Conjunctions:72 Nocturnals

A Nightmare
Behind the abandoned house I discovered a grassy field. Stretched across the length of the field was a row of shopping carts. They were not nested inside one another, as they would be in the return stable of a parking lot. Instead they had been welded end to end. Their front and rear panels had been removed, and their sides had been fused together, so that their wire-frame floors paved an uninterrupted pathway across the field, an elevated metallic catwalk leading to the forest at the field’s edge. It was dusk. The sky was tangerine. Above the forest, a blood-blister sun was hovering over the inky line of trees. Aside from the abandoned house, the only sign of human habitation in sight was this corridor of shopping carts. The monumentality of the design, combined with the enigma of its purpose, lent the structure a sense of ancientness and alterity. It evoked a distant civilization, whose rituals and symbolic orders were unknowable to me: as if it were a ruin that had been rusting in this field for thousands of years, enduring sun, rain, snow, and slow centuries, waiting for the day when some archaeologist would step into the clearing and uncover it. Even though I knew that this was impossible—even though I recognized, in my rational mind, my waking or my daylight mind, that the shopping carts had to have been gathered from a grocery store this century—I could not shake the impression of a far architect, or fathom any contemporary consciousness that could have constructed this. The monument had to have hailed from another time, or another place, for another purpose. Even if the materials were new, I thought, the design itself must be ancient or alien: whoever made this must have been working from an obscure blueprint, substituting shopping carts for whatever materials or technologies had been originally called for. I approached the first cart, the threshold of the corridor. Its floor was level with my waist, and I leaned onto the cool metal. Staring down the long line of carts—their sidewalls guiding my gaze toward the green vanishing point of the forest at their end—I felt as if I were peering into an abyss. The distance seemed steep, vertical, and the same dizziness gripped me as when I look down from a high balcony. That ledge-drunk urge to step over every precipice. I had to resist the temptation to climb onto the shopping cart and let myself—this was the word that came to me—plummet. If I set foot on the cart, I understood, I would be sucked into the forest in an instant. And in fact, it occurred to me, that could be the only purpose of the corridor, its original design. To draw people from one end to the other, from the house to the woods. This corridor had been engineered to direct the flow of human bodies, just as aqueducts were designed to channel water. I could picture it now. Linked together, what the shopping carts formed was a long metallic straw, for siphoning the libations or sacrifices that were offered to them. And at the end of this straw? Whatever is at the end of all straws, sucking. I squinted into the distance, where the farthest carts glinted in the sunset, disappearing into the forest. There was no way of telling how far they extended beyond the tree line. Maybe miles. It was possible that the corridor led straight through the woods and that then, emerging on the other side, it divaricated into an immense maze, the shopping carts bifurcating in gray angles and radiating chambers across a vast plain, coiling as tightly as intestines around a single point at their center. Cautiously, I crawled onto the first cart. Its sidewalls rose to my thighs. The wire flooring was strong, unyielding beneath my weight, and the structure was unexpectedly stable. The cart did not budge or roll, and I realized that the casters must have been removed. A breeze blew toward me from the end of the corridor, seeming to originate from deep within the forest. I stepped forward, advancing from the first shopping cart to the second, then to the third. I kept walking like this for minutes, though no matter how long I walked, the forest never seemed any closer. The trees remained the same size, at seemingly the same distance, as if I were merely walking in place, on a treadmill of metal. Eventually I began to jog, and the rattling of the carts grew loud, as shrill as cicadas’ chirring. Still the forest seemed fixed. I pushed myself to run faster, racing to reach the end of the corridor, to reach it before—but before what, I did not know. When I asked myself what it was I thought I was racing against, the only explanation I could summon was the sunset. The sinking sun had turned the air of the field bloodred, and I sensed that there were only minutes of daylight left. Soon the field would be plunged in darkness. And no matter what, I did not want to be caught in the shopping carts when darkness fell. I did not know what I thought would happen then, only that I could not risk it. Whatever it was, this machine had been built for darkness. I could sense this. The whole thing would hum to life at nightfall. While the sun was still visible, I had to reach the end of the corridor, with enough time to turn around and run back, and I had to be sure that my feet were on solid earth before the first shadows filled the trough of the shopping carts. Even as I thought this, the sun sank below the trees, and the sky darkened. Everything became black as during a storm. I could barely see the silver flooring beneath my feet. I’m disappearing, I thought crazily. I’m disappearing. Then the air was lit from behind by a crimson tint, as if by a stoplight in fog. When I turned back I saw, rising over the roof of the abandoned house, a blood moon. No sooner had the sun set in the west than this moon had risen in the east, drenching the field and the shopping carts in its red light. Though the moon filled me with dread, I was relieved to see how close I still was to the house. In all the time I had been running I had only managed to cover half the field. I returned to the house now, ignoring the forest behind me. Hurrying toward the corridor’s entrance, I kept my eyes fixed on the first cart, impatient to leap from its edge to the safety of the grass. So long as I did not turn around, I thought, so long as I did not look back, I still might be saved. Otherwise it was too late. The sun had set. Darkness had fallen. The moon had risen. And at the end of the corridor behind me, somewhere beyond the forest, at the center of the gray maze that the shopping carts made, a mouth would be opening. At that very moment, as if in response to this thought, there came from within the house a howling sound like a tornado siren: the terrified baying of bloodhounds.

Bennett Sims is the author of the novel A Questionable Shape, which received the Bard Fiction Prize, and the collection White Dialogues (both Two Dollar Radio). He is a recipient of the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome and teaches fiction at the University of Iowa.