After the first night of bombing destroyed his work at the University and the second night destroyed his life, he made his first specimen case from the heap that was his home. Its glass front taken from a large picture frame from which he had removed the photograph showing his smiling family: a proud husband, sitting stiff and straight, a wasp-waisted woman and an open-mouthed baby upon her lap. Since then, his collection maintained a line that crossed the gulf between the time before the war and now, a constancy that transmitted and each specimen its receiver.
As long as he could keep the connection alive, they remained as in the photograph and were never the broken forms dug from the rubble and covered with polite blankets.
Hidden and safe from the world above, he sat at a flimsy table, blew on his tea and tried to ignore the constant complaints of his stomach. Withdrawing a handful of nails from a battered tin, he bent his head forward to examine each one in the gas lamp's light. A low hum from above stopped the man�s work. He pointed an ear toward the sound, contemplating its distance.
The falling bombs sounded like the stomps of an angry giant. Its destructive footfalls marched toward the man below. He put his head down and covered his tea with his palm. Dust and stucco fell at each bomb�s landing. The giant passed over him and its steps grew more distant. He finished his tea with a gulp and brought his handful of matching nails back to his workshop.
Before going to bed, he made the nightly inspection of his collection. On each case, like a tombstone inscription, the words "Lesser Common Black Beetle" were written above two dates. He opened a case, looked inside, then moved to another, then another.
When everything was right, he stepped back and let the collection vibrate as one. He felt the humming tones modulating in his chest.
"Is that you son?"
"That's a good boy."
"Did you now?"
"Where's your mum? Put her on." Standing before his collection, the bombers above and their endless war disappeared. He forgot about horrors seen and loneliness endured. The grumbling of his stomach passed unnoticed.
"Alright. Good-bye, darling, 'till tomorrow."
The grey light that emanated from the collection grew dull as he shuffled to another corner of the room. He sat on the bare mattress and removed his coat, slapping at it to shake away the dust. He winced as he pulled off the tattered black jumper. Forming it into a pillow, he quickly fell asleep.
The next day brought a low, lead-coloured sky. Hanging above the man, it looked unfinished, as if God had spent his days of creation fixated on arranging all the trees, placing the earth worms and song birds just so and balancing every piece of broken home and smouldering heap but forgot to finish the sky. Above the wreck of a dead city and one little grey-haired man, God�s great drop cloth hung.
The man held a lidded jar above his head and carefully stepped amongst the wet, broken corpses of buildings. Their masonry and office furniture viscera spilled into the once wide avenue.
He entered a destroyed library and squinted in the weak light that came through the glassless windows. He eased himself to his knees with a groan. He licked his finger tips and carefully picked up a book by its corner. Studying the exposed area and setting the book aside, he repeated this again and again.
He moved a large book with both hands gripping a corner. Beneath black flowers of mildew, its cover showed snowy mountains. He hummed with pleasure when he saw the beetle, its black lacquered back shimmering in the gloom. His fingers moved with a spider�s diligence. He scooped up the creature and held it to his ear. It protested with a sharp clicking, its only, and useless, defence against the world. He pronounced its Latin name like a priest giving absolution. The insect slid to the bottom of the jar, and he inspected it with a grin.
Back in his room below, he sat at his table with a cup of tea and a display case. Inside it, a dozen beetles floated on pins centimetres above its label. He dropped a piece of ether-soaked paper into the jar containing the three beetles he had found that day.
He took one and introduced a pin through its carapace, repeating this with the other two.
He tore a scrap of card until he had three more labels. Resting his right hand on the wrist of his left, he wrote carefully with a sliver of pencil lead the exact same words he had written a thousand times before. Order name. Family name. Locality. The only variation on these cards, Date.
Once, he returned the case with its three new specimens to its place, the collection vibrated. The air charged with static and her voice called to him.
"What's that dear? What's the matter?" he asked.
Thump-da. His room shook angrily in response. He stared at the ceiling, his mouth open.
Thump-da. The tea cup danced off the table and shattered.
"Darling, I can't hear you!"
Thump-da. The wall behind his cases leapt out and -
He awoke to quiet stillness. He dragged himself from the pile of bricks and his shattered collection. He pulled a display pin from the meat of his palm and a pearl of dark red blood welled up.
He tugged at his ear and spoke a soundless, �Hello. Hello? Hello?� His specimens scattered like black rice made their white labels meaningless. He curled up beneath his coat and wept until he fell asleep.
Days later, the bright red scratches and cuts had darkened into a patchwork of scabs. His hearing came back and with it a constant high-pitched whistle. From the collapsed wall, he retrieved and repaired as many specimen cases as he could. Now when it rained, trickling waterfalls made chalky mud upon the floor. But still, he made his morning pilgrimage to look beneath decaying books for tiny black beetles, add them to his collection and keep the connection alive.
BIO: Jarred McGinnis won the 2009 "People's Choice" Award at the "Spread the Word" Novel Pitch competition for his novel Pissing on Dolphins. Excerpts and Illustrations from the novel are at http://pissingondolphins.com. He is http://wickedtomocktheafflicted.com.