The Sikh pursed his lips and bunched his face together. That is not so, he said, enunciating each word very clearly. That is not so. Im sorry.
Lowboy put his hand on the seat between them, where the Sikhs hand had just been. It was still slightly warm. Can you say definitely that its older than that? he said. He drummed against the plastic with his fingers. Youre not seventy years old.
I can say so, the Sikh said. I can say so absolutely. Why does he have to say everything twice, thought Lowboy. Im not deaf. It was enough to put him in mind of the school. The way the Sikh was looking at him now, trying hard not to seem too curious, was exactly the way the doctors did it there. He forced his eyes away, fighting back his disappointment, and found himself staring down at the Sikhs feet. They were the smallest feet hed ever seen on a grown man. Those look like shoes a doll would wear, he thought. Sikhs are supposed to be the tallest men in Asia. He looked from the shoes to the Sikhs face, flat and pleasant and unnatural as a cake. As he did so he began to have his doubts.
Here they come, Lowboy thought, forcing his mouth and eyes shut. His throat went dry the way it always did when the first doubts hit. The train braked hard and shuddered through a junction. The air grew warmer by exactly six degrees.
All right, then, he said cheerfully. But it wasnt all right. His voice sounded wrong to him, precious and stilted, the voice of a spoiled English lord.
All right, he said, feeling his skin start to prickle. Its perfectly all right, you see.
When he let his eyes open they were back inside the tunnel. There was only one tunnel in the city but it was wound and snarled together like telephone wire, threaded back on itself so it seemed to have no beginning and no end. Ouroboros was the name of the dragon that ate its own tail and the tunnel was Ouroboros also. He called it that. It seemed self-contained, a closed system, but in fact it was the opposite of closed. There were openings spaced out along its length like gills along the body of an eel, just big enough for a person to slip through. Right now the train was under Fifty-third Street. You could get off at the next station, ease your body through the turnstile, and the tunnel would carry on exactly as before. The trains would run without a single person in them.
Two men got off at the next station, glancing back over their shoulders, and a third man moved ahead to the next car. Lowboy could see the man in question through the pockmarked junction doors, a middle-aged commuter in a rumpled madras jacket, Jewish or possibly Lebanese, flipping nervously through a giltedged leather datebook. Soon the Sikh would switch cars too and that was perfectly all right. That was how you managed in the tunnel. That was how you got by. You came and sat in a row and touched arms and knees and shoes and held your breath and after a few minutes, half an hour at the most, you separated from each other for all time. It would be a mistake to take that as an insult. Hed done the same a thousand times himself.
Lowboy patted himself on the knee and reminded himself that he hadnt gotten on the train to talk to little grandfatherly men about religion. Hed gotten on the train for a reason and he knew in his heart that his reason was the best one that anyone could have. Hed been given a calling: that was what it was called. It was a matter of consequence, a matter of urgency, a matter possibly of life and death. It was as sharp and light and transparent as a syringe. If he got careless now he might lose track of his calling or confuse it with something else or even forget his calling altogether. Worst of all he might begin to have his doubts.
Excerpted from Lowboy by John Wray, published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by John Wray. All rights reserved.
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