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Through These Troglodytes It Speaks


Through These Troglodytes It Speaks
By Tom Hadrava

Words that create troglodytes: honey, sweetheart, baby, angel
Words that stop the beast: unknown
Tip of the day: Pump them with air.

Someone shrieks.

It could be the beast but it is not, this time. It´s a piercing shout of a girl.

Like a safety hammer thrashing a pane of glass, the sound breaks the waves of sleep that cover Deph. He stirs on the edge of the bed he shares with Crane and mumbles a word, innocent and sweet as words can sometimes be.

With the sound of a sheet of paper being torn in half, another troglodyte appears. It clutches the floor as if surprised by gravity. Five or six spindly legs splayed, a swollen snout bashing the floor of the hotel.

Deph mutters something barely comprehensible. Someone shouts again.

“No! Stop calling me that, you stupid piece!” It´s Crane. She often doesn´t finish a sentence. Deph finds that attractive and sometimes a little but puzzling.

Deph finally gets up. The sun has begun its journey across the sky. The city of Prague is waking up outside the window. Everything seems tinged with orange.

There are three creatures on the floor, each one slightly different, beating with tails, claws, beaks and in one case something that looks like a robust arm of a man. Crane dashes across the room with a handheld portable vacuum cleaner in each hand. A red-haired dust-obsessed gunner in knickers, she knocks one troglodyte over, steps on a purple tentacle and shoves the muzzle into a greyish hole in the creature´s body. She checks that the little machine is on reverse, turns it on with a flick of her slender finger and pumps air into what could be either end of the digestive system, air intake or god-knows-what kind of anatomical opening.

“Help me get that one!” she shouts and doesn´t stop. Crane never stops.

Deph fumbles around the ruffled covers and finds another portable vacuum cleaner. Its case is covered in sticky grime from countless troglodyte implosions. It takes him eight seconds to jump up, evade the thrashing tail of another troglodyte, dodge a limb that looks like a pair of pincers made of ceramics and pump the little monster with air.

Crane shouts again. “Below the window! Tusk-pelt-radish!” She calls the troglodytes names – concoctions made up of first three words that come to her mind, bearing some degree of similarity to the creature. She calls it nomenclature, and pronounces it as no-man-clitter.

The third troglodyte follows the previous two, with Crane holding the arm-of-a-man part down with her foot while Deph disposes of the dog-sized creature. With the sound of two litres of pudding hitting a pavement, all three troglodytes implode. They vibrate and then are gone, with a puddle of goo left on the cheap carpet.

Crane exhales. “Spare me those, please! And I am not... the winged biblical astral being you-know-what-I-mean, either!”

Deph shrugs and says: “A stupid piece of what?”

Crane double-blinks. “What are you talking about?”

“You said that earlier. You called me a stupid piece. A stupid piece of what?”

They drop the vacuum cleaners. The whirring provides a monotonous soundtrack to the stark hotel room. Deph smiles like a Cheshire cat. Crane hugs him and bites his earlobe, a fast snap, like a robin snatching a caterpillar from a leaf.

“You stupid piece of truth,” she whispers into his ear and winks somewhere behind his shoulder.

Words that lie, i.e. create troglodytes: money, gold, false
Words that stop the beast: unknown
Tip of the day: Watch your language. In case that´s not an option, run.

The beast is closer than usual.

They look at it from the hotel lobby. The spires of Prague seem to be even steeper and somehow polished, as if there was a party of mad clowns climbing them last night, with rags and boxes of shoe polish on their tool belts. Buildings loom and age with the creaking of their ancient bones. There are houses that look like birthday cakes, swollen envelopes and wicker baskets. Monstrous ballerinas made of brick and doused with mortar.

The beast is two streets down. It seems to be sniffing, head keening in a very improbable angle.

Deph calls it corvax, Crane thinks about it as tarasque. The beast is something they can both agree on. It sounds familiar and there is always a certain degree of safety in familiarity.

“We already know it feeds on lies. The website says it´s attracted to certain words,” Crane says quietly. Around them, people go about their business. Deph and Crane are holding hands, watching as the beast knocks over a news stand and uses the front pair of its six legs to scatter papers and magazines. Next to Deph there are two large bags on the floor, bursting in seams.

“But I still don´t get the connection between the troglodytes and the beast,” he says. He scratches his temple. “When I say for example humph,” he makes a funny face, kind of like a mime having a real toothache, “does it bring the beast closer, attract one of those skittering creatures, make one, or kinda all of it?”

The beast seems to be hunting the newspapers, catching them mid-air and swallowing them like marshmallows if beasts could swallow marshmallows.

“Wanna find out superhero-style?” Crane points somewhere along the street. A little herd of troglodytes rounds a corner and comes dashing in their direction. Six, seven, maybe eight creatures, all claws and muzzles and bright stickers and little chitinous wings.

Deph sidesteps angrily. “Shitting shit! How are we with vacuum cleaners?” Crane slaps a gym-bag swollen with the portable machines.

“Oh and one more thing...” Deph says. “We´re running out of money, darling.” He thinks about the deadline, about the day they both fly away. Until then – who knows?

“We´re about to move, right? So let´s move somewhere cheaper, then,” Crane says.¨

“Right.”

Crane glances at the people in the hotel. Most of them look like extras in a James Bond movie.

“I am tired of these larger-than-life caricatures of people dressed in money, anyway.”

“I think you´ve just used one of those lie-words, Crane.”

“I mean, look at them! Pouring money down their money-paved throats.”

The group of troglodytes coming here seems bigger. There is a sound of crashing glass somewhere close.

“Crane! Ah… shit it. You are odd.”

“Seriously! Like money-pills for their money-issues.”

Deph picks up their bags. They enter the blazing street, the cobblestones sizzling with heat and grumpy like dogs fighting for a piece of shade. The beast bellows.

Crane shouts: “So false! Everybody. Everything!”

After that, they run.

He thinks Right. Sometimes I think the only real things are you, me, and the beast. She thinks You are real. And that´s what makes me real, too.

The sounds behind them could be the troglodytes tearing apart the tourists or just a TV turned on very loud.

Later that night, when the beast seems in safe distance and not a threat, Deph goes to have a shower in the all-plastic bathroom of the cheap guesthouse they found. Crane takes out her smartphone and logs in. She updates and comments, finishes what needs to be finished. Words jump around as roaring tigers and she is their tamer.
,
Words that create the troglodytes, therefore are lies: composition, canvas, cross-section
Words that stop the beast: unknown
Tip of the day: At any given time, any place, there is someone who is a liar.

They met in Prague.

She had her father´s eyes, deep and brown like hazelnuts thrown into a wishing well. He had a pale complexion and scratched his forearm nervously. She was on a study trip, taking pictures of artefacts of the communist-era and writing down endless lists of inspiring words for a future poetry collection. He was gathering material for his article on architecture. In the City of the hundred spires, they bumped into each other at an exhibition of modern art.

There were about five people altogether in a gallery in the Dancing House, a Prague´s version of Tate Modern. In front of colourful smears on expansive canvases and modelled cross-sections of daily objects, he approached her with a question.

“Excuse me? What do you do when you see and endangered animal eating an endangered plant?”

She didn´t smile but actually thought about it, then eyed him suspiciously.

“Depends on who´s asking?”

He said his real name. She laughed.

“Yeah, I know. Boring and strange, right? Born with it, can´t live with it. My nickname online is Deph, by the way.”

“In that case, I am Crane.”

“Crane? As in the bird? Or the piece of heavy machinery?”

“Part crab, part plane. Crane.”

They looked at the canvas in front of them, not really looking.

He scratched his forearm for the seven hundredth time that day, then broke the silence. “And as for the question?”

She smiled with teeth gleaming like stolen ivory in the sun. “And as for the question... Well, someone has to go, right? And predators are really, really cool.” She pronounced predator a little bit as pre-date-her.

He thought She looks like a shark, a sexy petite shark. She thought He looks like a weasel, a clever and geeky weasel.

What she later found attractive about him were his funny lies. False questions like Is there another word for synonym? Or Would a fly with no legs be called a walk?

He excused himself like only a weasel could, went to the toilet. She burst in, carrying his patched-up bag as well as her woven handbag, her red hair flying wild.

“Hurry up, we need to leave. Immediately!”

“What do you think you´re doing?! I was just about to...”

She didn´t let him finish, clenched her teeth and grabbed him by the elbow.

“You are just about to be squashed down if you don´t listen to me!”

She dragged him out. In the Sculpture Hall, the beast was just tearing apart an exhibition of a modern take on Snow White, devouring the alabaster papier-mache, its sharp snout full of frothy pieces. It was the closest they would see it for days to come, with its lizard skin with tufts of mauve fur here and there, all six arms moving like separate entities. It had four eyes, bloodshot like those of a killer doll, and serrated teeth the size of iPads.

Deph muttered: “This can´t be happening...” His eyebrows almost formed a question mark.

Crane looked around the place. “We need to leave. That way.”

There were some troglodytes already, trunks and scabs and teeth and pipes. No-man-clitter in full glory.

“I will explain later. Run with me.”

Deph stopped suddenly.

“No! We need to call the police. Park rangers. Firemen. Do something. They need to kill it, catch it, boil it.” he said. Only then he realized that there were other people around. Not. Doing. Anything. Not paying attention. The random idea of boiling the beast came back to them later. That time, they would laugh. Not now.

She pulled him closer. Her eyes were the only two habitable planets in his universe. Brownish gas giants, calling for help through radio transmissions.

“I know it looks unreal. But it is. For me it is. For you, too.”

His jaw went slack. He looked like a child, faced with the reality of real ice-cream contents and toys the family can´t afford.

“Deph, we need to leave. There is a website that explains everything. I´ll show you later. You must trust me. Please.”

Fifty-four metres away from them, the beast swallowed the Snow White.


Tip of the day: If you see it, it doesn´t mean that other people do, too. The beast interacts with the environment only if the objects represent a lie. Lies get crushed, eaten and mutilated by the beast. Everything else stays. The question is - how much is everything?

After thirteen hours and four minutes they made love for the first time, on the baby changing board at the restaurant toilet, gasping and laughing wildly.

What if there were no hypothetical questions?

Tip of the day: This is a troglodyte. That is the beast. Not the other way round.

“There must be more people like us,” Deph says slowly.

The place is a youth hostel with the view of an old, long-forgotten hospital yard, waves of ivy and cliffs of bricks.

“I don´t believe we´re the only ones seeing it,” he continues. “Plus, someone updates the site! Someone knows all the things.” He paces like a detective in an old film-noir story. Crane thinks he overdoes it.

“There must be a place, a safe haven. Like in the films and books and video games. We must find it! We can´t just run, hide, sleep, fuck all the time. Like sides on a messed up dice. We are the same, after all.”

Crane runs her tongue over her lips before she says: “Actually, no. When you say a dying star, I see a white-hot supernova. You - a bloated actor lying on a hospital bed.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“What I meant to say was...,” Crane pauses and when she does that, flowers and ice-cream and dust particles around her pause as well, “words are scary, you know? Vocabulary is a dangerous ocean to tread. In that ocean, a place can be a plaice, too.”

Deph shakes his head. He thinks You cannot tread an ocean but says only: “You know… you are so odd.”

After two minutes and twenty-four seconds they make love in the common kitchen and then again on the floor of a laundry room, not thinking about the chance of other people coming in any second, laughing at the burn spots from the carpet afterwards, almost hysterical, happy and desperate at the same time.

Tip of the day: You are free to use the tips and the whole contents of this website. However, the author takes no responsibility for any troubles you might encounter on the way of the beast.

“Yeah. Those portable ones. Two. Can you switch it to reverse? Right. Er... by card, please. We´re in a hurry. Please, make it quick.”

Tip of the day: Stick around the same city, with the same beast. At all costs.

“It´s getting crazier and crazier.”

Crane and Deph are standing around an over-decorated baroque fountain in one of the many squares of Prague. There is no water, just numerous implosion marks. A few moments ago, the fountain was overflowing with troglodytes, a pool of mangled, impossible bodies. Some of them jumped out and tried to attack them. Most stayed and heaved and thrashed and rocked on bellies with scales, chitin and optic fibres.

“Listen. Seriously... I don´t think I can go on like this,” Crane says. She feels tired and used. Her vaccuum cleaner is still on but it seems like the battery will die any minute. Her hairstyle seems very dishevelled, like its battery is already dead.

Deph stops kicking the last troglodyte, plastic cup-saguaro-pan, and makes his way towards the girl. A stone sea serpent, with facial features not unlike those of the beast, stares at them from the top of the fountain.

“I´ve told you so many times! We just change the date! Let´s do it!” he shouts. By the date he means the flight, by it he means escaping from this city of the beast.

He scratches his forearm nervously when she says: “We´ve been through this already, Deph. We can´t do that! It´s not so simple. I can´t explain...” She cups her face in her palms. “I can´t stop but I can´t carry on either.”

Deph looks at the houses, the balustrades and stuccos and caryatids. His eyes are narrow slits, classicism-style. He takes a deep breath, stops scratching his forearm.

“Alright. I love you. You know that.”

She tries to smile at him. It comes out feeble and frayed. He approaches her.

“Oh come on! What else was I supposed to say? Support, support! Look around you! Did you know that baroque means a crooked pearl?”

Crane wipes her nose and smiles again, this time properly and like a true Crane. She mouths three words: I love you.

“I do, too. I really do. Even if you are odd... you little oddlet.”

“But I still think I can´t go on like this,” she says.

“Oh no! Please don´t say that! My little crooked pearl…” Deph says, with his face twisted like a wet towel on the bathroom floor.

Later on at night, Crane updates and starts what needs to be started. Just before she falls asleep, she sends a kiss through the wall. It pierces the wallpaper with what looks like miscarried tulips, and vanishes. A huge kiss for a huge friend.

In the morning, her side of the bed is cold and there is nothing left for Deph to hold, not even Crane herself.

Words that lie: mirror
Words that stop the beast: unknown
Tip of the day: If the beast gets too close, boil it. In case that´s not an option, run.

Deph sticks to the same routine.

Escaping the beast, watching out for troglodytes, pumping them with vacuum cleaners if they get too close, sometimes using a straw and his own mouth to achieve the same thing. Sometimes he argues with himself about what he should do next.

On top of that, he looks for Crane most of the first day. Then he questions his sanity. After that, he feels angry and deceived, calls her names and invents ways to get the world rid of all girls between, say, fifteen and twenty-five, forever.

On the fourth day, he dares to look at himself in the bathroom mirror, picks up an ice-axe he stole in a shop with mountain gear and walks towards the beast, looming at the end of a street lined by maples and linden trees. Prague holds its breath then winks into the camera of a random tourist.

Words that lie: trap, final, crane
Words that stop the beast: unknown
Tip of the day: The troglodytes are words of an astral and ancient bio-language. The beast speaks troglodese. Troglodese is very other-worldly and basically incomprehensible to humans. Most of them.

No one tells you the final encounter is coming.

You don´t realize it´s happening, either.

It´s only much later, in a hospital bed, surrounded by bodies in a street with a smoking gun in your hand or in a car speeding towards the glowing horizon, that you can recall an event and say Oh. That was the final encounter, alright.

The street seems to be dammed by a wall of troglodytes. They step on each other, studded in a waist-high barrier of flesh and ichor and cotton. The beast puffs air like a steam locomotive gone wrong. Its massive legs crush a few troglodytes every time it moves.

Deph comes closer. Amongst the sea of creatures, there is one in a T-shirt. It steps to the front and waves an extremity. Deph gasps and the beast - the tarasque – bellows. It´s Crane, standing there unharmed.

Deph´s fingers start to tremble, the reason being about 60% fear and 40% anger. He drops the ice-axe and shouts: “Did you just wave at me, you liar?!”

Crane points at the pavement. “That is a really nice tapir-art deco-glove, by the way.” Then she sighs. “Hey. Deph. Stop. Please. You know it doesn´t work that way.”

Deph´s eyes start to water. It´s embarrassing and not very pleasant. All that comes out of his mouth is: “I always knew you were odd.”

Crane nods. “I am odd. You are even.”

He looks puzzled, she smiles.

“I am odd, you are even. Like numbers. Numbers that don´t match.”

She judges him from head to toe, then back again. “But you are totally lost now, aren´t you? Well, let me put it this way. There are white lies. Cruel lies, emergency lies. This one has been a feeding lie. It feeds the beast. It has a purpose. It´s thick and nutritious. Juicy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Juicy like you when you approached me with a question-lie. I loved those. Very nourishing for the predator. For my tarasque.”

“So now it´s your beast?”

“It´s always been mine. I haven´t shared it with you, have I?” She pauses for a beat that never comes then continues. The beast crushes a few troglodytes and rumbles like a nightmare bumble-bee. “I am not really sorry, either. I am curious. Curious what lies you´re going to tell me now to save yourself. And I am eager to know what kind of a lie resides hidden under that skin on your forearm.”

Deph considers running away. He considers stopping the time, ordering a rocket launcher online, getting it delivered right to the spot by a bored teenage van-driver, signing the papers, starting the time again and obliterating the beast and Crane. Both beasts, actually. He makes one step, two, three.

“Not all of of it was a lie. I had to keep my tarasque at bay somehow. But most of it was.” Her eyes smile and lie at the same time, like two garnets on the corset of a harlot.

He makes one more step, two more, three more. There must be something, he thinks. The beast smells like a wet dog covered in tar. Its four eyes blink, one after another, like cheap Christmas lights.

“Oh, come on, Deph,” Crane says. “It´s not like this is anything new. There are loads of other people, with their own beasts that eat lies and communicate through troglodytes. They have to solve the equation in the end. The website I run is for all of them.”

The website. An action. A word. Something absent but still present, in the corner of the eye…

Crane laughs and pretends to whisper something to the beast, hiding her mouth with her palm. Then she says out loud:

“I love your world, Deph.”

Then the word crashes into his dominant hemisphere and emerges on the other side. He gasps for air and says it loud.

“Unknown.”

Everything around him freezes. The troglodytes don´t move. The beast stops breathing as if expecting someone to pounce on its back. Crane is standing with her hands clawed. Deph comes forward and presses his mouth against hers in a pantomime of a kiss. He opens his eyes wide and blows as hard as he can, forces all the true air that still resides in his chest, out and into her world.

* * *

Tom Hadrava is a Czech writer, teacher, husband and father. His short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, DailyScienceFiction and 101Words, as well as in XB-1, the Czech SF magazine. He lives with his wife and son in a small historical town in the Czech Republic, in a house dating back to the Hussite wars. The town has its own beast, only smaller than the one in Prague.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

It is different every time, I would say. But it´s always in very inconvenient places and situations when it´s impossible to take down notes – jogging downhill, playing hide-and-seek with my kid, driving, or while taking a shower. Sometimes I get glimpses and images of something not-yet- told just before I go to sleep. And sometimes, I go to our ancient cellar and close my eyes. And someone, something whispers an idea into my ear.

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