By Tracy Lamont
Images © Patricia Routh
“Rongé par une ardente fièvre, des Esseintes entendit subitement des murmures d’eau, des vols de guêpes, puis ces bruits se fondirent en un seul qui ressemblait au ronflement d’un tour; ce ronflement s’éclaircit, s’atténua et peu à peu se décida en un son argentin de cloche.” — À Rebours (1884).
Ket-Jñi — it was Sanskrit or Georgian or something — had always been the most interesting and innovative of the chemusicians. Even in the early days, when songs had been delivered on sugar-cubes, they’d gone the extra mile for their fans, dyeing the sugar, moulding it in geometric shapes, concealing little gifts inside it. Dédicacé à Joris-Karl Huysmans, for example, which he still considered the best thing they’d ever done, had been delivered on a dodecahedron with a little silver rose inside. And they’d been the first to deliver songs on syringes, for direct injection. Again, they’d gone the extra mile: the syringes were works of art, Lalique-inspired flowers, dragonflies, wasps. They’d even created limited editions from gold, silver and precious stone, which were fetching silly money on eBay nowadays. Okay, they hadn’t been the first to put out a valbum — a virus-album, based on an ototoxic, tinnitus-inducing micro-organism — but they’d created the cleverest twist to date: Seminiferus was a short-lived S.T.D. and you had to be fucked by one of the band to hear it, so only five people ever had.
He hadn’t entered the competition to win a copy of Seminiferus, but he had for their upcoming valbum, whose title, as usual, they weren’t revealing in advance. They were only going to create a single copy too, according to their website. To win it, you had to explain, in 1.414 words or less, why you liked √2, the square root of two. He’d written “Creatrix” as his reason, but he didn’t think he had any chance of winning. But he did, though when he got the congratulatory email, he’d nearly deleted it as spam. A postcard arrived two days later — a Dalí pastiche, Lapis-lazuli Python Climbing Blackpool Tower — confirming the email, confirming that he really had won. He felt like a kid again, waiting for Xmas to arrive and feeling as though it never would. But it did.
He got back the following Wednesday from work to find a card waiting for him from the post-office. A package was waiting to be picked up, signed for, at the sorting centre. The next day, he went out at lunch-time with the card to get it.
“What is it? Air?” the clerk joked. He’d seen from the way the clerk was holding it that it was very light. It was a small cube, wrapped in grey-specked black paper.
“Yeah. Might be,” he said, signing for it. The stamp was personalized, he saw now. A close-up of a daisy’s florets. And there might be just air inside the package, too. Perhaps this valbum was delivered as an aerosol, had to be sniffed up, to get the micro-organism into your lungs and breeding in your blood, working on your ears or the aural centre of your brain. He put the cube in a pocket and took it back to the office. He kept patting the pocket to make sure it was still there. He wasn’t going to open it till he got home. When he got back to his desk, he put the cube on his desk, where he could keep an eye on it. It was unobtrusive, so he didn’t think anyone would ask what it was. And no-one did. He wouldn’t have told them anyway. Ket-Jñi wasn’t something he wanted to share with any of the arseholes at work.
When he got home, he put the cube on the windowsill overlooking the park and fetched a pair of scissors. He was going to open it as carefully as possible, because he was going to save everything: the paper, the stamp, the container he could feel under the paper. He picked up the cube and carefully cut the paper open, then peeled it back. Yeah, there was a plastic cube beneath. He could see part of an image printed on the cube, a partial image, a man in a suit leading on a railing. But the man had an insect’s head. He cut more paper, carefully pulling it back from the cube, which had photos on every side, it seemed. Yeah. The cube was out now, with photos on each side, parodies of the Beatles’ Please Please Me, where they’re leaning on one railing of a stairwell, looking over it, down on the photographer. But Ket-Jñi had replaced the Beatles’ heads with insect-heads, on one side of the cube, with flowers on another, with crystals, skulls, sugar-cubes. But one side, where there was a little tab to open the cube, the four men had no heads at all.
The title of the album was in the Ket-Jñi script, which he’d never bothered to learn properly. He’d decipher it later. He started to slide the little tab out, then stopped, lifting the cube to his ear. He thought he’d heard something from inside. Little clicks. Yeah, little clicks, as though grains of sand or something were bouncing around inside. He shook it and the little clicks got louder. Not empty after all. But what the hell was inside? He slid the tab open and lifted the headless side of the cube to reveal the white interior and the delivery-system for the valbum. He thought, for a moment, that it was pepper, big black grains of pepper, but the pepper was alive, jumping, bouncing off the sides of the cube with the little clicks he’d heard. Fleas. And now they were getting out, some landing on his hand, one jumping so hard and high that it landed on his face, near his eye. He brushed it away with a grunt of disgust.
Ket-Jñi had done it again, he had to admit. Going the extra mile for their fans. Or their fan. Ow. One of the fleas was already biting him, sitting on the vee of flesh between his thumb and forefinger, over the adductor pollicis, sucking his blood, injecting the valbum. He let it bite and now a second flea was biting too, a third flea was, like black grains of pepper on his skin. He held the cube in the same hand, the bitten hand, and tried to decipher the title of the album. The first letter was F… the second R… no, L… the third E… and after that, now that he knew what was in the cube, it was easy. Fleas Please Me. But how long before it started to play?
Another flea started to bite him, under his clothes this time, near his left armpit. It must have landed on his throat, crawled under his collar. He walked through to the living-room, carrying the cube with him. Had the fleas been starved before being put in the cube? Maybe. Or maybe they were genetically engineered to be ravenous. And they’d probably die after biting him, so that no-one else would ever hear the album. He sat in his arm-chair and put his ear-phones on, picked up his remote and started the anti-noise playing. Or un-playing. Then he sat and listened to nothing while he looked at the cube and waited for the bites to take effect. He pushed the open side back, slid the little tab in, re-sealed the cube. Now he had a die. He swung his chess-tray over his lap, putting the chess-computer on the floor beside the chair, and started to roll the die as he waited for the Ket-Jñi to start playing. The first roll produced insect-heads, the Beatles on the railing with heads like a butterfly’s (Ringo) and an ant’s (Harrison) and a dragonfly’s (McCartney) and a moth’s (Lennon). Then he rolled flower-heads. Then insects again. Sugar-cubes. Sugar-cubes. Skulls. Flowers. Then the headless side. Then sugar-cubes. How long would you have to roll a six-sided die, on average, before you got a complete run of sides, without repetition?
The bites on his hand were starting to itch. He looked at them. His skin was rising in little red bumps, surrounded by a paler ring. It reminded him of a photo he’d once seen in an astronomy book, the remnants of a nova or something. He put his hand to his lips, feeling the heat in the bites, in his insulted skin. Then he got his phone out and used the calculator. It would be 6! divided by 66, wouldn’t it? Then divide into one. He swallowed as he pressed the keys. His throat was starting to hurt, so the infection must be working quickly. Or was it just psychosomatic? He looked at the result. 64·8. You’d have to roll a six-sided die sixty-five times, on average, before you got a complete run of sides, without repetition. He put his phone away and began to roll the cube again. Flowers. Skulls. Crystals. Headless. Crystals. Sugar-cubes. Skulls. Flowers. Flowers. Crystals. He swallowed again. Yeah, his throat was definitely getting sore. He reached up and felt it with his bitten hand, palpated it on either side. Were his lymph-glands starting to swell? Then he heard it in one ear, just on the threshold of perception, lurking there, ready to start playing. He rolled the cube for the final time. Headless. Now he could hear it in the other ear. Lurking on the threshold. Then Fleas Please Me started to play.