The clock winked. Cheshire cat eye squeezing to horizontal crescent, widening again to purple iris mischief. Extending its leathery tongue across the intervening feet, it licked my hair. Into what time am I going now? Into what place? I asked its round face. I always asked, but the answer never properly quenched. Into a time and place of my choosing. Oh ho, isn’t choice a curious thing? The words lazed soundlessly through outsize chicklet teeth displayed via motionless grin. þǣr wǣs gidd ond glēo… it gabbled on. Ignore its otherlanguage nonsense, I thought. All seeming connections are false. Holes formed in the air around me: space getting worm-eaten. Four-dimensional insects, the ones that thrive on destruction of temporal integrity, munched to the content of their twenty hearts. The usual tingling started on my scalp…
What time did I arrive into? What place?
A teeming medieval piazza with large central fountain of dramatic zebra marble. Peasants, merchants, nobles: every echelon of feudal society was about. Urchins crouched in alleyways and barons dangled from carriages – all, to a man, curdled by laughter. They were sprawled, or doubling over, or running in circles, or slapping each others’ backs. Tears lacquered cheeks, while jaws were unhinging from the weight of constant eruptious sound. I was utterly mystified.
“Excuse me? Scusi… perdón… ma’am? What’s happening here?” I asked a rotund bakerwoman with back to me, a black cotton back besprinkled with flour. She swung around, she was close to my face, and my nostrils drew in the yeasty sour-rankness of her forceful exhale, and my retinas scanned the pinkest pit of her stomach, so distended were her lips – so open her esophagus.
“Gaaaaaaah haaa haaa haa haa ha ha!” she replied.
I felt a queer tickle around my uvula, like baby ants tromping past my soft palate. And I started to chuckle. The chuckle writhed into a chortle which swooped into a guffaw which careened into a howl. The laughter caught in my lungs and took hold; the most hedonic and pernicious of sensations subsumed me. I laughed and laughed and laughed. I held my sides which started to stitch. Before I could blink twice I became a rag doll, facial muscles plastered into dangerous pleasure and aching from it. I began rolling over the dusty ground. My throat hurt and my stomach hurt, and I felt on the brink of chaos.
But everything was fine.
Everything was fine, because the clock would bring me back.
* * * * * * * * * *
I had passed three days amongst the cackling hordes. I had neither eaten nor drunk; the gushing laugher let nothing in. In efforts to expunge or even just tame the virus, I’d conjured thoughts of starving children, of kittens being tortured, of my mother’s hypothetical suicide. I’d held my head upside-down under the filthy stream that wound through town, allowing its sewage-ropy water free nasal cavity reign. I’d started running, but the plague extended everyplace. When insanity clawed, I began eating the very dirt we reeled upon – choking all the while.
The clock always brought me back. I meditated this, hissed it between hiccups.
“Cheshire, pleeeheehee!” I whimper-giggled.
The dead were lumped about, with piles of their corpses growing higher every hour. A large pit had been dug on the far side of the stream, to and from which a macabre circus flowed. People in earlier stages of the disease were loading bodies onto wheelbarrows and carting them over, but, rapidly debilitated by laughter, their pace was that of centenarian turtles stepping sideways through molasses. An odiferous mélange of sweat, vomit, and putrefying flesh lay in the air like a low-slung cloud – the stench was enough to make one’s organs bleed. No matter. I sensed that my stomach had already hemorrhaged due to acute internal pressures.
“Cheshihihi…” I trickled, as last atoms of strength disintegrated. I would be an unburied carcass, rotting alongside strangers six hundred years before I was ever born.
TCHIK – TCHIK – TCHIK
Finally! The ticking! Faint first, then intensifying, echoing across the sky like the magnanimous watch of Zeus. Mouth still stretched in agonizing mirth, I closed my eyes and raised my arms to the archaic heavens. Take me, cat clock. Take me away from here.
There was the familiar titillation of beetle millions massaging my skin, and next…
Was I returned?
Yes. My present day, the city of my birth. Ribs aching, lungs coruscating with dust, and my cheeks branded by jackal smiles. But there was silence. I looked at the clock’s yellow-green grin, turned away, breathed in deeply. A delicious melancholy permeated my mind and marrow. Slowly, I walked into the living room. My mother was on the sofa reading her quaint pages. She still insisted on paper instead of screen.
“How I’ve missed you!” I said, and ran towards her. I kneeled on the floor next to her legs and put my head in her lap. I wanted to be an infant again, swaddled and coddled, safe and quiet. As the infection drizzled out of me, it seemed like my thirty-four-year-old self was racing back to boyhood.
“Why dear,” she said, placing her novel on top of my head and continuing to read, “whatever is going on? You were only in the other room three minutes.”
Several peaceful moments floated by. Then she laughed softly into her book.
I wrenched myself from my mother’s lap and dashed out to the front steps.
A man returning from work, exiting his car, laughing. Young women pushing strollers down the block, laughing. The neighbors’ children, on their swing set, laughing.
The sun seemed too hot and high in the sky for the evening hour. The laughter was sliding under my skin, and a tiny nerve near my right eye began to throb.
Suddenly, the noise ballooned, and everywhere I looked, maws were gaping.
NO! NO! NO!
I darted inside again, but it mattered not. The pestilence had spread to my own time and place.
* * * * * * * * * *
I raced back to the clock. I waited desperately for it to wink. Already I was half-hyperventilating from the hilarity reinvading my body. I prayed: A future time, a faraway place, out of this madness. A vigorous survival instinct greyed away thoughts of my mother and everyone else I’d ever cared about. With palms plastered over mouth, I watched the timepiece. Its long-hand was morphing flashily, from cold black brass to walking stick to praying mantis to water snake… the pattern on its short-hand from checked to striped to paisley. Staring into the cat’s large eyes, I saw the most chilling otherworldly scenes. Red suns scorched barren-landscaped, bone-sprinkled plains; foul-faced women bathed in tubs of teeth. Even so, I continued to giggle. How this malevolent mechanical feline was toying!
Eventually the Cheshire eye dropped to its curved, familiar line. Space wormed out.
What time had I arrived into? What place?
It took some seconds to retrieve my senses in the new surroundings. Disks with faint nostalgia for automobile geometry zagged and zigged above my head. Green, red, and yellow neon flashed maniacally. The air was tinged purple, and glass buildings lost their speared tops in the stratosphere.
I was standing still but zooming along inside of an all-glass high-speed train. Throughout the car others were dressed in bright or black rubberized clothing, with puffed boots and hefty rubber helmets abundant. The atmosphere was jovial. People were joking and pushing each other around, and amidst the commotion came the dreaded sounds… Oh lord, no… But they grew louder, and I could feel the most deadly frenetic energy traveling on invisible wavelengths, wiggling easily through the undense structure of rubber molecules, invading skin and tissue and blood and bone. The epidemic was like me: time-traveling.
I shut my eyes and again tried to summon the darkest emotions – sorrow, guilt, self-loathing, depression, desperation. I was desperate, and yet still I couldn’t help laughing, especially at such futile endeavors. Under the weight of the warpedness of this catch-22, I sunk to the ground and buried my head between my knees. My chest heaved. Then I heard a voice, quiet, right beside my ear.
“There’s a place, called The Box. I’ll take you to it. You’ll be safe there.”
He spoke like the mob surrounding me: an English with the intonation-patterns of Russian, the guttural rhotic of French, the cylindrical vowels of Swahili. Barely comprehensible. It sounded like his mouth was filled with pebbles around which his tongue was working to maneuver. I pulled up to look at him. Only his eyes and nose were visible – a thick helmet with chin guard covered the rest of his head.
“Why me?” I whispered. “Why are you helping just me?” and I gave an involuntarily snicker.
“Are you really going to ask questions at this point?” he said, very low but with clear incredulity. He had an excellent point.
“No,” I huffed. “Tell me what to do.”
“Good. Quickly – let’s go.”
We exited the glass train at the next stop and weaved through throngs of jollifying pedestrians.
“Whoo whoo whoo!”
“Tche tche tcheeeh…”
Each laugh was a unique, pathogenic expression of the contagion. As we hustled down narrow alleys, I tittered obnoxiously. At last, after traversing what seemed like the entire giant metropolis via the grungiest and most sordid of side streets, my guide opened a trap door in the ground behind a dingy Chinese vegetable shop. We descended a staircase that gradually transformed from rotted, sunken wood to polished chrome at the very bottom. Beyond the last step was blackness, but my groping hands brushed a door ahead, and I heard my companion’s voice.
“Push,” he said.
Then I was inside The Box. Engulfed in video and sound, from every angle. The floor-to-ceiling screens showed a miasma of copper and brass hardware – gears, intricate parts; also small green hearts, beating independently of any circulatory system; yellowed papery bits with minced lines of Beowulf scarcely distinguishable; and a mathematics so complex I experienced the onrush of vertigo.
Suddenly, I recognized it all: the cat clock’s innards.
My perspective shifted, instantly and radically. I was the metal pieces strewn about. I was the green beating hearts. I spoke in West Saxon Old English with an impossibly long, thick tongue made of scratch and leather. I saw through fiendish otherworlds before seeing in front of me through eyes like purple saucers.
And I was at one with gaiety. How had I ever thought the laughter a disease? With the Cheshire’s soul and the Cheshire’s mind – my new soul and mind – I realized that perpetual laughter was instead the antidote. It was the solution to humanity’s problems. Breath be damned! They had no need of breath. I was the cat clock. I would leave The Box and right the world.