4A – The Sheep Truck

Walking East to the outskirts of town, Diogenes felt embittered.  He was determined to make it to Berlin, by foot if need be.  Korean families on the edge of town watched him labor by, sausages in sack.  Behind him, shades of violet splintered over the crumbling beige of old Paris.  He listened for the sound of diesels or scattered hooves.  He saw only the early-rising garbage pickers, on mounds of refuse by the road-side.  And heard nothing but the caws of inland seagulls.

Weeds had broken up the asphalt.  Squatters’ shacks dotted the hillsides.  As the sun rose, he sat down by uncut fields and offered a bit of sausage to a crow.  He doubled his cloak and propped his head.  He rubbed his blistered feet and drowsed till noon in the road.  Crows pecked at his sack.

At dusk he heard a horn from far off.  He stood dead-center, waiting.  A truck rambled up, blaring its horn among a flutter of crows.  With his hand held out, Diogenes remained motionless until the truck screeched to a halt.  A heavy-set, swarthy old man pried open the door and ambled angrily toward Diogenes.

“Faites quoi au milieu de la route?”

“Rien. Je m’assieds ici!” Diogenes replied.

“Tu parles mauvais français.” The man said, also with a heavy accent.

“So do you!”  Diogenes retorted.

“I’m not French.”

“And you drive this sheep truck?”

“Yes,” he said, flatly.

“Can you give me a ride?”  Diogenes said, slowing down his English.

“No.”  The man said, dark eyes burning.

“Why not?”

“I prefer to ride alone and think.”

“What do you think about?”

“What … I want.”  He replied, reluctantly.

“What have you concluded?” Diogenes said, fishing for a way to keep up his chances.

“I never conclude.”

“What is you name?”  Diogenes asked, sensing that the man’s English was improving.

“Antisthenes.”

Antisthenes then reached from behind the front seat and produced a billy club.  He feigned a movement toward Diogenes to see if he would flinch.  Diogenes crouched, lowering his head.

“Strike me! Go ahead!” Diogenes shouted.

Antisthenes held the club over Diogenes’ craned neck for a moment.

“Are you crazy?”

“I must go to Berlin!.”

“I strike you dead!”

“Be my guest.”  Diogenes said, beginning to stand up.

Antisthenes wondered if he meant it.  Diogenes slipped his hand to his sack of sausages.

“Here, I’ll give you what I have to eat.  And here … here’s my coat.”

The two glowered at each other. Antisthenes certainly did not want his coat.  Diogenes lowered his head again.

“I no want you.” He spit out with frustration.

“You’ll have to crack my skull to change my mind.”  Diogenes said, gritting his teeth.

“Maybe I cut off your tongue?”  Antisthenes muttered, looking over his shoulder towards the truck.

“I know you have a little room.”

“For me and my little sheep.”

“We both know you can give a ride to a good man.”  Diogenes repeated cautiously.

Antisthenes wrinkled his nose.  His whole expression seemed woolly.  His face had a weathered look, but his eyes a rough, wily warmth.  He peered at Diogenes like a peasant might at a city-dweller.  He wheeled around, peeping at his truck.  He seemed in a quandary.

“I am private man.”

“We don’t have to talk.”

“Where you going?”

“To Berlin, I hear it’s a free city.”  Diogenes responded.

“Not for the ring camp poor.”

“What?

Antisthenes warily surveyed Diogenes’ face, while a few sheep bleated from his truck.  An acrid aroma of liquor crept up to Diogenes’ nostrils.  Finally, Antisthenes reached again into his truck and pulled out a knife.  Diogenes froze.  But then the old Greek ambled back to his truck and pried open its door and pulled a screaming lamb onto the road and dragged it, kicking, to Diogenes’ feet.  Before Diogenes could blink Antisthenes slit its throat and held its bleeding head to his face.

“We cook it here!“  Antisthenes gleamed.  He hauled some wood onto the middle of the highway and gave Diogenes some hooks and began assembling a spit.

“Light a fire!” He gleamed, struggling with the spit.

He handed Diogenes a liter of gas in a milk bottle and a pile of old newspapers.  Before he knew it, he was squatting and eating while Antisthenes waved crows away with his billy club.

They ate and Antisthenes handed an oily bottle of liquor which he claimed to have distilled himself.

“I was a counterfeiter.” Diogenes suddenly admitted.

“I …  sodomeest, no, a Socialeest!”  Antisthenes laughed, with a mock-French accent.

Diogenes munched on his mutton.

Antisthenes said. “Americans are now dinosaurs!  They will not  survive.  My father live in America and taught medicine at little college.  I was born in Pittsburgh.  My mother go back to Greece with me after father leave earth.”

Diogenes swooshed down the greasy mutton with the oily liquor, blistering his throat, sending a flame through his gut.  He had to laugh when Antisthenes got up and began to shake his club at the sky.

“This sky is filled with … vultures!”

Dark flitting crows circled overhead.

“I tell you, a man’s no good if he not stand alone!“  Antisthenes cried, swinging.

Diogenes nodded.

“What good is man if he not stand alone?” Antisthenes asked grandly, “Noting!” He kept waving his club.  A crow then landed on it.

“There, you see?”  Antisthenes wheeled around, “I tell you, man must lose everything … before you know who … who he is.”  Antisthenes breathed in Diogenes’ face: “And even that is … vanity!”

Diogenes didn’t respond.  He simply waited for the next wave in Antisthenes’ drunkenness.

“You … know?” Antisthenes convulsed.  A moment of painful indigestion seized him.  He wrinkled his nose until his eyes disappeared, “You going to see soon what is true of value.  No counterfeit, no lie!”  He burped, painfully.

“Perhaps …”  Diogenes began to feel queasy, fearing a personal turn in their conversation.

“Do you know what I say?”  Antisthenes asked, more confidently.

About a man standing alone?”  Diogenes guessed, glad that he had calmed.

“I saw a man who lived only what is right.  They made him swallow poison. Bastards! He best man who ever walk earth.  Like father to me.  He owned nothing.  He not even wear scandals.  But he knew!  I left my mother for him.”  Antisthenes whispered.  “Now, the only road is a return … a go-back, no matter where I go.  That’s what I learn, traveling.”

Diogenes was growing bored.

They cleaned up as the air cooled and low-flying cirrus masked a half-moon.  When they stamped out the fire kicking embers into the roadside ditch, Antisthenes poured the rest of the liquor from his milk bottle into his gas tank, licking the plastic nozzle afterwards.

Impulsively, he dropped into the roadside ditch and waddled into a field, seeming to be wandering away.  Diogenes lost sight of him and called out but heard no reply.  Diogenes crossed through the ditch and spotted Antisthenes’ silhouette against the purple horizon.  When he caught up to him Antisthenes had undone his pants to take a leak.  Yet the old Greek was staring down, not at himself, but at the ground, weeping.  Diogenes’ suspected that he had given in to drunken sentiment.  Then he realized that Antisthenes was contemplating a corpse.  He could barely discern a face as it had decomposed and the darkness allowed only for a pale forehead and two sunken eyes.  Beside that corpse, he then espied a shoeless foot from another.  Diogenes began to walk further, leaving Antisthenes, stumbling across a pile of freshly dumped bodies and bent down to examine one.  He shuddered, fearing that he had finally exposed himself to the Plague and that they had chanced upon an open grave where Parisians secreted away their dead.  Instead, he found a young woman, face down, in a calico dress and hesitated about touching her.  He breathed in the air expecting to smell the pestilence but the heavy pungence had a certain unbearable familiarity.  It smelled the same as Grabmaler’s pit.

He fought his own hand away as he reached then damned it all and pulled away her coat.  She rolled over, her face nearly wrapped in her dark hair.  Nothing seemed unusual, except her youth.  Her skin looked silken, but cold. Then he saw, just below her breast, beneath her sternum, a gaping hole and cakes of dried blood.  She had been shot.   Diogenes called out to Antisthenes but he received no reply.  He moved on to another corpse, shewing black crows away, and made out, in the moonlight, the disc of an old man’s face with broken glasses.  He too, shot, in the back.  Diogenes recoiled and scanned further and could discern, it seemed, miles of corpses.  The fields held a harvest of death revealing a deliberate, even economic method of disposal.  A chill ran through him as he contemplated the immensity of the crime, then remembered Antisthenes, and cried out again and began running, tripping over unseen legs or arms until he crawled back onto the road.

Antisthenes had already started the truck and was ready to leave without him.  Diogenes yanked open the door, jumped in, and ended face-to-face with Antisthenes, eyes dried now, fixed Eastward through the cracked windshield.  Without saying a word Antisthenes sullenly lunged forward.

After they picked up speed, the violent jolts of pot-holed road made Diogenes sick

“Whole world dying,”  Antisthenes shouted finally above the roar.  “Yet it is not dead.  A traveler, who stand alone, he walk beyond … tragedy.  His soul same time old and young and he walks beyond horror, and know.”

“Was that La Misère’s dumping grounds?  Or is it the Plague?”

“La Peste?  Bah!  La Peste is one mirror of iniquity.”

“What do you mean?”

“You never traveled.  You not learn.  The Plague — it is only greed.”

Diogenes tried to agree but he felt ill.  Antisthenes handed him a vial filled with a clear fluid.  He winked at Diogenes, significantly, trying to change the mood inside the cabin:  “This make you dream!“  He assured, warmly.

Diogenes considered the vial while the truck jumped.

“First, you spread out skins in back.  Make nice.  Lie down.”

Diogenes didn’t know whether or not to obey.

Go! We have hundreds of kilometers! You sleep all way!” Antisthenes insisted.  “And,”  he added, with a wink, “I see you in your dream.”

Diogenes reluctantly took his advice.  The sheep, mutely sniffing, slept fitfully near the door.  Diogenes slid backwards when the truck pounded into a hole but managed not to spill the vial’s contents.

Antisthenes shouted through the wire separating his cabin from his cargo: “Everyone desires what they want, right?.  But what is good, what is — of value — that hard to know.  Why greed for what you desire, before you know?”

After Diogenes emptied the vial, he lay back.  He experienced a moment of delirium, queasy stomach, head spins, then the truck’s roof faded and he saw Antisthenes again lifting his club.  He saw him slitting the sheep’s throat. The words of his sermon echoed.  Diogenes watched embers and sparks fly up into the night.  He then dreamt he was flying.  Looking down through the clouds he saw black pyramids, cone down, mist rising from them as if they were sepulchers. Rupert’s face surfaced  above the mist.  He cried out to him.  Undine rode by.  They were riding, as he was, in an upended black pyramid.  He called to her.  He knew he was dreaming but wanted to speak consciously.  He wished to invade the dream, while a foreign countryside flew by, and her face dissolved.  He saw Grabmaler again in Paris and flung money at him down the sides of his own pyramid.

Then he heard a long wail from a child in a grassy field.  The child was surrounded by crows. Benedict had on a doctor’s white coat and put the child under a glass cone.  The crows pecked at the glass.  Diogenes struggled to get down to the ground.  Suddenly he fell and found Benedict looming over him with white gauze soaked in ether.  He struggled with Benedict until he was struggling with a bloody sheep.

Antisthenes appeared again. “Here’s your ink!” He said, lifting the sheep’s head as its poured with blood,  “You forgot these too.” he whispered, dropping a yellowed scroll beside him.  He then gave Diogenes an empty vial which glinted in the sun.  His little scroll was inside the vial.

Diogenes woke momentarily and daylight filled the cab.  Antisthenes was daubing his brow with an oily cloth.  Diogenes tried to rise but Antisthenes cautioned him back.  Diogenes squinted up at the truck’s roof and fell unconscious.  This time he didn’t dream.  He sweated through another feverish night, while the truck labored through Germany.

In the dead of night, he woke.  Antisthenes was speaking to someone in pigeon German by the road.  Diogenes sweated, while rain tapped on the roof’s patched aluminum and drops leaked through to his face.  Finally he rose and pried himself out of the cab.  Antisthenes greeted him, handed him his sausage roll, then pointed across the road, to a distant field.

“You see!”  Antisthenes looked at him, knowingly.

Diogenes squinted in the rain.  The man Antisthenes had spoken to disappeared down the road.

“You walk through those woods to reach road.”  He smiled, while rain poured.  “You on new frontier.”