/ Language: English / Genre:sf

The Power of the Nail

Harlan Ellison

The Power of the Nail

by Samuel R. Delany and Harlan Ellison

Coffins, on Saquetta, are round. The natives, on Saquetta, are round. When they die violently, the sound they make rises up into the ultrasonic and an Earther’s liver tightens inside him. But on Saquetta there is very little violent death. It is a peaceful world; there are very few Saquettes and unless they are violently killed, they are reincarnated almost immediately.

That was the way it had always been on Saquetta, till the Earther, Zagaramendo, came. Always gentle, in azure breezes with full bellies. They never hurt one another, they knew nothing about killing. To die was to pale and shiver and cease moving, without pain, until the dormant skinshell emerged from the sky-night-blue sand of the Hatchery Desert and they knew their dead brother had been reborn into the skin-shell that had always waited for him. And then the skin-shell moistened, tore, fell away, and the Saquette had returned.

That was the way it had always been, with many rotations of Saquetta passing without the terrible sound of the violent death scream rising up till it could no longer be heard.

And then came Robert Zagaramendo, with Margret.

“I hate it here.”

“Shut up.”

“You promised me better than this, somewhere; there are other posts. I hate it here!”

“Shut up, Margret.”

They had planted the automatic ecology equipment. Now they sat on the empty equipment cases. She brushed auburn hair back from her forehead; she was perspiring and the scent of herself reached her; it was hardly unpleasant, but it disgusted her. “This is what you call providing for me?”

Zagaramendo stood up: motion and emotion made him hiss. He started to say something loud, but instead turned and walked to the squid. He punched out the building codes on the squid’s belly; it was something to do that was not fighting. Fighting had been constant since he had accepted this Observer post, and he wanted no more. They were here now, far out on the Perimeter, and they would make the best of it.

He completed the building codes and punched the squid to action. Stamp…stamp…stamp, stamp, stamp. It huzzzed away on tractor-tread feet.

Zagaramendo went back to her. “Look…”

“I don’t want to talk about it any more.”

“Margret, look, we’ve got a chance here, please try to be reasonable.”

She turned on him. “Bob, this isn’t what I call a chance…this isn’t what I call a main chance to save our marriage.”

“Three years, Mar—”

“Being a prisoner for three years is no damned chance, Bob! You lied to me, you said we’d have a new start, somewhere. This isn’t somewhere, it’s nowhere!”

Behind them the squid was laying the foundation for their cabin. “Bob, this, here—!”


Already, around them, the squid had half completed their front yard.

The first of the Saquettes made their appearance during the fifth week of their Observership. At first there was only a scrambling and scurrying in the grass, then one or two peered out from the tall reed-like stems, and Margret moaned with a mixture of wonder and terror.

Zagaramendo went to them and looked down. They were round and small. Moles with soft blue fur? Not quite, but close enough. Their bright eyes blinked up at him and their candy chocolate noses trembled.

“They’re ugly,” Margret said, behind him. They were. They had everything cute going for them, but in totality they were repulsive. Zagaramendo sighed. “Go get in the cabin,” he told her. “I’ll tend to this.” When she didn’t move, he pivoted on his heel, crouching there, and shouted at her. “G’wan, get the hell out of here…make me something to eat!”

She gave him the smile that meant loathing, and went into the cabin. Zagaramendo turned back to the Saquettes.

The shadow fell over him. He looked up into the sun, shading his eyes, and for a moment all he saw was a black blur of something speeding down on bat wings. The Saquettes squealed in wafer-thin voices. It sounded to Zagaramendo as though they were shrieking mollok, mollok.

Then he threw himself aside as the winged creature swooped in and skidded on taloned claws, tearing out great chunks of grass and earth. The mollok—if that was indeed its name—kept coming, its long serpent body extending past its feet…and the bat head with its parrot beak darted faster than anything Zagaramendo had ever seen.

It caught one of the Saquettes and lifted it high, arching its ugly neck. The Saquette…popped. And the shriek rose up and up and up till Zagaramendo slammed his hands over his ears, and his eyes rolled up in his head. Then, silence. Either it had gone too high or the Saquette was dead. Zagaramendo opened his eyes and saw the pale blue blood dribble from the mollok’s beak.

It shot forward, dropping the first Saquette. It vanished into the tall grass, and a moment later the shriek came once again. Zagaramendo stumbled to his feet and pulled the burner from his holster. He plunged into the tall grass, even as Margret came out onto the front porch of the cabin, screaming. Her scream mingled and twined with that of the second Saquette, and Zagaramendo only paused an instant to howl, “Shuttttupppp!” and then raced into the grassland.

The mollok had done with the other little Saquette. And now it was pacing back and forth between the edge of the grassy place and the body. Zagaramendo raised the burner to kill, then paused. The mollok was looking for something.

Bat-wings folded back, parrot beak quivering, the filthy creature bobbled its head forward and back, forward and back, and moved in an erratic path toward a clear space just inside the grassy verge. It stopped, and hung its head. It vibrated gently, as though in a vagrant breeze. Then it hummed.

Margret was beside him. Zagaramendo put out a hand to stop her. “What is it?”

Zagaramendo shook his head. “I don’t know. A thing that eats the little ones.”

“What’s it doing—?”

Zagaramendo burned the mollok to ash. He walked to the dead Saquette. He moved it with the toe of his sod-boot. It seemed boneless.

“What was it doing?”

Zagaramendo ignored her. He walked to the clear space where the mollok had been drawn, where it had quivered on point, like a bunting dog. The phase-antenna of the automatic ecology equipment they had buried there, protruded from the soil. He placed a palm flat on the ground. It vibrated through his skin.

He heard the tiny sound to his left, and looked up to see three more furry little Saquettes, coming through the saw-grass, toward the cleared space. He watched as they paused, redirected, and came on directly. They stood just inside the cleared space, and their candy chocolate noses quivered toward the antenna.

“It’s the equipment,” Zagaramendo said. “It’s sending out a hum, a vibration. They come to it; I suppose their systems are responsive to the vibration at this frequency.”

Margret moved closer. “Their eyes are closed. Are they enjoying it?”

Zagaramendo shrugged softly. “I don’t know. They could just be reaching instinctively. It could be a tropism. Like a moth to a flame. I’ve never heard about a tropism like this, though. Sound-drawn. Have to call it an audiotropism.

Margret shuddered. “Why aren’t they cute? They should be cute.”

“They aren’t, that’s all. Stop it.”

“I can’t help it. I hate it here, I hate them, I hate that—that thing you killed. There’s something just hateful about this whole world. You lied to me.”

“Stop it, Margret.” That softly. Tired.

“No, I won’t stop it. There’s death all over this world, we’ll die here. This isn’t why I married you…not for this…not out here!”

“There isn’t ‘death all over this world’; stop being so damned melodramatic. That thing I burned, it probably hunts these little ones, it’s a natural thing. They probably have a way of escaping most of the time, but the mollok was drawn to the machinery vibration the same as they were, and they were…I don’t know…something like lulled, hypnotized, involved with vibration…and the thing was able to catch them. That’s the natural order, no more ‘death all over this world’ than it would be for a lion to bring down a gazelle on Earth.”

She stared at him. “I’m going to leave you, Bob.”

He turned away, looking up into the cold hard sky. When he spoke, he smiled. They had agreed on what that smile meant. There was that between them at least. Only…she had said—“Leaving?”

“Margret, we’re here for another sixteen months. The ship doesn’t swing back for pickup for another sixteen months. Now just how in the hell do you plan on leaving me?”

“When we get away from here.”

“Don’t talk stupid.”

“I mean it, Bob. I can’t stand this kind of life.”

“You knew what it would be like when you married me.”

“You never said we’d be in a place like out here.”

“I have to take the assignment I get, Margret.”

“I want a divorce.”

“Okay, okay dammit, you’ll get it, when we get off here.”

“I consider myself divorced right now.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t come near me, Bob. I’ll do what I have to do to keep the situation workable, but don’t try to touch me.”


“Don’t touch me, Bob. Not as long as you do this thing to me, and keep me out here.”

“Oh, for God’s—” he began, thinking he would never want to touch her again anyway.

“You can call the ship, it can pick us up early, you know that. Don’t lie to me.”

“Only for an emergency. And we don’t have one of those. Why the hell did you ever marry me?”

“I don’t know…now.”

“You thought I was going up in the Rank, didn’t you? You took a gamble, and it didn’t payoff, did it? Jesus Margret, Jesus Christ, what kind of a wom—”

She turned and walked away from him. Her back was very straight. The day suddenly grew cold. The Saquettes trembled toward the unheard sound of the buried machinery. Zagaramendo sat down in the grass, his head slumping forward, his thoughts tumbling and twisting.

“Jesus,” he said, softly.

In the ninth week he witnessed a reincarnation, and he understood why the number of Saquettes was stable. He also saw another attack by molloks, but the Saquettes burrowed into the soil and were safe. The only time they were caught was near the antenna of the buried machinery. There were now seven locations of buried machinery, and every week when he trekked out to check them, he found the locations littered with crushed and popped Saquettes. He ignored it.

And that week he tried to make love to his wife. Out of spite. And she pushed him away. His face flamed and he grabbed her by the hair, throwing her down on the floor of the cabin. They struggled back and forth across the floor, and then he yanked her up and hit her, very hard, just below the left ear. She lolled against his grip, gasping for air, her eyes glazed, and when he saw what he had done he dropped her and ran out into the grassland.

They needed a reading from the place he called Polo Valley. But there was a large colony of Saquettes living there, and he knew what would happen if he planted ecology machinery there.

Molloks lived in the caves on the crags above.

After the fight in the cabin, he coded the squid to carry the machinery, and he took it out to Polo Valley, and he planted it.

He did not tell her about it. Love, hate; he tried to mark distinctions and foundered on his own ignorance. Ignorance and ignore are the same word.

They heard the shrieking in the night.

Coffins, on Saquetta, are round. After the massacre in Polo Valley, it fell to the Earther, Zagaramendo, to build the coffins. The round, little coffins. Like round fruits cut in half, hollow, filled with a boneless corpse and resealed. The coffins were made of something like teakwood, and were nailed together.

It fell to the Earther, for the Earther had done the killing. Not really, yet he had. There had been, in Polo Valley, seven hundred Saquettes.

In the thinly wooded area just beyond the Valley he used his burner and beamed down enough timber to make seven hundred coffins. From the inventory he took nails. And Zagaramendo began nailing up the victims of his need, his helplessness, his weakness. It took him six days.

On the night of the sixth day…

“Margret, pack your nightgown—”

“I haven’t got a nightgown, Bob.”

“Pack up your mother’s silver!”

“You said you’d polish—”

“Finish microfilming my notes. We’re going home tomorrow, I called the ship, they’re coming.” He swayed on the porch, grinning at the disbelief blooming on her face.

He let the handle of the burner clunk against the porch-rail. Then let it go completely. The muzzle clinged on the boards.

“You’re finished? You mean you’ve really finished?”

He reached into the swag pocket of his overalls and pulled out a handful of black, wooden spheres. “Finished. With them, with the Rank, with all of it. We’ll go home, and start again. I’ll tell them no more out here. They’ll have to listen; I’ve got tenure.”

The tentative expression, first. Then the smile breaking. Then her laughter that shattered all the lines of distance the three years as Ecological Observers had strung between them, all the lines separating them during eleven weeks on Saquetta, lines that had been cemented on her face by her belief in the death around them.

She seized his hand, and the laughter shook along her arms so that the spheres rolled in his palm. “Oh, Bob—” Then tears. “I can go home! I am going home.” A pause as she heard herself, then. “We’re going home! You’re finished!” She smiled.

“Well…” He smiled. And smiles suddenly were something neither of them had ever seen before. He looked back across the porchrail at patchwork Polo. “I’ve still got to fasten the last twenty or so together. How are you at hefting a hammer?”

“We’re going home,” she repeated. “Gimme.”

Evening on Saquetta pours green across the crags where the molloks live. (A dark green sea that fills and blots out Polo. And the last of the sun sinking in.) And they held each other’s hand, walking back to the compound.

“I’m going to miss them, a little. They were getting to be cute, scurrying around in the grass—” A harsh sound from her. “Who am I kidding.”

Zagaramendo started up the steps. And suddenly his arm flailed.

Margret jumped back.

His shoulder hit the step, and then he was rolling.

For God’s sake. Bob! Are you all right—?”

Roll, and drop, roll and drop: the black spheres came down the porch steps. He had left them in the corner beside the burner.

“Oh, Bob, you didn’t trip over—”

He was groaning.

“Bob?” Which is not exactly what she said: it came out in two syllables, the second much higher than the first.

On her knees, she tugged him over. There was blood on his overalls, at the hip.

He was gasping, eyes closed, mouth opened, and was pawing at his pocket.

Confused, she stuck her hand into the swag-pocket pouch.

The nails! The threepenny brads from the supply inventory…

The blood was spreading down his overalls.

Red, not pale blue like the blood from the furry ugly things that should have been cute, dribbling off the parrot-beak of the things that lived in the crag caves above Polo, where he had planted his death-bringer, knowing…


And weighing it against her…

And not caring…

Turning away…

Blood…as Polo sank into the green sea.

Coffins, on Saquetta, are round. And the natives… small (and yes, round), are, as the life-forms on so many other worlds, organic. And, as on so many other worlds, there were other life-forms, not just molloks. There were cocci—staph, strep, diplo and mono—bacilli, sperilli, rickettsia, and viruses…

Three little Saquettes came out of the tall grass and stood aimed at the antenna, quivering, belonging for a time to the vibration of a thing unseen…

Peritonitus still takes only twenty-four hours to kill.

And on the morning of the seventh day…