of his return, threw his long beard over his shoulder and whooped and hollered. His few-toothed grin spread across his wild, well-worn face.

The officer looked on at all of this in the utmost fear and realized that these two brothers were reincarnations of the devil. The officer hurried back to his own quarters where he promptly made a noose, mounted a chair, put his head in the loop of the rope and hung. The officers’ eyes bulged out from his head and a red ring of rope burn formed around his collar. He was a very large, fat man, so gravity worked with him and took his life away rather quick.

While the officer hung himself, Gleb and Oleg continued to celebrate their medical successes.

A villager who lived close to the prison overheard the joyous yells and looked into a hole in one of the side planks of the barrack walls. The villager scanned the scene and saw only joyous dancing. The villager even noticed an old man, spry, younger looking than his years, dancing alone. To be in prison, the villager thought, and free of burden! Were all of us to be so lucky!

And with that thought in his mind the villager walked back to his own home across the snow-filled tundra. He shuffled his feet and carried his heavy load of wood and wool. As he walked the moon rose above him and a flock of geese gawked, it seemed, directly at him. The space between the villager and the prison widened and snow flurried in quicker circles around him. The wind and the ice deadened the noise that the villager had heard from the prison. From that moment till the end of his trek, the only sounds that the villager heard were simply the noise of the elements hurling things at him. In an attempt to shield himself, the villager pulled his fur hood further over his forehead. To amuse himself, and keep himself from chilling, he tried to sing the barrack jig, “Gleb and Oleg! Gleb and Oleg!” the villager cried. “Gleb and Oleg!” the villager sung and kicked his legs in rhythm. “Gleb and Oleg!” said the villager as he waltzed all the way into the warmth of his wife and his well-cooked dinner safe at home.