“The Death of Orion” by Benjamin Robinson

02Mar09

When his father stopped working in the local Baptist church, Michael noticed him around the house a lot more. It was like he was at a loose end. He looked different too. He had stubble on his chin and his face was crumpled and creased. He took a liking to pyjamas. That was okay, Michael thought; there was no finer way to spend a Saturday than to sit around all day in your pyjamas. But his father would start the week that way. Worst of all, things that up until then, Michael had done by himself, his father now wanted to do with him. Like the two of them praying together every night. This was a bad idea, Michael thought. Someone telling him what words to use and how to use then, especially when he was supposed to be talking to God. Michael had developed his own way of praying that was like an unspoken agreement. Now he had to recite out loud the names of all the people he loved, all the aunts and uncles and cousins he never saw, and ask God to bless them. People God had only just blessed the previous night. When Michael mentioned this, his father started varying the names and adding new ones. He began leaving a few days for the blessings to wear off.

Parenting was not his father’s strong suit. His had a short fuse and a long memory. Up to now, he’d been a distant creature that landed and took off again with all the noise and excitement of a jet engine, but now he was grounded, locking himself in the garden shed, cutting slits in the lids of jam jars for Michael to save pennies. Something had closed in and crushed him. He didn’t seem to want to be around anyone, and it was as though his father blamed Michael for this—he was the one person, out of all those that God forgave, who wasn’t getting off so lightly.

He caught flashes of his old father, ripping through the clouds, tearing up the sky, but most of the time he seemed frozen, his engine dead and his wings iced up.

His mother started complaining that he was getting underfoot. How could anyone be that small? Part of Michael wished he too was that small, so he could disappear. He wanted to feel crushed like his father, so he could rant and rave and curse at the heavens.

Fed up with both his parents, Michael decided to find some living creature of his own—a fly, an ant, a mouse—then crush it underfoot to see how they liked it.

He started going out late at night. His mother didn’t notice and his father didn’t care. Michael liked the darkness. He felt invisible in it, like he was in his own private kingdom: an invisible kingdom.

During the day, he would argue with his friends about theological matters. He started noticing that they were all Catholics. The change in his father had opened his eyes. There was so much ignorance and bigotry in the world—some of it right under his nose. When his friends said they weren’t interested in that sort of stuff, he fought them on a purely physical basis. For worshiping Mary, he made them eat grass. 

When his parents found bloodstains in Michael’s bedroom, his father took him to a man called Wells. During their chats together, Michael admitted to a series of indiscretions involving kittens. When Wells showed him all the love in the world, he was lifted up on a cloud of hope and saw what he took to be the Promised Land. But as quickly as he’d been raised up, he was severed from his vision. A sign had been identified within him—the father turned tormentor.

“Like the blind hunter, Orion,” Wells said, “Michael must be helped to recover his sight. He must be led from the darkness to the rising sun.”

Michael’s father shifted in his seat. “At night, he gapes at the sky.” He’d been dragged out of a warm pair of pyjamas, bundled into a suit as crushed as his face, and sent off with Michael, hand in reluctant hand. “You have to go with him,” Michael’s mother had said, squinting as she threaded a needle. “He’s your son.”

“The night sky is split into eighty-eight constellations,” said Wells, “but the stars appearing close together are, in reality, unconnected. Our line of sight deceives.”

Michael, in his dim understanding of such things, took this to mean the hunter was the hunted, and that Orion was none other than our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Looking into the night sky, he imagined Orion wielding his club around the moon to the city’s outer reaches.

In his kingdom he saw a newborn kitten, its eyes sealed to the world like the tips of his fingers. Scattered across the celestial highway were the points of his sharpened claws.

What was needed was a hand to guide Michael through this torment, away from the throats of small creatures; to see him once again gripping the handlebars of his faith and pedalling, hell for leather, in the direction of the holy lands.

“What of the mother?” Wells asked, putting a match to his pipe.

“A sweet woman with a sweet smile from a good Christian family,” the father replied. Smoke drifted into the ceiling. “You think she might in some way be to blame?”

“These days we tend to spread the blame evenly between the spouses.”

With the blame spread between the spouses, Michael suspected that he’d receive the brunt of it.

Towards the end of their chats, Michael was heartened to see Wells, in an impressive display of manliness, taking his father to task. Tying him to a rack of remorse, he lashed him with words like slipshod and reprehensible, diligence and wherewithal. But Wells had not bargained on Michael’s father and his ability to disregard the wisdom of both faith and science when they failed to meet his more pressing need to always be right.

Being paid handsomely for the privilege, Wells turned the other cheek.

“All I want to do is save his soul.”

“Have the lad baptised and be quick about it,” said Wells.

“What if he refuses?”

“We must do whatever it takes.”

It was winter now, and at Wells’ suggestion, he and Michael took woodland walks together. On their final excursion, Michael’s father joined them. After a while, they left the track and went into the woods. When they came upon a lake—lake water being nature’s own baptismal font—Michael’s father grabbed him and dragged him to the water’s edge. And as he cried out to God, they pulled him in and put him under.

 

In time Michael left home and got married. She was a sweet girl with a sweet smile, from a good Christian family. She watched him in the early days trying to align things, and when he failed, she could feel him arranging the disparate parts, lining them up to look like they did.

They rented a flat in a rundown part of the city and his wife got a job in a hospital. She worked odd hours and Michael, not having work, was left in the house on his own.

His wife tried to help him, but she found it difficult to cope with his moods. She broke things into pieces as a sign of her frustration. He glued them back together as a sign of his. When everything had been broken and mended, she started shredding things in her head.

She shredded herself down to her vows.

“Our vows are sacred,” said Michael.

She threw a plate at him. There was so much glue in them they bounced off of him.

She threw one at the ceiling and it shattered over him like petrified confetti.

She stared at him. “Will I get the glue?” he said.

He didn’t wait for an answer. He went into the city to pull himself together. On his way home he stopped at a bar. It looked like a church and was called the Blue Neon. They said if he came every day, they’d teach him addiction. Within a few months he was drinking all by himself.

When he wasn’t in the Blue Neon, he was in the local swimming baths, staring at the diving board, cursing out blasphemous back flips. He’d come home tired, but articulate. She called this “him picking a fight.”

He said her need for a semblance of ambition on his part was keeping him from making any real progress, from advancing towards an agreed upon agenda of goals and aspirations. It amounted, he told her, to a traumatic repetition of his whole sorry adolescence.

Alone, he read books on the black arts: deep-sea diving, vivisection, escapology, diseases of the mouth—how the world worked, in other words.

She grew tired of his lies and deception. She said he should give up drinking, get a job and stop wasting their money.

He dried out and swore never to drink again. He tried to explain how a fist in his heart kept pulling him under. He shaved his head and walked along an empty beach at dawn. He held his wounds to the rising sun and said he’d go to the ends of the earth for her.

After a while he started saying things like, “one day at a time,” and “I’m embracing the future.”

“When he isn’t drowning in it, he’s wallowing in it,” his wife would say to anyone who’d listen.

He could see how lonely she was so he got her a kitten. He called it Orion and put a bell around its neck so it would never get lost.

He started dancing attendance on Orion’s every whim.

“You never treat me like that,” she said. “You take me for granted.”

He went to the Blue Neon to re-evaluate the situation. They told him to lighten up and have a drink. They said there were worse things in life than being taken for granted. They played him songs about living and songs about dying. For a while he was happy.

When he returned home his gut sagged and his hair was down his back in a great ponytail of self-loathing.

“I hardly recognise you,” she said.

“I’ve taken a long hard look at myself in the mirror.”

“Let me cut that thing off for you.”

After she’d cut it off, they went into the yard and prayed together. He looked up and saw the hunter pierced against the sky.

In the evenings he would have a refreshing non-alcoholic lager. She would serve it to him just the way he liked, ice cold in a tall glass with a frothy head. When he sipped it, Orion would sit in his lap.

Deep down he knew there was something not quite right about this. His body was there, but his soul was absent. He was longing for something.

Alone, he looked inside himself. “Heaven’s within reach,” he said to his wife, “shiny as a new penny.” 

“You’ll knuckle down and get a job?”

He was outside again, lost in the night sky.

She went out to him. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t find Orion.” The cat was curled round his ankle.

“He’s under your nose.”

“The stars are random and unnecessary.”

She picked up the cat and walked off. “They’re guided through the heavens by an invisible hand.”

At this the cat jumped from her arms and ran off, tinkling.

 

Their failure to reach agreement on the movements of the celestial bodies was the first of many sticking points the ensuing months would bring, and they decided, rather than let the situation deteriorate further, to take a break from each other for a while. 

During the trial separation, Michael’s wife let him stay in the flat.

“It smells too much of your longing,” she said.

“You’re a good woman,” he replied.

“Look after the plants for me.” There were tears in her eyes.

She took the cat, but left him a wildlife calendar. Each month had a species on it that was vanishing off the face of the earth.

He opened it at random and observed the passing parade.

Two celibate Pandas, slighting the stardust. A Hairy-nosed Wombat, scared, talking gibberish. A Silky Sifaka caught in the headlights. A Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey staring death down the barrel. A Northern Right Whale putting the dampers on the summer. And to top it all off, Broom’s Pygmy-possum, the precarious fairy on a disposable Christmas tree.

As his wife faded away, he hung it on the wall and it glowed like an ember.

Not long after, all the plants died. They were too many signs, he thought, to be certain of the cause of death, but he heard late at night songs of their demise—how they cried in the moonlight, how they tried to survive.

To pay the rent he got a job working nights, cleaning toilets in an office block on the outskirts of the city.

He knuckled down and did what he had to. He turned his world upside-down. He went to bed in the morning with his alarm set for late afternoon—he was in pyjamas all day, just like his father.

February’s endangered species was the Siberian tiger, glowering at him from a snow-covered mountain. He picked at his breakfast beneath its unsavoury gaze.

He got a bus across town around seven. He sat by the window and rested his head on the glass. It started to snow. This must be what it’s like, he thought, to be someone’s shoulder to cry on.

At the office, he changed into overalls. He cleaned the ladies room first, then the gents. Where there was sourness and staleness, splatters and splashes, he left the petals of flowers. They kept a big sack of them in the storeroom. In the upturned porcelain claws of the urinals he left cubes piled up like presents. Sterile and blue as a night in the Neon, they smelled of invisible forests.

After work, he waited for the bus at the side of the road. He didn’t speak to anyone. He stood his ground and tried to stay warm as the last star disappeared.

In the empty dawn, in the stillness of separation, he heard a motorway purring. It sounded alive, soft to the touch with a mind of its own. He went out one night to try and find it.

At the edge of the forest he saw a light through the trees.

When he got to the other side, a group of people were huddled by the side of the road—stamping and shuffling their feet, their shoes, like his father’s, falling apart at the seams.

The bus arrived and he watched them get on, one by one.

We’re all part of the same symmetry, he thought, bolts in a blind constellation.

On a cloud of fumes, the bus sailed off into the sunrise.

 

The months of separation wore on. The wind howled at the window and the moon shone through the cracks in his life.

He worked hard at cleaning toilets. He learned what it was to go upon the earth unloved. He had tattooed across his knuckles images of a world before the fall. As his fingers closed into the hunter’s caress, the stars came out.

He spent time at the pool when he wasn’t working. He would imagine himself hanging from the diving board, being sucked up into the sky. Releasing his grip, he would fall through the air, splashing into the constellations strewn across the surface of the heavens.

The nights burned within him. His face became wrinkled and his skin smelled of chlorine. His hands felt like they were made out of charcoal. Looking up one morning he saw Wells in the sky. He had a pipe in his mouth and was puffing out billows.

In the sweet light of day, as the world crumbled beneath him, he reached up and scratched a trail of blackened vapour through the sky.

The tide turned after that and he set about mending his ways. He put the past behind him. He joined a gym and pumped iron into the heavens. When he wasn’t concentrating on his abs, he went shopping for fixtures and fittings. He purchased equipment. He drilled and he hammered. He spruced up the bathroom and gave the living room a lick of paint. When he went looking for wallpaper for the bedroom, they asked what he had in mind. “Nothing too fancy,” he said. “Something cold and indifferent.”

When he had everything just so, he scented the air with pine. Years ago on a cold Christmas Eve, he’d wrapped a kitten in clear plastic—it looked doomed and majestic, just like his father. His mother cried when she found it. His father beat him with the carcass till he was black and blue. He was blinded by memories for a long time after that, but he had the strength to bear them now.

 

Out in the woods one night, Michael stopped by a lake.

Watching the stars on the water, he fell asleep on the verge.

He saw his wife helping him pack and waving goodbye from the window.

When he arrived at the station, there were traces of disinfectant in the air. Looking up, he saw a calendar on the wall and felt something purring inside him.

In the waiting room, a man with deep-set eyes was checking himself for kitten breath. His wrists were bandaged and the backs of his hands hatched with scars. A boy in the corner was carving a penis on the wall with a penknife, driving the tip in deeper and deeper.

Michael saw his mother’s smile. The blade scored across the enamel.

As he went to board the train, a woman approached him. “You have a clean loincloth?” she asked.

“And a tin of cat food,” he replied.

The train was empty. He sat by the window. Something was stroking his abdomen. “He’s a very lucky boy,” his mother said over the loudspeaker, “to have one such as this for a father.” 

The words drew Michael closer. He heard the sound of scraping. He saw the dark leather strap, the soap matted with hairs.

There was a slap and a cry, but no sense of pain.

He stepped from the train.

The station was long and narrow with a high, vaulted ceiling. There were artist’s impressions on the walls—kittens in baskets, poolside scenarios, the lakeside at twilight.

There was a recessed gallery at one end and a mirrored wall at the other. Along the base of the mirror was a row of metal hatches. Above them were balls of wool with strings reaching down, attached to the hatches. As the balls started to turn, the hatches opened and the station was overrun with screeching tabby cats, clambering over each other in a lake of flaming fur.

The balls turned again and the cats disappeared just as the hatches were closing.

A white sheet was pulled back revealing Michael’s body stretched out on a metal slab. On his lower half he was wearing a fluffy white loincloth. Wedged in his navel was a little round bell. 

A tall man with a kindly eye entered the station, followed by a middle-aged woman wearing fatigues. The man went over to the slab and stared along the length of Michael’s body.

Michael smelt kitten breath.

“My name is Deluxe,” he said in a low voice. “I’ll be your Stationmaster this evening.”

There was a head before him, featureless with a weave of bulging veins coursing across the dome.

A vein unzipped. Michael felt his head being pushed through a hole. He saw swirling constellations, torrents of light in a vortex of water.

With a rustling of cellophane, the vein zipped shut.

Deluxe turned to the gallery packed with well-wishers. “I give you the baptism,” he shouted, “of Orion.”

Michael gave out a series of whimpering noises as hands hovered over his torso.

Hacking up phlegm from deep in his throat, Deluxe spat into Michael’s face, working the grey spittle into his eyelids with the tips of his fingers.

The spittle turned cold. Michael felt a rush of air sucking him down, as if his backbone was being squeezed and crushed, falling like sand through the hourglass beneath him.

Amid jeers from the crowd, the woman removed the loincloth, placed a roll of plastic across Michael’s chest and unfurled it the length of his body.

She cut a circle round his navel with a carving knife.

Glancing behind her, she leaned over the body.

Michael felt his fingers closing around a handle.

The woman returned to Deluxe’s shadow. Referring to her as Mittens, he placed a Marietta biscuit on her outstretched tongue and she began chomping over the pelvic zone. “No chomping,” screamed Deluxe, and she modified her chewing action to a slow bump and grind. “Much better, Mittens,” he said smiling.

The station lights flickered on and off like a pair of eyelids fluttering. There was a moment of silence during which Deluxe and Mittens bowed their heads. To Michael this felt like breaking the surface of something.

Above the slab, a light fitting came into focus. A grubby grey kitten, its fur matted and torn, was dragging what looked like part of its intestine across the inside of it.

At the end of the station, a message slid across the bottom of an empty screen:

… Orion in the limelight. Blood-soaked fur smears Orion in the limelight. Blood-soaked fur…

Above it, scrawled on a tattered piece of paper—beside an image of a drowning man—were the words:

Danger, No Diving

Deluxe began meowing and crawling along the platform as the kitten smeared a bright red sunrise across the glass fitting then curled up at the end, close to death. Pulling a tube from a socket in the wall, he threaded it into Michael’s lungs through one of his nostrils. Uncoupling the other end from the wall, he forced it down into his penis. “I give you the transfusion of light,” he said, wincing.

As the stream flowed into his lungs, Michael saw a pair of eyeballs throbbing under a dome of smooth white flesh.

The colour drained from Deluxe’s cheeks.

Mittens busied herself gathering crumbs which she handed to Deluxe who scattered them across the station with the motion of one sowing seed.

In the gallery a group began whistling, Michael Row the Boat Ashore. As they neared a rousing finale, Deluxe switched the setting on the slab to stormy. It began to pitch and roll. He looked across to the mirror. Seeing the undulating body tethered to the end of his man handle, he raised his arm and began rolling his hips like he was on a bucking bronco.

Mittens, panting like a dog, turned red in the face with excitement. Behind her, crowded round the entrance, a group of boys jostled each other as they waited to gain entry.

“Inside now, boys,” she said.

“Thirty seconds horseplay,” said Deluxe removing the tube from Michael’s penis and lungs. He squirreled his joinery and returned the setting on the slab to harbour.

The boys dragged the body from the slab and manhandled it, chuff-chuffing and woo-wooing up and down the platform.

Deluxe, stripped down to a leopard-skin loincloth, pulled a Squire Peterson from his bulging crotch and, holding a lighted match at its end, began sucking violently on the fishtail. Following ignition, the station filled with clouds of sweet-scented tobacco smoke, creating a turn-of-the-century tableau of a gentleman’s club overrun by youthful body snatchers.

Jostled and jolted, Michael’s lungs released spurts of urine into the air.

A shaft of sunlight entered the smoke and shattered.

“The descent into hell,” said Deluxe, head bathed in ammonia. 

At the end of the thirty seconds, a klaxon sounded, the smoke was sucked from the station and a pink light whirled around the rafters.

Michael’s body was put back on the slab.

He gazed up at the ceiling.

“You’ve had your thirty seconds of gold,” said Deluxe, and Mittens hurried the boys out.

Revived by the klaxon, the kitten dragged itself once again across the light fitting, smearing the sunrise into a sunset, before falling over the side in a squealing belly flop.

Landing on Michael’s abdomen, it clamped its jaws round his navel and swallowed the bell.

Deluxe, flinging his pipe up at the whirling light, grimaced, then yanked a bigger tube from the socket and stretched it across to the slab. “For the love of Michael,” he declared, glaring up at the piece of paper. He began waving the tube across the hole as if conducting an orchestra.

With its dying breath the kitten reared up, sank its teeth into the end of the tube, and went into convulsions.

The bell shot from its mouth like a pinball.

Mittens, reaching over, grabbed the kitten by the scruff of the neck and yanked it up, her camouflage splattering with blood as the head came away in her hand.

“My fatigues!” she screamed, flinging the head in the air.

The kitten’s head crashed through the rafters.

Up in the heavens Orion crackled and fizzed, his neon smile buzzing on and off, a kittenish comet skimming the points of his outline.

Eyes fixed in a watery stare, the tube bent back like a snorkel, the head punched through the stratosphere with the earth rushing towards it.

Jets of wispy cloud zipped by. A city filled with luminous streams mushroomed in the twilight.

Spotlights clustered round the looming breach as the splintered rafters scored trenches in the kitten’s temples.

The smouldering head landed with a hiss in a puddle of urine.

The tube, sucked into the wall like a piece of spaghetti, dragged the blackened skull across the floor, slam-splattering it against the socket in a grimace of shattered enamel.

The head fell to the ground; its mouth hinged opened and the bell dropped in with a tinkle. 

At the sound of the bell, Michael swung up his fist.

Encrusted with stars, the knife simmered and soared in a wave of serration.

“The jar!” screamed Deluxe.

Mittens opened the lid of a big glass jar and Deluxe lifted in the body. Retrieving the kitten’s head, Mittens placed it on top of the remains and screwed on the lid.

The carving knife reached the zenith of its upward flight, turned and began its descent.

“The Death of Orion!” Michael shouted, throwing his arms in the air.

 

Benjamin Robinson is a writer and visual artist. He was born in Northern Ireland in 1964. His articles and short stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Existere, Crannóg, The Benefactor, dANDelion, Yuan Yang, Sein und Werden, and online at Dogmatika, 3AM Magazine, Tqrstories, Recirca. His art has been exhibited in Ireland, Germany and the UK. He lives in Dublin with his wife and baby son.


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Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
“The Death of Orion” is richly symbolic, imposing a unifying idea about human behavior and the manifestation of our actions, demonstrating first the likelihood of becoming a shadow of (one or both) our parents—how exchanges fundamental to parenting shapes how we are and who we become—and then when it comes time to face the essence of ourselves, and subsequently of our parents, we discover (or perhaps we never do) that one must find one’s own meaning in life. In this story, once the protagonist decides finally that he can face the memory of the kitten he suffocated as a child—the act he believes he was ultimately driven to because of his father—we are instantly dropped into a world of both comedy and pathos, a dream state where he cannot control his existence or take any sort of action, revealing his attitude towards the experience rather than reconciling with his past.

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Comments on this story by Terry White, author of “The Frotteur in the Dark”
Not being a fan of experimental stories, I read them with a jaundiced eye because of their associational logic and dream sequences. But I was pleased to see that Benjamin Robinson’s “The Death of Orion” is predicated on a structure that moves the reader through the stages of the protagonist’s descent into madness. On one level, as the story begins realistically, there is a father-son conflict conflated by some deep depression and vague religious dementia, possibly something more sinister in the boy’s recollections of animal tortures, as if the son were fighting his guilt over his father’s decline even while his own psyche is absorbing it with those elements and poisoning his own future life with it. A brief foray into religious zealotry fails him, so he comes identifying the cold, distant stars as all there is of God. (His father, compared to a jet hurtling up to the skies, is where, the boy thinks, God must be.) The overriding symbol of the disturbed young Michael being haunted by Orion, the blind hunter, in the night sky is effective and links all his memories in youth and adulthood to this cold, distant, impersonal symbol, such as his moodiness that destroys his marriage, the buried memory of wrapping a kitten in plastic wrap and being beaten by the corpse helps to explain his underachieving, frustrated adulthood, his preference for rooms painted in “something cold and indifferent” like his inner life (a reflection no doubt of his dysfunctional family and relationship to his burned-out, distant father) and, ultimately, his own isolation and derangement under the stars. Robinson’s surreal imagery in the terminal section of the story is brilliant, hallucinatory, and terrifying. To be in Michael’s mind as he disintegrates into full-blown madness as he raises the knife and shouts the story’s cat (cat and constellation now one) is to see how all his childhood fears and demons come out in the form of these psychotic, vengeful cats.




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