death

Adam

Drifting south on melting ice, pulled toward death by the tide, the creature wondered which would end him first: the melting platform beneath him? Lowering his bulk closer and closer to the frozen ocean. The grumbling sky above? Pregnant and dark, heavy with rain to wash him away. He wondered which might hurt more, dissolving in the frigid tide, abluted to naught by the deluge. Did it matter, truly, after an existence full of deaths? First in pieces, the remains of a dozen different lives, then on the table, by lightning, then bit by bit with every life he took since.

Adam, he decided then, Adam is my name.

Not creature, not abortion, not wretch nor demon nor fiend: Adam. It was a small victory, to define oneself, but in the end it is all even monsters have.

A victory so small, none but the now-named beast, and the quiet sea would know it.

He looked at his hands, and saw they swam in blood. How violent to steal a life, how easy. Imagining each kill claimed the breath of his maker. That by robbing the doctor of all he treasured, the creature avenged its own birth. The fear in the doctor's eyes at that moment followed him still. 

Alas, all he had stolen was his own chance at self. A raindrop fell on the creature’s cheek. Brushing it off with a finger, his skin gave and he saw gray flesh fall away from his face and into the ocean. How quickly you fall apart when nothing in you wants to hold together. Were he able, he would have wept. Had he the anger he felt with his fingers wrapped around his father’s love, he might have screamed at the sky. Had he a soul, or faith, perhaps he would beseech heaven for mercy from a silent God. Had he courage, he would rise, slip into the waters, and oblivion, and be forgotten.

The sky grumbled again. More droplets fell. More dead flesh discarded itself onto the melting floe. Adam sighed. Courage was no longer necessary. When you wait long enough, the inevitable comes whether you choose it or not.

Given no option, why not embrace the ineluctable end?

Wincing, he forced himself to sit, peeling himself from ice which melted and pooled and froze again around him, tugging at his skin, tearing until he left it behind like a shedding viper. He stood on shaky feet, and tottered towards the edge, stumbling, falling, toward the deep.

With each step, he left more behind. Toes and fingers, a foot, an eye. A self that crumbles to the coda. A microcosm of life that takes and takes and wears all down to the nub.

I am Adam. He thought, closer now, closer. I… was Adam.

He stared into churning, icy froth.

I was.

He pitched forward, plummeting into the ocean flood, disappearing as it began to rain in earnest. The wretch did not emerge again.

Soon, with the force of the torrent, even the ice was gone. With it, every trace of the creature that yearned, the abortion that dreamed, the fiend.

...Adam.

What Death Has Touched

“‘Tis a fearful thing, to love what death can touch.”

For as long as life can be, for as many long and painful silences that we endure, however many days and nights pass and seem unending. The lives of men and women ultimately boil down to a few key moments, none more important or more futile than the last. It was in such a moment Farouk found himself when he woke, bound to a chair, in a room full of smoke, a lilting voice reciting his favorite poem as if it were song.

The world froze in that moment, and he looked around the room in a daze. Flames hung in the air, frozen in their rapid consumption of the wallpaper, of his bookshelves and furniture and carpet, of his world entire. The air hung hot and heavy, searing his lungs with each breath. In the shadows, another figure moved, he squinted to make it out. Though as the man spoke, his blood ran cold. The familiar words of Halevi bringing little comfort.

“A fearful thing, to love, to hope, to dream, to be –“

“Ti?” Farouk called into the dark, the pet name of his ex-lover Tichaun, knowing it was him but not wanting it to be all the same. “Ti? What are yo-“

He danced lithely out from the shadows, nearly indistinguishable from them, though the sweat on his obsidian skin glistened with the firelight. Caressing Farouk’s cheek with his hand, he spun around the chair, then spun the chair around, so his old flame could see that flames surrounded them. Once this moment ended, so too would their lives.

“to be… and oh, to lose.” The man smiled as he straddled Farouk, he wore no clothes and, despite his situation, the bound man felt a growing warmth inside at his lover’s familiar closeness. The man was nude… and he was as beautiful as he was deranged. Their position together inspired memories of happier times.

“Ti. You-you don’t have to do this. We can still, we can still…” Lies faded from Farouk’s tongue as futility hit him like a bullet train. What was done has already been done; there is no going back, only forward into the end. He closed his eyes, remembering the look on Tichaun’s face when he walked in on Farouk with one of the Egyptian scholar’s students. He said nothing, not interrupting the liaison, only slipping back outside once he was sure Farouk had seen him there, that there was a witness to this crime against love.

Until now, Farouk had not seen him again, assuming he had found some other diversion. Like the wind he was always flying, laughing, speaking like behind his words there was a melody only he could hear. But now… now…

“A thing for fools this. And a holy thing.” As Tichaun spoke, Farouk felt the room grow hotter. Behind his lover, a shadow against the crimson burning, he saw the flames again begin to move. Sweat mottled the hair that covered the back of his hands, black bristles on hands brown like earthen clay.

“Ti… I’m sorry. I said I would be better and I wasn’t. I’m sorry. This moment is more than I deserve.”

Ti smiled, and with one hand tilted Farouk’s head upwards until their lips met in a tender kiss. As their mouths explored each other one last time, as the flames grew closer, as it grew harder and harder to breathe in the smoke. The Egyptian heard his lover’s voice, as if the air itself was commanded by his larynx.

“For your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me.”

Flames licked their skin, consuming them in desperate search of fuel, melting flesh and bone into blackened carbon, fusing them into the one they never were in life. Farouk felt no pain; only distant regret; he only thought:

To remember this brings painful joy.

And then the moment ended, and so came another, and another. And another.

After hours of moments, as police sifted through the ash trying to differentiate between what was once man and once house, wind sung its way through the home’s skeletal remains, sifting the ash with playful hands. Had any officers turned to see the ash winding its way across the charred floor, they would have seen—for a brief moment—this final moment’s words flash in the dying embers before dissipating.

Tis a human thing, love,

a holy thing, to love

what death has touched.

The Last Stand

                The shot does not ring around the world. Indeed, not even the general himself hears the fateful pop. Drowned out by the fray, by the din of war, he only feels the bullet as it strikes his side, spinning him around and then down into the ford. There he lies, embraced by the river. He did not expect this, and does not have time to evince surprise.

The light dims too quickly; life does not flash before his eyes. Pain centers him in the present, forces his focus onto the bodies surrounding him. Young men moan feebly for their mothers, their fathers, their lovers or wives. Others stare blankly into the beyond that claims them, ushered into an afterlife that yet comes for him. He sees the ridge thicken with Lakota and tries to scramble to his feet, to continue his crossing, his fight, but all his strength drains into the waters.

                Custer tastes death. He chokes on clotted blood. The river, Little Big Horn, rushes by, running red.

Gagging, gasping, the general fades away.

                The Lakota cross past the dead in silence, in pursuit of survivors and other companies of men. They trod over the fallen, the young and old, the white, black and Native, in solemn observance of the evil men force themselves to do. They do not see him, nor the stars on his lapels. They do not know what ‘great’ man has passed here; they do not care.

                The world is for the living, burdened by concerns, plagued with violence. As they pass on, across the river onto grass greased by dew-like ichor, the sun continues to rise towards a sanguine dawn. Disappearing beyond a copse of ash trees, their thoughts fix on the battles ahead.

                And they know: the day’s dying has only just begun.

At the Foot of Olympus

                They gathered at the mountain’s base, seven pilgrims. All came for different reasons. A father and son, mirror images of each other. Their faces cast in the hard-set of grief. The son’s hair was frizzy and brown, the father’s thinner and greyed. Both wore the long unkempt beards of many months of travel. An elderly woman, at first glance she appeared a frail thing just clinging to life, but the others knew better. Only the strong could hope to make this journey. Only the determined ever got this far. Two children, brother and sister, checked their packs for the climb ahead. They were idiosyncrasies equal to the elderly woman, two pre-teenaged young ones, but again, the look in their eyes presaged a tale of losses that would age any soul.

The last two travelers—a young woman with high cheekbones, freckles on her sunburnt nose and hollow eyes who stared mutely into the middle distance and an infant swaddled to her chest who slumbered and gurgled and never once cried—stood apart from the others. She wore the child like a backpack, seemingly unaware that it lived. For the child’s part, he seemed to want for nothing.

They assembled at the foot of Olympus and waited for the sign their journey was to begin. Father and Son did little to hide their unease at the other’s presence.

“Are you sure you’re able to-” Son started to ask the Old Woman, but her glare stopped him dead. Her look said more clearly than words: Mind your own business, boy, as I do mine.

“Well, we all have our reasons, I suppose.” He muttered to himself, shaking his head ruefully.

Father tried to help the children tending to their rations and clothing, but Brother snapped at him, barking like a mad dog. Sister did not even raise her eyes to meet his gaze or answer his offers of aid. The middle-aged widower backed away with his hands up, showing he meant no harm. Exchanging a look with his son, a whole conversation passed between them in silence. They agreed that their fellow travelers were best left alone. This would be no picaresque tale. They would trade no stories about the losses and hardships that brought them here. Their journey would not be peppered with the episodic remembrances of fellow truth-seekers.

Yes, he imagined very well that he already knew their stories. If not the specifics, at the very least their flavor. And he knew that he would be no more inclined to share the details of his pain than they were.

Even now, years later, Father saw, clear as day, Mother’s hand squeezing his one last time and going slack. He remembered how frail she was. How she looked just as anguished in death, frozen in the last moment of pain. He remembered the hospice caregiver’s last words: “She’s with God now, son.” Small comfort. Did God love her any more than they had? He very much doubted it. He looked up to the mountain’s peak, shrouded always in clouds, and wondered if the countless others who made the legendary ascent had found their answers at journey’s end.

Either way, soon his suffering would end.

He patted Son gently on the shoulder, lead him away to erect their tent and wait for dark.

The group split into four sections, waiting in a clearing between the forest at Olympus’ base and a quiet still lake. Its waters shimmered blue and orange, reflecting the sky. Wind whispered ripples across its surface. It howled in the traveler’s ears, and each of them were reminded of a different loss. Or the same loss from different perspectives. Father and Son sat around a makeshift fire pit, heating a simple dinner of ground meal and dried salted meat. They ate and talked of simple things, of their memories, of their quest.

The Elder sat, her back against a spindly oak, working with her thin fingers at spinning something out of yarn. It was a long, multi-hued woolen beast. Once it may have been intended as a scarf, but that had been years ago. Now it was merely her finger’s obsession, something to pass the time. A project she would add to until she died.

Brother and Sister, their losses temporarily forgotten, played on the pier that cut partway into the lake. Each trying to push the other in. Laughing, they fell in together and swam beneath the clear, calm water.

Mother and Child also stood on the pier, Mother still staring blankly, child still sleeping and murmuring in its dreams. No one came near her. Somehow they sensed hers may well be the saddest story of them all. What answers did she demand from God? Why bring the child?

After a fashion, night began to fall. The sun set behind the mountain and the group was left in darkness, segmented. The Siblings scratched stick figure patterns into the dirt with rocks. Father and Son prepared to sleep, in case they were not called forth by morning. The Elder knitted still, never once stopping, as if the action itself were all she needed for sustenance. Mother and Child had not moved in hours.

From the peak of the mountain came a sound like thunder, preceded by flashes like lightning. This sound and fury fell not from the skies but the mountain itself. A giant Tesla Coil. The travelers assembled, three pairs and the Elder, eager for whatever came next. One bolt struck the ground right before them, cracking loud and smelling of burning ions. It tore the ground asunder, shrieking and groaning as the Earth trembled. They covered their eyes and shrank from the noise and brightness.

When the dust settled, and the smoke cleared, a voice greeted them.

“Seven have come. Seven seeking answers to questions beyond Man’s purview. They seek the wisdom of a God they no longer revere. Welcome to Olympus.”

A stooped man, even older than the Elder seeker, stood in the cracked Earth’s hollow. Whether he had traveled by lightning strike, or been hidden in the Earth beneath their feet they did not know. He continued.

“This is the Rubicon. Beyond this point there is no return. Only forward, only answers to questions you may end up wishing you did not know. Ignorance is… bliss, they say.”

He turned and walked through the trees towards the mountain. The old man began to ascend. Slowing when he sensed that none followed, still dazed by his entrance, still rubbing the dots from their eyes and the ringing from their ears, he called over his shoulder.

“The time to come is now. If I pass out of eyeshot, you will never see me again. You will die, lost on this mountain.”

For the first time, each pilgrim met the other’s eye. Everyone nodded their affirmation. The unspoken camaraderie… we traveled too far to turn back now.

One by one, they began to climb. Towards truth. Towards sweet death.

Forests at Fontainebleau

You enter the forests at Fontainebleau, thick settled woods of oak and scots pine, branches tilting upwards, as if seeking the grace of God. Their nettles snap under your feet, each step crackling like a fire, bringing your further from the world you know, and into the strange. You wonder: here will you finally discover what it is you seek?

                “Welcome1” The voice shocks you. You expected to be alone on this shadowed path. Who else would enter the woods as the sun sinks below the horizon? Who else would enter the darkness, fleeing the dying orange glow?

                “Welcome to the Forests at Fontainebleau...” You realize the voice comes from ahead, and slowly the speaker reveals himself. An old, dark man with sand-paper skin and sallow, sad eyes, yellow and filmy. Eyes of one accustomed to a life in darkness.

                Yours is not a journey one wishes to make with company, so, uncertain, you ask: “Who… who are you? Will you leave me to my path?”

                He does not answer either question, instead repeating himself. “Welcome to the Forests at Fontainebleau. You have come, as all do who come here, for one of two reasons. To seek death… or to flee it.”

                How could he know?

You do not reply out loud, but with a wink and knowing smile he disappears back into the shadows and does not bother you any further. It appears the strange man makes this forest his home. You wonder, albeit briefly, which one he sought when first he arrived: death or its opposite. But as you continue further into the wood, the trees growing taller, their branches more gnarled, he leaves your thoughts entirely.

                These are strange forests here are Fontainebleau. Their depths as unknowable as the truth to the legends that surround them. They say that men drawn here, and women, come with heavy hearts, with little to live for. They say that none who find their center ever leave, that they belong to the forests and the forests belong to them. That many wander from the path are lost forever, to deaths at their own hand. That those who survive their despair become stewards, and guides and… whatever else they may be is unknown.

                The boughs of passing trees scrape and scratch at you as you wander past, following the winding path deeper in the darkening night. Soon you are lost entirely, not able to see much but your feet beneath and your hands in front, trusting that the path remains before you, and that you remain true to your goal: the embrace of death or its obliteration, immortality or oblivion, whichever comes first.

                The sun rises, and then falls, and does so again and again, and you are no closer to your destination, merely becoming more and more lost. How much time passes in that wood, you cannot say, but you do know you wander in circles. Growing old, these trees become your only friends. Like them, you wander arms outstretched, begging the Lord that may or may not be for mercy. Years in darkness wear on you, draining your skin of its moisture. Your palms, your face, they become rough and patchy.

                You do not find its center, but eventually, now an old man, you happen back upon the Forests’ edge. Once again you face a dying sun. You sigh, frustrated, knowing that you must start your journey anew, but—what’s this? You hear other footsteps, another presence enters the wood. Perhaps his purposes match your own. Either way, it is a journey you both will make alone.

                First, you go to greet him. The old hand welcoming the new. He is a young man, with a familiar fresh face set seriously, grimly, like one who seeks his own end. Like you once looked.

                “Welcome!” You call out, smiling as you startle him. The grin reveals a bright white smile beneath sallow, yellowed eyes, those of one accustomed to the thick forest darkness. “Welcome to the Forests at Fontainebleau!”

Death of a Linguist

When I tell my father I want to become a linguist, he remains silent a long time. "Words... they're all lies, you know." He finally responds.

"Language is a construct, meaningless symbols papering over the object's true self."

"Dad, it's not that sim-"

"Here, I'll prove it to you."

"I say 'chair'. Do you picture the word or the thing itself?"

"Well, I see a chair."

"Exactly!" He smiles as if he had the argument won.

"Say chair, or chaise or-" Here he clicks, a series of epiglottal stops. "-It all evokes the same thing. These... 'words'? And all configurations thereof? Mere time wasters."

He turns towards the window, the light from the setting sun casts his long shadow into the room so even from far away he reaches towards me. I cannot escape him, nor the frightful import of his conclusions.

"Every object, every concept, has its true nature. Words are... echoes, blinding us to what things really are."

"So what are they?" I ask. "Really?"

His back to me still, he responds. "I cannot tell you, only show, bound as we are by these falsehoods we speak. Are you quite sure you wish to see? There are some things we are not meant to know, artifices best left unchallenged. My son, I-"

"If you can handle it, so can I. Show me!"

He looks at me. For the first time, I see the anguish, the madness that was always there in his eyes but somehow had always escaped my notice. Perhaps before I did not know what to look for, or that there was ever anything to see. For the first time, I did not see my father, but a dangerous man, who had played with forces beyond the ken of any man to control.

"When did I ever say I handled it?"

He walks towards me, and I retreat. "Language is a lie, yes, but one tied to everything we are. Take that away, and..."

"Who are we?" I finish, breathless.

He reaches me, bearing a mournful expression. That of one just suffering an insurmountable loss. He grabs me by the back of the head, forces me forward until our foreheads are touching. I can feel power crackling in the air. Something dissociating me bit by bit from the world I know. Each second brings another small loss. Each second, I am less able to convey, or even understand that which is being taken from me.

"Exactly my son, exactly. So, tell me," An electric shock rushes through me. "Who are you?"

Two men are in a room, one standing as still as death. The other, older, watches for movement, or life. Then sighs and shakes his head.

"I warned him... didn't I?"

The Father leaves the room, not looking back once at the man who was once his son. The other, the still child, I… he, as if watching from outside himself, remarks on the wetness staining his cheeks. A phenomenon he cannot name. An emptiness wrenches his gut, belonging to an emotion he no longer knows.

In Search of Eternity

                How many caves on how many snow-capped mountains must I visit before I find the magi who cursed us all to die? It turns out the answer is 230, 230 climbs through swirling snow, in frostbitten cold. 230 times over many, many years I have recklessly risked my everything, until finally I find them. The council that governs time. Ageless faces of every color, seated in the dark. There they decide when all men die. There I meet them and demand to know:

                “Why? Why is death? Why do you ask of us such suffering? Why can’t we have-”

                “More time?” The woman in the center speaks, her face evokes such youth, but her eyes? They have seen centuries. They pierce through me—black, ancient orbs—to my very soul. They see the anguish that has driven me to find them, that inspires my query.

                “Such hubris. To think that time belongs to you. You cannot waste it, for time is its own master, plunging forward and never back, leaving all your mistakes in the black of the past. Eventually it will leave you there as well.”

She leans forward, into a flickering light with no obvious source. All my defiance is forgotten, I am left with only fear, with only doubt as to why I would undertake such a foolish mission and question those who are clearly above even the ‘Gods’, above any fallacy we men would create.

                She continues: “You are born in the grave, and in that tomb there are no answers to ‘Why?’ That is not even a question we create. We make only the what. You live. You pass. If you wish to ask more, you must answer that yourself.”

                Transfixed before them, I am at a loss to find the anger that drove me, the anguish that burned me to pursue this inquiry. Looking into their eyes, I find no emotion, only judgement. Only death. I flee their gaze, and head back down the mountain, no wiser than before I came.

Memories of Home

                They wandered through the fog, searching for Mother’s grave. A young man and his son, who toddled along behind him, small hand in his for safety. He had put this off for as long as he could, lingered for as long as he might, but the time had come. Small eddies of repressed grief came swirling back to the fore.

                “What was she like?” The son asked.

                “Your mom?”

                Though they could barely see each other’s faces in the mist, he knew that his son nodded.

                He sighed, despite how long he had prepared for this question, for when he son would be old enough to inquire after the obvious. Still he was unsure of how to answer.

                “She was, she was…”

                A million traits and one, she was one person to him and another to another. How could he describe the essence of someone who was gone? An entirely separate someone who was impossible to truly know.

                “Imagine a house.”

                “Our house Dad?”

                “Sure, imagine our house. And it’s filled with dust. There’s a storm raging outside and the windows are open. The wind kicks the dust up so that it makes patterns in the light. Your mom is that house. She is that dust.”

                “Dad, that doesn’t make any sens-“

                “Imagine you enter that house. At any given time you might see the dust swept one way or another, and to you, that is what that house is. How that house. You might come back later and see the dust arrayed another way. Same house, slightly different perspective.”

                He stopped a moment to gather his bearings. It was difficult to pick their way through the cemetery in this soup swirling inches before their faces. Was she in this row? Were they even among the graves at all? The car was so far away, he wasn’t even sure he could find his way back to that. This weather was more treacherous than he had realize. To swallow his slow-growing panic, the Father continued.

                “Now imagine I enter the house, same amount of dust, same furniture, same shifting wind. I see all the same things, but the patterns? They’ve changed. And my perspective is not quite yours. So what that house may have been to you, it’s almost certainly not that to me.”

                The Son didn’t say anything now. Whether he was listening, or if this was just too far beyond him to understand, or even If it made any sense at all, Father could not say. He kept speaking though, imagining this house they had lost. Imagine the smiling ghost that haunted it in particulate form. The reflection of the woman robbed from them both. As they walked, sun began to percolate through the lifting gloom, and he gathered his bearings. They were close now. So close.

                “Now, imagine that house burns down. And all that remains is ash and our memories of its layout and its dust. And imagine years later, someone walks up to you and asks: ‘Remember that house of yours, what was it like?’ Do you know what you’d say.”

                They walk along in silence, the Son sulkily, and the Father lost in memory’s distorting mirror. Eventually they come to a familiar gravesite, where his beloved were was years ago, soon after they both had given each other what they long wanted. A family. Father grips his son’s hand tightly, to assure the son that tears were okay, while attempting to forestall his own.

                “Your Mom, son? The only way I know to describe her: She was home.”

Sacrifice And Loss

                In the hospital room, one sitting, one lying, both dying, but one much closer to the brink than the other, they pondered each other’s sins in silence. They waited, father and son, for the other to apologize, each considering themselves the most aggrieved of the two. They listed, silently, the ledger of sins the other had accrued against them. They fumed, silently, and refused to forgive. In each man built sadness, they saw how the other had been reduced by the feud between them. They longed to reach out and hug the other, but the gulf, forged by anger, was simply too wide. Each considered the meaning of loss, the cost of sacrifice.

                “Dad…” One began.

                “Son…” The other wheezed, a husk of the robust self he had once been.

                “I forgive you.” They spoke in unison.

                In response, the father laughed so hard it rattled his ribs. He coughed, painfully, phlegmatically. “You… forgive me? You ungrateful son of a-”

                “Yes Dad, I forgive you your trespasses. I forgive you for berating me, for beating me verbally. I forgive you for all the times you stepped out against-”

                “Your Mother? She loved me, she understood my… excesses.”

                “She forgave you for our sake. She thought it better our family stick together. She was the one who sacrificed, not you!”

                “I lost her, just as you did Son. We mourned together. We buried her together!”

                The son sighed. And felt the tears creeping in his eyes. He would not cry. Not for him. “Yes, you mourned her after she died. But who cared for her while she lived, and who fled? Who lived in New York, hundreds of miles away, while she receded?”

                The father sat up. His eyes red, with tears and anger. “I. DIDN’T. KNOW! I didn’t know how serious it had gotten. If I had… if I-” His sentence trailed off in a series of raking coughs, each one sounding like a rib cracking.

                The son shook his head, partially out of disbelief, partially to clear the tears from his eyes. “You, you sad, old man. You bitter-“

                The father interrupted with a laugh, even from his death bed, that cackle was potent and shattered the quiet with its strength. “Me? The bitter one? After all I’ve forgiven? After how you wasted your life? My riches? Casting aside the privilege I bled to afford you? You… ungrateful… FUCK YOU! After all I sacrificed…”

                “You never sacrificed for me, Dad. You never sacrificed at all. Everything you did was for yourself. Your own legacy.”

                “How can you say that, after your Mother…”

                “You didn’t sacrifice her. You lost her! She was taken. Cancer stripped her from both our grasps. Nothing you’ve given you gave willingly, not for me. It was stripped from you. Nothing you gave me was for me, it was for your own legacy. Your name, your riches… are burdens. Whispers in the dark keening ‘Why can’t you live up to me?’”

                The father held his son’s gaze, and despite death knocking at his door, refused to back down. “And why can’t you? Despite every advantage you’ve been given, why do you fail, and continue to fail? You’re my son. You are smarter than what you’ve become.”

                “I… I’ve been held back by your doubts.”

                “You’ve been held back by yourself. Your own laziness!”

                At this, the son didn’t say anything, but considered the litany of his own failures. Despite his anger, he had to admit. His dad was right. He could have done better. He should have, but…

                “My laziness does not absolve you Dad. My sins do not paper over yours.”

                “And mine do not explain yours. Despite my failings, I gave everything for you.”

                For a while, only the clicks and beeps of medical equipment penetrated the silence.

                The Dad continues. “You think I never sacrificed for you? That is was all to service my own greatness? I, I could have been more, a celebrity, a politician. I could have left this family behind to further my own legacy. Maybe I wasn’t a great father, but I was one! Maybe I didn’t know how to raise a child, but I tried!”

                “And you think I don’t appreciate what you and mom did for me? Then why, when you were abroad, or in New York, did I stay behind, caring for her as she grew sicker and sicker. Why, when my brother flourished, did I recede? Why was I there… holding her hand… when… when…”

                The father grabs his hand. “I know what you did. And I thank you. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

                “And I’m sorry I wasn’t better.”

                In the silence that followed, the father’s heartbeat growing weaker and weaker. Though they did not think it, the truth echoed louder than any of their previous words. No accord had been made, but understanding was closer than it had been. In this life, that was all one could ask for. In each other’s faces, they could read the sentiment that they thought towards one another, more truthfully than had been spoken before.

                I…

                I…

                I forgive you. I have no choice.

Patient Zero

Somewhere out there is the first woman to look mortality in the face and realize that this life is all there is.

We call her Patient Zero.

The disease spreads through humanity like wildfire, a contagious apathy deadlier than any cancer. Stripping away our illusions killed millions. How long had we told ourselves there was more? That beyond life lay heaven or... something. Alas the wool fell from our eyes, no more denying the void before us. The gaping mouth of death that led to empty bowels wherein our memories were digested and, in time, forgotten.

How could we face our children? Those who were once precious to our eyes now appeared as mere ambulatory hunks of flesh born into the grave. Another shovelful of dirt heaped atop them each day.

Even babies somehow understood, and stopped crying for their mothers. Some voice whispered that only time's short span separated them from Grandma's urn. We chose to die. Slowly humans receded like a morning tide. Realizing that all decisions lead to the same end, we accelerated the timeline. We subsided, until she came, preaching life, proclaiming freedom. A figure of hope draped in simple words, a humble sentiment. Among us she walked, chanting:

"So life is all there is, don't waste it!"

Everyone she touched, everyone who heard, returned to themselves. Her message spread like the plaugue before. Life is brief. Death, is but an end. This truth makes our time more valuable, not less.

So we go back to our lives. No safety net lies beneath us. All quixotic tilts at immortality end in failure.

And we are thankful for that.

We are thankful for her, any display of which she refuses. We try to lift her up, make her our God and she demurs.

"It would belie my point," She says. "We are our own now. This is Eden, the apple taken from us bite by bite each day."

So instead of God, or Prophet, or Queen...

Her name is Patient Zero.

 

November

Each year, as gray November fades in frost, two children dance on a lake's cracked ice. The fissures spread beneath their feet, frozen water's skein. The cold cannot touch them; it penetrates no deeper than their grief. They are warmed by the small comfort that, for them, things cannot get any worse.

They, who have lost so much, dare Fate to take its full.

The leaves crinkle beneath their feet. They slide through the fog, two ships sinking. Unnamed goes their mourning, but not unremembered. Here, at the site of the end, they pay their penitent respects.

She loved this time of year, their Mother. When mists descend upon their cabin. They skated with her then and not alone. The thrill a distraction from their empty stomachs, their empty days. Their lives were meager, but carefree.

Their father they didn't know well enough to say what he loved. He was but a menace distant in the mist, until one year he whirled with the fog back into their home. A haunting dervish. They knew then only what they saw. Only that he contained no temperance. No kindness, nor mercy. What he desired he took: Mother. Again and again was she his plunder.

Grey November came. Where in happier times she took them to skate the edge of death. She fled his clutches. He gave chase.

They danced towards the lake.

Across its cracking surface she ran, daring Father to tempt Fate. He remained on its edge, raging. The children too watched from the shore. She slowed and turned to them, her beloveds. In her smile sat a sad goodbye. The ice ruptured, yawning into a maw. Their lake, their autumnal refuge, consumed her whole.

Father left them, orphans, on the shore. He left, as wroth and loathsome a mystery as they had ever known. Like life itself, they supposed.

And so they live alone in the cabin their Mother built, each year traveling to the lake where her memory perseveres. They dance as she did, only this time they dance alone. The sole distractions they possess are each other's company. Each year the ritual brings less solace, and more silence, more sadness.

There they dream of family; they dream of their meager paradise lost years ago. They dream Mother watches them from below, frozen, wearing her sad smile. There they dream that the autumn ice isn't strong enough for their hearts, oh so heavy. They dream that down, down, they crash.

...into the deadly, icy blue.

Upwards to the Clouds

After years of abuse, the oceans tired of how humans treated them. How we piled atop them islands of trash, funneled into them toxic rivers. They mourned the fish in them that died. Hundreds of vibrant species choked by our waste, our nets. Creatures lost to the murk and to our tables.

On the current, where all their waters meet, their voices join and debate what best to do.

"We cover this planet, Earth is ours, not these simians'!" The Pacific, the largest and most tainted of bodies, rages. Fresh in its mind are the whales washed up from its now noxious tide onto our shores and left to rot. Joyful dolphins who drown, trapped in our carelessly discarded garbage.

The Atlantic, the gentlest ocean, the most forgiving, preaches caution: "How can we fight these creatures? They care so little for life. So brief are their own souls, so volatile."

"What if we drown them, as they would drown themselves?" Suggests the Indian. Who, small and surrounded, feels most vulnerable to man's predation, "Let's melt the poles!"

The Pacific nods. Its waters crave blood. Its waves cry for vengeance.

The Atlantic shrinks in horror. "We are basins of life. What will we become if we sink to their level. We are no better, polluting ourselves with their deaths!"

Enter the Arctic, cold, ancient and wise. "Brothers, there is another way. Not of war, nor death."

 He speaks, and his compromise pleases all. They agree.

So it was. One day mankind woke to a dying Earth. One covered by deep, empty canyons lined with waste. One lost to desert.  One where the arid atmosphere throttles life from all the creatures that remain. The Oceans are gone, the rivers, lakes and reservoirs bare, with them fled the fish and water mammals. Gone with them are the creatures they held most dear.

So spoke the Arctic back when they convened: We are not murderers, we cannot kill man no matter what their sins. But neither can we idle as they drown us in their filth, blind to how they too drown themselves. There is only one other option…

And so it was that rain, returning by the gallon, fell back upwards to the clouds.

Time Thief

The old man lies in his bed, waiting to die. The clock by his bedside ticks. The hour is… much later than he thought. It is always later; the years always pass faster. He blinked once, a child. He blinks again, near dying. His only account for in between is hazy and unsure. Memories, Her lie told en masse, fade as soon as they drift from creation into the past.

                Where does it all go? He wonders silently as his body ossifies. The world around him fades to white. Yesterday, wasn't I still young? I had my whole life ahead of me. I… I… Where does it all go?

                The room becomes still and dark as all life leaves it. From the shadows a swirling snicker. A dark presence dances her way out the door in a cloak of looming shadows. The Time Thief departs, her loot in hand, another life lost to her bottomless avarice. Another span of decades passes from our hands into her sea of time that flows beneath the Earth.

"Where did the time go?" We wonder, blind to her grin, deaf to her laughter. We look in the mirror at our lined faces and swear that just yesterday, just a moment ago, just before we blinked, that we were still young. The whole of our lives stretched before us.

We were. And now we will never be again. The Time Thief? She remains young forever.

Time flows differently for everyone. For some it is a stream idling through wilderness, others are lost in a torrent. For some it is slow. It endures, life is a slow marathon lasting for an unknowable amount of miles. A slow-burning torment with no relief. For others it's a sprint. They rush past every moment, appreciating none. Accelerating by leaps and bounds towards the grave.

To the Time Thief, Death's right hand, speed matters not. Whether we slink through life or launch by, we fall right into her clutches. Our lives as they are lived, our joys and sorrows, pass right into her hands. And every man and every woman, as time comes for us to no longer die, find ourselves wandering through crumbling halls of memory. We remember our youths as if they were yesterday, but the in between, the in between fades in patches. Like a dream, like it never happened at all.

So regardless of how it flowed, once gone to her clutches. Once we become one with her sea. We look back at the span of ourselves like it was nothing at all. And so, robbed of our being, we give way.

The Time Thief? She swims in our memories. Luxuriates in our selves. She watches the Earth, waiting for life to pass, waiting for the opportunity to steal again.

No Guarantees

Here, on the near bank of the River Styx, stand I, a purveyor of flesh. I, to whom the desperate turn, those who have fled the pits of Hades, those who seek new faces, new lives, in the world above. They come to me in my castle of bones, a grim shadow in the darkness, where I stand, and smile... and wait.

"Help us," Prospective clients wail, "Help us! We are not ready to die."

They do not see me at first, merely hear my voice, echoing from around them as if I am not a sole presence, but speak from the air itself. I warn them, all who come to me:

"I can certainly lead you back to life, but beware. You may not recognize who you were in what you become. Couples? May be separated. In my business there are no guarantees."

The shadows recede slightly and now the damned can see my smile, a beacon in the gloom. I continue, "You may not even be human. To live again, I ask, are you prepared to pay the ultimate price?"

"W-what's that?" The corpses ask, holding each other's ragged rotten forms, beginning to doubt their courage.

"My price? All I require from you is what you already are, your battered and broken selves. Your bones," In the shadows they see my vague gesture of the palace around me, built from grinning skulls, white ivory totally cleanedof flesh. "Foundation for my home. Where you're going, you won't need it."

The skeletal forms of the damned hesitate, even in their fear of the death awaiting them, unease gives them pause. To what force are they giving everything, their trust, their bones, their hopes of life anew? What am I, one who lurks in the dark, who preys on the dreams of the dead?

But fear of Hell always wins in the end, the thing in all of us that recoils from death's touch. In the end, nearly everyone agrees. They leave their bones behind, piled in my skeleton halls, their souls all that remain of who they were. They take my hand and begin their journey from darkness back into light. Still all I am to them is black, the unseeable made solid. Still all they see of me is my smile, my glowering, rictal menace.

Surefooted across the border twixt life and death I lead. Where the winds howl, along with... other things. Things that undulate in the black, that grasp at us from the distance as we pass. My charges stop, trying to fix on those haunting our travels, but I push on and caution:

"Look straight ahead. The... creatures here? Are best not seen. They have a way of leading people astray. People lost here, in the Middle. They are never found."

Through this warning, through the entire of our journey, my smile never once falters. Unsettling perhaps, but as the sole lodestar in the deep, they begin to find it the gloam's only comfort.

Who knows how much time passes? What relevance has time to the dead? But eventually we near the light. These souls begin to remember the song of being. Eventually we halt. My smile turns to them.

"I go no further," I explain, "These last steps, this rebirth. It's a journey you must make alone."

They stumble on towards the dawn, buoyed by memories of life, of taste and of touch. I watch from the Beyond and as they depart, my smile turns... sinister.

In my business, there are no guarantees.

Closer and closer to life they creep, the light fills them, then pulling them onward under its power. They feel heavier, and more and more solid. Until...

You may not even be human.

In the middle of a dark forest, surrounded by old growth, shrouded in black, sprout two oak trees. Scrawny trunks, and four gnarled limbs. Etched in their bark? Markings almost like faces.

Their mouths open in shock, frozen in silent screams. Two souls, trapped again in life. In a still, dull existence. In a fate worse than death.

Back on the River Styx, in my growing palace of bone, again and again spirits approach. They dream of flesh. They seek solace from damnation. Desperate like the rest, they ignore my warning:

"There are no guarantees."

Redemption?

                The sun dims, even as it hangs high in the sky. The world quiets and fades. Our hero, mortally wounded, passes from one life into the next. His long prodigal son, weeping, cradles his head as he dies. After decades of estrangement, of seething resentment, of hatred. It takes the end. It takes sacrifice to bring these two back together.

                The gun trained on the young man. His eyes stood wide in horror. He couldn’t believe it. Was this to be all? All that came of his life? He was too young. He had too much to live for, a loving wife, an unborn child. Sure, he had made his share of mistakes. Committed his share of crimes. But was he already here, at the cliff’s edge, soon to be lost in memory? He looks to his father beside him, a silent plea in his eyes.

                Save me… please… save me. You’ve never given me a thing in your life. Save me. Save m-

                A gunshot, and before he can even register that he is not wounded. His father, once beside him, not in front, shudders and slacks to the floor. The gunman has already fled.

                And so the young man cradles the elder, one who abandoned him long ago, now our hero. And he weeps.

                “No… no, you can’t go. Please no. Dad, please no!”

                The older man looks up at him and smiles. “Son? How long… has it been… since you called me-”

                He dies mid thought, his eyes close at last.

                …and at the smell of sulfur, at the pain and the heat. They shoot back open in surprise. Around him swarms fire, and molten rock and dancing sadistic imps who poke his prone form with pokers.

                ARISE, NEW MINION!

                He struggles to rise, but broken glass bonds tie him to a slab of blades.

                “What? Where am I? Why am I-”

                In hell? You were a murderer, a liar, a usurer. What did you expect?

                In the smoke that hurt to breathe, a dark shape looms, multi-limbed and humongous. A beast the size of a skyscraper. There is no doubt. This is hell, and before him impends God’s once-favored. A beauty turned ugly, a ray of light lapsed into darkness.

                Lucifer.

                “My Son. I g-gave my life for my son.”

                Ah yes, redemption. What a theory. What a con. You thought self-sacrifice would punch your ticket to heaven?

                “I thought… I don’t know what I thought. I just wanted to save my child.”

                How noble, to be sure. But wasn’t it your drug deal that got him in trouble? Wasn’t it your abandonment that led him astray?

                The man has no answer. It takes all his concentration not to scream as the flesh flays from his skull, as his bones and muscle burn. As he is torn apart and remade, again and again. Suffering the same death and same rebirth, Prometheus torn to shreds by a thousand fiery vultures.

                The dark shadow bends to face him, eye to eye. A scabarous, horrid face, laced with boils and a hundred fetid mouths with rows of ten thousand rotting teeth. Eyes a sickly yellow, skin dark black and leaking pus from every orifice. Once beautiful, the corruptible angel is turned a nightmare by his sin.

                Be honest, as you died. Was your last thought of your son? “Thank God… he still lives.” Or of yourself? “At last, I am redeemed?”

                By his silence, the father’s truth is revealed.

The path to hell is paved with good intentions, down which men who do the right thing for the wrong reasons are always, always led.

They Ride a Train

One moment he is alone, slumbering in the train-car that has been his prison for longer than he can say; the next, a lady in a red dress sits beside him on the velvet cushion in the gloom. She looks familiar, yet he cannot place her. He can barely place himself, one with so much lost in this longest ride. His name, his memory, his past lives, what remains of the self when these are mislaid?

                Who is she? Where did she come from? How long I've been alone, oh so long… so long…

                She laughs at his discomfort, sighs sadly at his confusion and fear. He remains just as handsome as in her dreams, as he was the last time she saw him alive. Dressed and ready to go to war, before he disappeared into the great machine named Death. But her heart aches, so long this moment had been delayed, so long she endured when she wished it were otherwise. But now she is here, they are reunited. He will remember.

                "You are who you've always been." The lady speaks, plucking worries from his head like grapes from a vine. "I've missed you."

                "Who's that? Who have I been?" The man cannot help it. He should be unnerved by this strange passenger, yet all he feels is warmth. His feet tingle. When he sees her, he knows somehow that they should be dancing. That his feet would lead them into paradise, a world of ballrooms and chandeliers lit with gold.

                "The one. You were… you are the one. Even when you were gone, I knew there could never be another. And so I waited."

                The train passes over a barren desert. Any trace of ocean, of drops reflecting the life they shared long behind them. And yet he begins to recall. Echoes still, ghosts of a life long behind him. A dance, a kiss, a love that would last even beyond death. The warmth spreads throughout his body and he smiles.

                "I'm glad you waited, my love. I'm glad you're here with me at last."

The train rattles on, hanging in the black under a starless sky. Despite the dark, he can see clearly around them for miles, accustomed as he is to the constant nothingness.

I love you. Her lips do not move, but in her eyes he can hear her thoughts.

I love you too. I was nothing without you. A wisp, a reflection, fractured lives in an endless sea. Now I feel whole.

"Good," She speaks aloud, returning his grin with one of her own. One laced with passion. "Then you are beginning to remember. Perhaps here, at the end, we may start anew."

Ah, The Garden

                Ah, to be young and in love. A fresh garden, bereft of weeds, free of pain, filled with promise budding green from the Earth. Youth blinds them to the death which looms distant in the horizon, a dark storm far from the minds of the two trees at the garden’s heart. These lovers are strangers yet, beautiful and beguiling to one another no doubt, but love is built in time. Not in a moment and not at the surface. In its depths, wounds are made, scars unearthed.

Life and Death and the Mountain

                She always loved this weather.

                He sees her face in the clouds, hears her staccato laugh in the crunching leaves. In the snowcapped peak he ascends echoes a fair facsimile of her bosom. In the chill, chattering him to the bones, is a reflection of the sorrow he still feels at her loss. This was their mountain. This was where they fell in love.

                Darkness falls as he hikes, the sun having long left him behind for an overcast sky. Yet surefooted he remains. This was more home to them than any four walls and roof had been. Here they came to mourn their losses, to weep where no one could hear. Here they hiked to celebrate their successes, to crow at the wild, to feel invincible.

                Here they came, one fall morning just three years prior. When she stopped at a brook, tears rushing from her lids to match its current. When she turned to him, put his hand to her chest and said the words that would forever alter their lives. “Cancer… Bill, it’s cancer.”

                He tried to be strong, for her, for the memory of their son who just the year before her diagnosis had himself succumbed to illness (meningitis, in a week he went from hale to grave). He marched, wore the pink ribbons, gave to the right causes, squeezed her hand in the doctor’s office, held her as she wept, wept as she held him. But they were always each other’s pillars. As she eroded, slowly, then all at once, he too felt his own spirit ebb. When she entered the hospital for the final time, he felt shorn in two. When he got that dreaded call, the apex of his building grief, he faded as well. A painful memory that his friends and her family were unsure how to touch, and so he drifted apart from and into isolation.

                And so he comes to this mountain, again and again. To feel close to her and the people they once were.

                He stands on its peak, from here looking down on the clouds, down into the icy chasms and crevasses, down onto the trees that looked like green and brown dots. Even though it was dark, and the view was blocked by shadow and by fog, he knew the landscape like his own hand. Or, more aptly, like he knew the peaks of her smile, the valleys of her dimple cheeks. He closes her eyes, and for a second, she is there with him, squeezing his hand. For a second, he imagines jumping, hoping in the fall and impact and injury and probable death, he might feel something once more. Hoping he might return to her.

                A voice whispers. Not yet, Bill, not yet. I’ll be here, waiting for you when your time has come.

                “But Sue,” He sobs, in response to the fading memory.

                I need to let you live. And you need to let me go.

                “I love you, I love you,” He tells their mountain.

                And I… I love you. I always will.

                Her hand leaves his. The night swallows her presence. The man is once again alone. Though he sighs, though the tears freeze to his cheeks, for the first time in months a ghost’s smile haunts his lips.

                Small weight lifted, he descends.

The Desert Outside the Real

            You wake baking on strange, hot sands, borne into a place you have never been. Where the light never abates. Where men never die. You are alone, but for the gently whispering wind and stinging loneliness. This ache, this vast chasm within you screams that you have been lost for an eternity, but you can't remember anything past this waking. Not where you were yesterday, or who you were, nor who you are now. All you know for certain is you are alone.

            You start walking, numb to the sands that burn your feet. Baked by an omnipresent light. Looking up into the sky, you spy no suns, only red bubbling flames hanging overhead. Like you world is contained within a volcano, within another world. Hours pass, perhaps days, the darkness' absence robs you of all sense of time. You stumble through this flat, sanded plain, sinking deeper into fire, climbing further into despair. Why you? Why this fate? What sins do you atone for that you cannot remember? What God must you plead to for absolution?

            Perhaps, you realize, there is no redemption to be had. Perhaps your sins were too great, and this world you find yourself bound by… perhaps this is hell.

            "I know the way out."

            You jump at the voice, and seek its source, but none is forthcoming. Mere madness, you suppose, tricks of the whistling, gusty wind.

            "I am not your imagination," I know the way out. The last words speak directly into your mind and at last you see it. A figure drapes in black, covered except for its white, pupil-less eyes that stare straight through you.

            It approaches you, appearing not to walk but glide over the sand. As it approaches, the wind howls louder, enraged by its trespass. Waves of sand envelope you both, blocking you from the fire, leaving you cold and in shadow. It whispers now, urgently, as it nears.

            "The only way out is up, and through. The only way out is past those who would keep us here forever."

            "Where are we?" You demand, with a voice so hoarse you suspect it has never been used.

            "The Desert," It replies, and grips your hand. Its grip a vice, there is no escape.

            Your feet leave the ground, and together you hover into air. Up above the sands, up towards the skies and flame.

            "Wait! Through there? We can't. We'll die."

            All you must do is believe. All you must do is realize. It whispers again in its mindspeak.

Then speaks aloud, and though you cannot see its face, you suspect that it smiles. You imagine it ghoulish, filled within black gums and rotten teeth. A fetid, wriggling tongue lashing out beneath its cowl.

"You see, fire cannot hurt those who are already dead."

            And with that, the two of you ascend back to the real and life.

The Smile That Lasts Forever

                Your hand traces your path along the wall in the gloam, the unnatural half-dark of this strange… edifice you find yourself in. Padding silently on the soft floor, you seek an exit where none is forthcoming and begin to wonder: Will you die here? The wall whirrs and vibrates, in and out, in and out, like a quick-breathing giant swallowed you whole. Your heart races to match it. As you squint up in the twilight, you see veins pulsing up the wall, stretching above your head and far out of sight.

                What is this creature that will house your bones?

                An unknowable amount of time later you find the first of them, the piled skeletons. Some human, some animal, some entirely unidentifiable. The only thing they share is the rictus of terror somehow burned into their very skulls. In the rigid smiles of these macabre decorations, you feel the fear they felt as they died, imprinted into their final resting places. You walk on, wondering what else looms in the shade. These creatures did not die from starvation, nor despair, their bones were torn asunder.

                Soon, you hear it, its deep breaths a sharp contrast to the quickly palpitating walls. Its heavy footfalls quite distinct from your own nigh silent steps. Closer, it comes closer, yet you do not bother to run. For however long you’ve searched, the flesh-pink walls have yet to yield an exit. There is no escape, there is only the embrace of what comes. You stop walking, turn around and close your eyes.

                “Come get me,” You whisper, “Come on, you son of a-”

                Interrupting your words, the rending force of a wet embrace. Through the pain, you smile one last time. A smile that will last forever.