For Hell takes on many shapes, each independent to the celestial tariff, but as independent as each tariff is, Hell is Hell and Carriage has a tendency to remain much the same.
There is a place. It is not Hell, but it is a place all the same, call it Carriage if you will, but it is a place, a thing, that imprisons the tariff. We are the tariff, lest I make it plainer.
Carriage is shape – little knots of pain, tied tight within the fabric of space and time — bleed it out, bleed it out, bleed all it out out until the great feast of the Eidola are done.
* * *
I am on a fast running, deep, black river, riding high upon a great water lily. Tattooed upon my left breast is a small red cross. I am Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight, gallant only in murder, triumphant in stealing another man’s body, and exultant in using that man’s body to steal his woman’s virtue.
I am exnzpat!
I sleep, Becky in my arms, the violet night our ceiling, our blanket a product of that same moons nocturnal nurture – a flowering of sorts – that of two kinds! And while I sleep, I dream. Not once, but twice, and here are the contents of the first dream:
I dream a great sea. This sea is not borne upon any planet. It is free from any sun or any moon; and yet there is eternal light there – and the sea, it is without end, its mirrored surface reflective of a night without morning — and amidst this sea, there is a single island.
Upon this island a verdant field of green grass grows. On one side of the island is a forest, and before this forest a lady stands. Curled at her feet is a rough-haired, black dog. The dog sleeps. The lady barely moves, and when she does, her movement is imperceptible. She seems to be doing one thing and only one thing: praying. Garbed in brown, she prays upon a black, knotted Rosary made of twine and stone.
In front of this lady, upon the grassy plain, stands the multitude of all Soulkind, and like a rust colored corrugated tin roof they roll, heave, and swell; their shapes change, sometimes they puff-up and at other times they puff-down, and the air is filled with their weeping and their crying because of it. For as their shapes change so too does the intensity of their suffering. Unto undulating, unto metamorphosing, their bodies are in constant motion, and they writhe in constant pain; sometimes they are dark orbs of putrid flesh, sometimes wood or stone, sometimes even, translucent jets of water or gas, and there upon this pitiless island, undulate they must!
And you could see them transmute there if you had time enough in this strange land to see it, but like the lady before them, these Soulkind move as if trapped in slow motion film. They begin as little wisps, appearing from apparently nowhere, billowing into being, filling this strange world as terrified, little ghosts. I say terrified, because as they pop into existence I hear them cry out in fear. Some call to God, others call to other names and other things that I do not know of, understand, nor recognize, but in all of them, I see a common thread, and that thread is the crushing anguish of suddenly discovering themselves immortal.
But I saw more, nay I felt it. For these creature-Soulkind-orbs are prisoners upon this island, for ringed about their multitude are great bird-like, lizard creatures; so evil and so vile their countenance it shocked my senses to look upon them. They remind me somewhat of Lilith, in her monstrous form, but not quite… These monsters are far more primal, deeper, coarser, and more rudimentary than Lilith could ever be; they are ancient things certainly, but so unfinished and so rough that the very fiber of their presence is striking. Undeveloped in form and being, incomplete, they are functional, virginal creatures belonging to some framework or foundation unknown; and here in this place, this sunless, moonless island upon an endless sea, they seem as bound and as tied to this world as their prisoners are.
Clarification is awarded me in my dream, by whom or by what mechanism it comes I do not know, but I suddenly understand that these ancient monsters are one in being: their eternal soul is as singular as their eternal, hoary shape. They are not as we are. We, who are two in combination that make one – one in shape, one in soul – distinct, yet separate we exist. A voice comes to me, the lady’s perhaps?
“Oh! sweet immortal; Oh! sweet Prometheus Rex, you are sovereign to none but yourself! Therefore, I pray.
“It is you who are prisoners here.
“Suffer dear heart. Your duality of shape and soul has deceived your natural selves. With your true nature buried, you are crumpled and ugly, now.
“I, Warden to these Keepers, these Eidola; chain you here to leach from you your private deceptions of shape.
“And so therefore, I pray.”
And then there was silence. I looked for the source of the voice, and saw none capable of such poetry but the lady’s, and with her head bent in prayer, she seemed the obvious candidate, but this was a dream, and by what sense organ did I detect any of this? And so, how could I be sure? But I took from the voice, and the images before my eyes, to be this: that we are the SoulKind here. It is we who are imprisoned between the great monsters and the lady and the forest and the sea, and it seemed to me a surprising metaphor of life after death, for while it is a sorrowful place, I can see no caricatures of Heaven or Hell in any of it.
Suspended in the air above it all, I see all there is to see. In time, I sense another thing: a kind of hatred and disgust for the SoulKind there. And it seems born from out of a kind of jealousy. For our monster Keepers, the Eidola (the voice had called them), seem to despise us, but not for our weakness, but for our strength which goes wholly unrecognized in us. And because of it, I feel as if some great peril lurks alongside me while I float in the air above it all. The feeling frightens me, for it fills the empty sky with a chill that is so palpable I shiver in my dream, and from some great distance I feel Becky shift, worried for me in her own sleep.
Now I heard, or thought I heard, a conversation between Warden and Keepers — lady and Eidola. And here is what was said; it was begun by a monster that was the shade of the color purple, and it spoke to the biggest of its kind first; a great red, crab-like thing, cobbled, and paved in broken stone and gravel.
“Master,” said Purple, “he who walks upon all fours has made an imbalance.”
Red growls and it sounds like a waterfall cascading upon sharp, busted rocks; its voice snaps the air like lightening and all the SoulKind within the ring begin to wail in fear.
Red turns to the Lady and says, “Yes. I see that.
“Mother, what manner of beast is it, that creature that sleeps upon your feet that can do such a thing?”
The Lady looks down upon the sleeping form of Lincoln; a smile slowly lightens her face, “I do not know. But it seems to have purpose, for look, here it is.”
Purple howls, “Mother, that creature has destroyed one of two Doormen, only Ferryman remains, what of Gateman? I cannot see his frame anywhere.”
“Nor I,” replies the lady thoughtfully, “Perhaps we do not need a Gateman anymore? Shapes are changing, they are always changing, and who are any of us to question Crystalson?”
“True,” proclaims Red, “But Lady, all the same, an imbalance has been made.”
And at this, the Lady is quiet, and I see beneath her brown cloak her bended head lowered in thought. Finally, after some time, which could have been a millennium for all I knew, the Lady lifts her head and speaks.
“Very well, do your worst.” And she said this with a kind of finality, as if the very stars themselves had spoken and would speak no more.
Red’s arched, cobbled head nods to Purple, and a strange thing occurs. Purple lifts from off the grassy plain and into the air. The gap left by his absence fills as the other Keepers, shifting in slow gait, close the gap he has left behind. The fence of Keepers is somewhat wider by Purple’s absence, but at the same time, the fence seems fiercer because of it, for a great groan from the SoulKind near where Purple had stood intensifies as his presence wanes.
Purple, it in its natural state is a terrible thing to behold. Beak, feathers, and with the cold-blooded skin of a lizard, it is like no other creature that ever walked our Earth. No dinosaur, nor crocodile, nor bird of prey can easily describe such a beast, for Purple and its kind, are not beasts. For the dominion of Man and Beast is one kind. Purple and its kind belong to some other country, some other nation, or another place so foreign to begin with, my descriptions here, at best, are futile.
Purple’s head moved like that of an insect, left to right, but with a freakish kind of rolling moment to it so that it appears to be barely attached to its torso.
As Purple rose from the grassy plain it seemed to be seeking something, and quite suddenly, looked my way – our eyes met – its and mine — cruel, hot, intent, and they flicked furiously as he passed the ghost of me. And I think it saw me, for a iniquitous flash came into those cruel eyes as we passed one another in the sky; but that couldn’t be right, could it? This is only a dream.
I watch Purple rise above the sea and the island and the rest of us. Purple, drawn up in its Daemon car – locomotion unknown — and then, far above us all, Purple suddenly evaporates from this strange, ethereal world.
I stir uneasily beside my lover, half-waking, and half opening my eyes. The blanket of yellow petals covering our nude shapes holds our heat and keeps us warm and safe. Becky, beside me, is comfortable like a soft pillow. I go back to her; put my face into her hair, and close my eyes once again. Instantly, I am asleep, and almost, as if by magic, transported back into the world of dreams.
* * *
And here, in my second dream, I see this: I stand before a house. It is a rather plain house. As common as those others that huddle either side of it. Its style and those of the others in this little neighborhood are ordinary and unremarkable. I look at it. I know this type: the house is a style indicative of the American South. It is a Shotgun house. So named, because it is said that if you fire a shotgun through the front door, its discharge will fly right through the house and exit the backdoor without hitting a thing.
I go inside. Walking through the front room, the bedroom, another bedroom, and then the kitchen — one after another, for this is the shape of this house – straight like a shotgun; true like its shot.
At a table in the kitchen sits a large black woman; she has set the table for two, but she is alone. Cluttering the table before her are steaming bowls of food. I see a ceramic dish stacked high with sweet, white corn; it glistens with melted butter. Two other bowls, one filled with mashed pumpkin and potato, the other with baked yams topped with melted marshmallows takes most of the table’s space. I see, on a plain, white plate, wrapped in burned tin foil, green beans baked with bacon. A small basket of cornbread sits at the table’s center. The main feature though, a heavy, stoneware bowl, filled over-full with home fried chicken, sits closest the woman; she picks at it with the tips of her fork. And even though no aroma reaches my ghostly nose, I am suddenly hungry.
The woman snatches angry glares between the food on the table and the kitchen door. If she were the shotgun of legend, I would not like to be the man whom she expects to walk through that door, for whomever he is, he is late for dinner.
Impatiently, she strums her fingers upon the table, and then suddenly shouts, “Ben, the food’s gettin cold. Git in here, now!”
A voice from outside the kitchen door responds, “I’m coming! Quiet down woman, you’ll wake the whole damn neighborhood.”
The woman’s face pinches tightly, and her jaw tightens like a vice.
She takes her fork and pushes rapidly at the cooling chicken pieces. She is hungry; she wants to eat. Suddenly, the back door flies open. It bangs so hard against the wall the woman almost jumps from her chair. The man who comes through the door is as black as the night he has left behind him. There is a scowl on his face and a cell phone in his left hand.
“Damn it Mia – I tol you I only be a few damn minutes! Why you hollering so?”
“Yer food’s getting cold! I cooked all day. The least you can do is sit down an e’joy it.”
“Any mo’ and I’ve a right mind to slap you silly for all your yelling.”
“Oh, you go right ahead,” Mia says, rising from her chair, “an it’ll be the last thing you’ll remember before you splaining to Jesus why you beat the only woman who loved you!”
“Damn it!” The man backs away from her. Her black face is ruby red with anger. She looks formidable and I can tell she is nobody’s fool.
“An nuther thing — don’t you dare use that language in here. You sit down, an you eat!”
Admonished, the man pulls out his chair and sits, the woman, still half-standing, waits and watches him – only slowly does she sit; I can tell these two know each other well. I smile, because I see their love is a one that has been hard-forged in hot fire – and strangely, for this is important, I think, I see no place set at the table for another, even though both are middle-aged: here, in this home, there are no children.
When he sees her seated properly, he reaches out for her. Together they hold hands. They pray over their food, their argument forgotten – well, almost.
After a minute or two of reaching and piling their plates high with food the woman asks, “So, wha’d Jerry say?”
The woman’s face revolves through a series of emotions, anger, rage, acceptance, and after a few seconds, decides on irritation. “You were talkin an hour!” she snaps.
“Okay, okay… it’s dat guy, exnzpat – you know from work, you know one, the one I tol you bout.”
“Dat one that kill’d his wife an’ kiddies?”
“Well? What about him?”
“He’s gone crazy.”
“I thought he was crazy. By the Lord’s breath, Ben, you work in a crazy house!”
“I tol you not call it that,” Ben said, but without anger. He reached for another piece of corn, puts it on his plate, and then licks the butter from his fingers. “He’s a normal guy, you know. He was hopped up on drugs when he kilt his family. He didn’t know what he was doin.”
Mia made a sound that sounded like a suddenly opened faucet. “In’t what they all say?”
Ben nodded; his mouth was too full to speak. Mia was right of course. Not a one of them was guilty of the crime they did. The criminally insane were not much different from the criminally sane when it came to taking responsibility for their behavior, he knew.
“He’s different. Not like the others. Any chance he gets he tries to kill himself. And he’s sane – saner than the rest. I know the difference. Jerry knows the difference. Hell, we all know the difference. The others, they all have their own special brand of crazy, not exnzpat, heze crazy-normal.”
Mia wrapped Ben hard across his wrist with the back of her fork. “Don’t you use that word in dis house!”
“Owh! Which word?” said Ben, pulling his hand away from the table, almost knocking his chicken to the floor.
“H. E. Double-hockey-sticks. Never say it!” she said angrily, watching Ben push his chicken back onto his plate, “Don’t you summon no man o’ mischief into this house, Ben. Don’t you do it! Theys always watching, always looking for a way in; theys take any chance they get.”
“Okay, okay. Calm down, you spilling my dam… you spilling my food.”
“It was your own fault.”
Ben glared at Mia for a full second, but Mia didn’t see it, her face returned to her meal.
“Anyways, you were saying about dat crazy man?”
Ben waited to speak, finishing off a mouthful of beans, “Yeah, well, exnzpat, all of a sudden today, said hez somebody else.”
“Watcha mean, somebody else. Who else could he be?”
“That prick lawyer of his, executionerofthewill – hez the other guy I tol you bout.”
“The one who let you drive the fancy sports car yesterday?”
“Yeah dat him. Real prick.” Mia threatened him again with her fork – “okay, okay, sorry – but he aint no nice guy. Greasy-like bacon an fidgety like a coon. I don’t like him, an neither does Jerry. Even the docs don’t like him.”
Mia reached across the table for a warm piece of cornbread, tore at it, and dabbed at the white gravy on her plate with it.
“Well, whatabout him?” she asked.
“Don’t know – it’s weird. Exnzpat sez he’s him and that exnzpat stole his body.”
Mia put down her roll and looked at her husband in amazement.
“Ah know, it’s crazy, but I swear, Mia, and you know I’ve talked to both men – but exnzpat, hez acting and talking just the same way executionerofthewill talks an acts. Always talking down, always bei…”
“He has executionerofthewill’s voice?”
“No, damn it woman, I’m trying to tell you something important here.” Ben’s face paled – and Mia saw it pale – and saw the fear in his eyes as an almost tangible thing. Mia didn’t dare reprimand her husband when he was like this – because this was the real Ben talking now – straight and true. Her husband was truly frightened by whatever it was he’d seen. And Mia remembered, she knew this look in him — in his eyes. She had seen it before. She had been on a hospital bed then: abdominal pain – intense, violent, bloody — their baby, stillborn.
And Mia softened because of her remembering. And from his eyes she knew Ben had seen something of the cruel magus magnificent in his place of work. Something out of place, something wrong – Ben’s contract with a firmly, founded universe based on the simple principle of what-you-see-is what-you-get had been violated. It was as if Ben, the good man, had seen Zoroaster himself. She saw it in his eyes.
“It… it aint right, Mia. It’s exnzpat’s body, but I swear on a stack of Bibles, Mia, that hez that other man, the lawyer man.
Mia put down her knife and fork; she reached for her husband’s hands. He took them and held them. I was surprised to see he was shaking, and Mia said to him, “Ben! Hon! There aint no abyss in dis universe where Jesus aint present – you jus ave to look to find him, that’s all. So when you dere tonight, you do your job the ways you spossed to do it. An if you git scared then you look for him, okay. You look for Jesus, an you’ll find him.
Ben did not look convinced.
“Jerry’s goin’ do an extra shift. He’ll be there with me till morning.”
Mia pursed her lips, clearly not satisfied as Jerry as a replacement for Jesus, and she said softly, “Ben, you jus look for him. An you tell Jerry to do the same, okay?”
Ben nodded, and together, as if some marker had been passed, the two immediately went back to their food without another word.
I moved about the table so I could see Ben’s face more clearly. Yes, I thought, the man was frightened. His eyes gave him away. He had seen a wrong thing; so wrong a thing that his very concrete world of work, place, and home had been shattered. Mia was this man’s rock, and as big as he was, he was nothing without her spirit. And I wondered, this last year in his care, his touch, his grip, his saving grace, were the very embodiment of his coupling with this woman, his Mia. The two were one – her strength and confidence, his massive size and physical strength: together they were a tower. But what good was any of it? Ben must still walk the walk and face the mystic divergence of the normal. The die cast by Lilith’s hand was as real to him as it was to me.
Suddenly, Mia’s face turned in my direction, but only her face. Her head remained fixed toward her plate and gave no impression of movement or of even awareness that her face had just done the impossible and slid to the right of center.
Mia’s ruby face screamed at me, “He comin exnzpat! He coming – the man o’ mischief – he coming for you – and you better run and you better run good!”
Ben seemed to notice nothing at all.
Mia’s face looked at me one more time, and said, “What you still doin ‘ere – he comin!”
I leapt from our bed of flowers and screamed in terror. Beside me, Becky jumped awake and I held her tight. The violet moon had departed during our sleep. Cast into true darkness now, we were together alone, a fast running, deep, black river our carriage, a vegetable our cradle.