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The Cannon

He tickled her with his funis ignarii.

Q: And who will be fired out of the cannon?

A: My brother will be fired out of the cannon.

Q: And what is the name of the cannon?

A: Mons Meg. Dulle Greite. Malik-i-Mydan, Tzar Pooska, Dhool Dhanee, Zufr Bukh. Her nickname is Inevitable. She is also called Sweet Mouth and The Up, Up, And Away. She is known as The Widow for her coloring and because she has had congress with many men. She is also called The Mermaid by her husbands -- the men who oil her parts and polish the O of her mouth, and harness her and pull her along from town to town -- they say we should release her into the harbor, to see if she swims away. It is their little joke. She is called The Conversation, because she will speak courteously if you address her with a match. She is called The Only Answer, because she only ever gives the same answer, no matter your question.

Q: And what is your brother's name?

A: I have already forgotten it.

Q: How far will he travel?

A: He will travel so far, he will never come home again. His feet will never touch the ground, not for the rest of his life. He will never see his family again. He will never see the cannon again, but for the rest of his life, he will dream of her round, fixed, roaring black mouth.

Q: Who are these women?

A: They are his wives. After my brother is fired from the cannon, his two youngest wives will take his place in the cannon. They are wearing his luggage on their backs, filled with his belongings, his books, his golf clubs, his correspondences, his record collection, his toiletries, his identification. His wives will climb into the cannon and leave the cannon in much the same way that my brother will leave it, but they won't go to the same place he is going. Men and women don't travel to the same place.

Q: Why not?

A: No one knows why.

Q: Will he never come home again?

A: He will never come home again.

Q: Why must the cannon be fired?

A: The cannon must be fired because that is the reason for cannons. Ordnance must be placed in the cannon. Ordnance must be fired out of the cannon. The cannon serves no other purpose. A man may accidentally fall asleep in a cannon, or take shelter from a rainstorm, or hide from his enemies inside a cannon, but in the end, the cannon must be fired.

I once fornicated with a married woman inside the Sweet Mouth. She was agoraphobic. I said I was agnostic.

I said, "Yes, like that, don't wriggle so much," and she said, "How do you like this?" and "Watch your head," and while we were fucking, her husband came up and lit a match, and then we were flying. We sailed out like grappling shot. My lover yelled back at her husband, "Cock her up a bit, master gunner!" and we watched him get smaller and smaller.

I held on to her hips and the tails of her hair and fucked her as we passed over the countryside, and she wrapped her legs around my waist and fucked me back. When we were finished, we flew along side by side, and she remarked that she was grateful to me and the cannon and her husband. The affair had cured her of her agoraphobia. We fucked some more, to celebrate, and then we came to a town and I grabbed on to the steeple of an Episcopal church. She kept on going along. She wasn't ready to go back down again. I had a long walk home. I haven't seen her since.

Q: Did your brother have a happy childhood?

A: Why don't you ask him? He used to sit on my head. Once he set off firecrackers in my closet. He substituted toothpaste-and-cucumber sandwiches for my lunch. He ripped out the last pages of his comics before he gave them to me to read. He saved up his allowance and paid Josepha Howley and her four sisters to chase me around the neighborhood. When they caught me, they took off my shorts and tied them to a tree branch.

Q. Did the cannon have a happy childhood?

A. A long time ago, before all the wars were over and done with, when large artillery still had other uses, there was a master gunner who loved the cannon. Wherever he traveled he took her with him. She was his mascot, his victory, his confidante, his clock. For love of the master gunner she took Odruik. She took Prague, Famagusta, Seringapatam, Bajadoz. She took Cairo, she took dancing lessons, she took Beethoven's hearing and Napoleon's arm. She took and took and the master gunner gave and gave. He tickled her with his funis ignarii and his wands and his wormers, he wooed her with Valturio's patented incendiary shells, with fireworks and grapeshot, lead, granite, and bronze; he anointed her with costly scents -- saltpetre, serpentine, sulfur, charcoal, antimony. When the master gunner was old and rich and tired of going to war, he retired to the Riviera and built a castle. He married the cannon and he tied up her muzzle in a bonnet of white silk so that she would look like a lady. On Sundays the master gunner harnessed his wife to four ex-cavalry horses and rode her down the road to the chapel.

His wife was too stout to fit through the doors, though, and when the priest turned down the master gunner's offer to pay for a new set of doors, the gunner left her tied up next door in the cemetery. The horses cropped the grass and the gunner paid a small boy to watch and make sure that no one took his wife to melt down for scrap. After services, the younger members of the congregation used to go pick through the cemetery for rocks and small bits of masonry, for the master gunner to fire off.

Inside his castle the master gunner built a ramp so that when he went up to bed, the cannon went with him, and when he came down in the mornings for his breakfast, the cannon went too. To their great sorrow, they never had children and when at last the master gunner died, the undertakers dressed him in his traveling clothes and placed him inside his wife, the cannon. This was consummation. But the charge was inadequate, and when the master gunner left his wife at last, he got only as far as the next town over. They found his boots in an irrigation ditch, his johnnie in a lemon tree, his body tumbled over a sheep wall, his head in the shepherd girl's lap.

His heirs sold his widow to a circus impresario.

Q: Is there such a thing as a happy marriage?

A: Let me answer that question. My name is Venus Shebby. When I was a young girl, they fired me from the cannon one day and when I came down, I was in a different place. A beautiful place, full of beautiful people! The people who live in that beautiful place are hairy in winter and in spring they shed their hair and go naked.

In winter, they catch fish by setting fires on the frozen lakes, but in summer they don't eat fish. In summer they eat fruit and grains which they ferment in bladders, and those people stay drunk the whole summer long. Summer is the time of ghosts. In winter, ghosts are easy to spot. There are stories about winter ghosts found tangled like lice in their lovers' hair. Dead people have no hair themselves, which is how they can be recognized in winter. But in summer, the living and dead may pass each other on the street, and no one knows the difference. There are epic comedies, famous tragedies about the misunderstandings that ensue.

Those beautiful people collect their hair as they shed it, and keep it in pouches which they wear around their waists. The people wash the hair and perfume it and card it and comb it. In summer, the living wear woven hair belts and their pouches of hair around their waist, to show they are living people. But there are always fashionable people, who pretend to be dead, and there are cunning dead people, who steal hair from living people. For this reason, it is a deadly insult to pick off a strand of someone else's hair and put it in your own pouch, unless you have been invited to do so.

The people form societies to weave enormous carpets from their shed hair, and these carpets are soft and warm and heavy. The people sleep under these carpets in winter, once they are married, and they marry as many wives and husbands as can sleep together comfortably under one carpet. There is one word, which means all three of these things: marriage, carpet, society. There is no word for war or for travel. The people do not have a word for cannon. There are no cannons. All of the people's artifacts are made of hair and bone and skin. (Can you imagine a cannon made out of hair?) Even their histories are told on tapestries woven out of hair. But there is nothing as beautiful as the marriage carpets.

I have a collection of photographs of married people, lying together, all piled together beneath their marriage carpets, red and brown and black and amber and gray, looking as if particularly thick and hairy circus tents have collapsed. Heads and feet poke out at the edges, and some of the people are sneaking looks out of the embroidered, unfastened holes which are for breathing. The fastening buttons are carved of bone. If you have money, I'll show you these photographs. Industrious people sometimes weave carpets so large that they can marry several hundred other people all at once.

Other carpets the beautiful people keep in houses which are only for this kind of carpet, and not for living in. The carpets kept in these houses are the carpets in which the people are buried.

In summer, I might have been born in that place. The first winter, I was a novelty. I had my pick of husbands and wives. At the end of the second winter, when the ice was thawing, they sent me away. They said it was like sleeping with a dead person. I gave them bad dreams, and finally they couldn't sleep at all if I was near them. They use the same word for dead and for summer and for hairless, and after a while that word became my name. I left when they divorced me. They have no word for divorce.

I built a cannon out of ice, and wrapped myself in the funeral carpet which my husbands and wives had woven for me out of their own hair, and one of my wives was my gunner. I came back here, after many adventures, and once, when I'd been drinking, donated the funeral carpet to the national museum. When I was sober again, I asked for it back, but they claimed not to know what I was talking about. I live by myself and this old, bald, shabby thing I wear is a horsehair throw I found in a thrift store.

When I wake up, sometimes, before I open my eyes, I imagine that I am still lying under a marriage carpet with my husbands and wives. My hands are full of their sweet, perfumed hair. My name is Venus Shebby and once I was very beautiful, as beautiful as a cannon carved out of ice.

Q: Who was that woman?

A: Venus Shebby.

Q: How is a cannon like a marriage?

A: I don't know.

Q: Who was the first person to be fired from a cannon? Was it a man or a woman?

A: The first person to be fired from a cannon was a young man dressed as a woman. His name was Lulu. Sometimes, when someone is fired from a cannon, they say they are demonstrating "the Lulu leap."

Q: Do you love your brother?

A: I love my brother like a brother.

Q: Do you think I'm beautiful?

A: You are beautiful, but not as beautiful as Venus Shebby was, when she was young. You're not as beautiful as the cannon.

Q: Thank you for being honest. Why does your brother have so many wives, when you have no wives at all?

A: I don't know.

Q: Will you say yes when I ask you to marry me?

A: I don't know.

Q: What noise will the cannon make? Why can't you love me, just for a little while? Why must the cannon be fired? How long will your brother be gone? Why won't your brother come back? Will he never come back? What are you putting in your ears? Is it time for the cannon to be fired? May I ask the cannon these questions? What will she say?

A: A noise as loud as God, but only my brother and his wives will hear it. Everyone else is putting beeswax in their ears. I don't know. I don't know. A long time. He won't come back again. No. Beeswax and cotton. Soon. I don't know. No. Not now. Be patient. Listen. Listen.