Obligations and choice
It took Mia ten minutes to make her way to the three blue silos and coming up to them she looked for another pattern to take her onward to safety. A stabbing pain had formed in her arms and chest, but she knew she could not yet rest, and so she continued to search for clues. The piebald horse had given her time and she needed to use it.
Lifting heavy feet she came into the center of the three silos and saw the place abandoned. The whole of it was stale with disuse. A dirt road led off into the cornfields beyond and a small wooden hut with its door ajar and its roof partially collapsed, sat broken beside the largest of the three silos. Behind the hut, a tractor, broken, tired, and long discarded with untidy crops of grass hiding its wheels sat with its four tires punctured and melting into the dirt: the thing had been dead in the ground for years.
Disillusioned, Mia walked down the road for a few minutes looking for something – anything, anything at all, but there was nothing, so she turned back to the safe-blue of the silos. She walked unsteadily now. Her slowed pace had allowed her to catch her breath, but the pain in her left arm and chest seemed intensified. She was gulping for air when she came up the wrecked hut and looked inside. Its walls, wallpapered by graffiti, looked barely able to keep its roof from complete collapse. Inside, empty beer bottles and cigarettes butts littered the floor. A refuge for angry teenagers, she decided and turned away. She went to look at the tractor. It was grey and covered with vulgar words painted in red and yellow. She turned away from it too, but then turned back suddenly. In detail, the tractor was nothing but a graffiti scared hulk, but at a glance, it was as piebald as the horse had been and in it, she saw flowers again.
Her head began to hurt just then, and a rush of sweat broke out upon her face and head. She felt as heavy as lead, and put both hands on the tractor’s desiccated engine cowling for support. She felt enormously heavy and lowered herself before the crate as if she were kneeling before an altar in prayer. The pain in her chest and arm worsened. And her unsteady breathing, punctuated by staccato gulps of air, began to make her head spin alarmingly. She could find no more strength in her arms or legs and dropped face first into the dry grass before the painted hulk. She lay gasping for air like a fish suddenly finding itself above water. She floundered. The logical, conscious part of her brain screamed to her, telling her she was still in mortal danger from the woman with the gun. Do something, it said. Mia wriggled herself beneath the tractor like an undignified slug all the time praying a hope of hopes the tractor’s curious patterned patina of graffiti to be the safe haven it promised to be.
A black wave of nausea engulfed her just then. She vomited mid gasp. It was a horrific sensation: the lack of breath and the bursting, thrusting pain roaring in her chest – this is dying, then, she thought. And mercifully, just as the woman in the red dress with her dark hungry eyes and silver gun hanging at her side emerged from the woods, Mia passed out.
* * *
The meal was impressive – a veritable Christmas dinner. There was a roast pork and gravy, roasted potatoes too; pumpkin, squash, steamed green beans and the begged-for carrots: caramelized, soft, and each of them a sensuous dark orange color. After which, this exuberance was followed by a thick pudding heavy with dried fruits topped with a yellow custard which reminded me of a summer snow denying the sun’s intent atop the highest of mountains – it was outstanding and I said so, truly meaning it.
“You are a very good cook. Thank you so much,” I said, putting down my spoon after my second helping of pudding.
Camellia blushed and replied, “Would you like some more… there’s plenty.”
I shook my head laughing and patted my stomach like a happy Buddha. “No thank you. Nothing more will fit.”
Camellia laughed too. The sound of her laughter was delightful, even better to my ears than her meal had been to my pallet.
* * *
It was hot when Mia came to. She drifted in and out of consciousness for interminable minutes listening to the diminishing sounds of crickets and birds finish their morning ritual. Only the cicadas kept it up now, excited for the heat of the coming afternoon.
Mia stared at the tubular circuitry of the tractor above her head understanding none of it. Scabs of thick oil had congealed in long streaks about its underside and Mia wondered if the heat of the day would melt it; she imagined it raining down upon her like black candle wax. There would be pain and discomfort to remain here, she finally decided.
She muttered little healing spells upon herself. Not a one helped. She was still not herself. Dismayed, she saw the new world shift remained in place and she seemed further now than before from reaching it. No longer did it conform to her patterning, only occasionally did a flash of familiarity come to her, but it soon evaporated when chased. The new world was it seemed, a massive jigsaw puzzle with all the key pieces missing from it. Where once there had been conformity now in it Mia found only chaos.
Mia knew she had had a heart attack. She did not need her magic to know this. Her long training as a nurse told her everything she needed to know. But she was not dead yet, and so there was hope for Ben if not for her, and looking into herself and at her long life, she realized that only Ben mattered now.
The searing pain in her chest that had spread across her ribs and down her sides was all but gone now, but its remnants dug into her back like a ship’s stuck anchor. Dull and heavy, her body felt sunk and lost. Her jaw hurt as if she had just spent an hour in a dentist’s chair with no anesthesia.
Mia wondered if she would ever move again.
* * *
Crystalson came to us in the dark, illuminating in golden haze the terrifying visage of war that tattooed the bedroom walls. If Camellia saw him, she said nothing about it. Her moans of pleasure were all that I could hear in that beautiful place we had suddenly discovered in each other.
Crystalson did not speak of shapes this time. He did not speak at all, only he smiled and left us to get on with the business of life.
* * *
Using her fingers, Mia gently probed the rest of her body; carefully she looked for other injuries and, finding none, began to crawl from beneath the underside of the tractor.
Using long stalks of grass, she heaved, but the grass came away in her hands. She looked about for some other means of purchase, all the time wondering how she had managed to get under the tractor to begin with. She reached out, dug her nails into the dried dirt, and pulled. She had better luck with this technique and managed to drag herself a few feet. Encouraged, she pulled harder but a sudden rush of blood to her temples stopped her where she was. She put her head down tasting the fusty dirt on her tongue and rested. After a short respite, she reached out again, but as she did so, a sudden unease came upon her. The cicadas in the trees about the silos had quieted. She froze, not daring to look up.
And hearing footfalls on the dirt road she held her breath and dug her face deeper into the dirt.
“Lady?” Came a voice.
It was a man’s voice.
* * *
Mia was so surprised her breath caught in her throat, she tried to look up, but found she could not. Instead, she began to cough. She swallowed some dust and grit which only made her cough worse. She rolled onto her side to relieve the hacking pain in her throat.
And hearing her, the man came to the tractor, squatted down beside her and said quietly, “Hush, Lady. Please be still. I will not hurt you. I am here to help. I… I do not quite understand this, but I think you to be the lady I am to help… My Great Grandfather…” He trailed off empathically seeing the grimace of pain twisting in Mia’s face; he knelt in the grass and placed large, gentle hands upon her. He eased her from beneath the tractor with careful short tugs and lifted her into a sitting position. From somewhere on his person, he produced a small bottle of water and Mia drank from it greedily.
When she was done, he helped her stand. He held her firmly, and she leaned all of her weight on him. He was old, but strong. Mia saw his flowery shirt and knew him to be the Zachariah lookalike from the freeway. He did not speak and Mia asked him no questions. Taking a few tentative steps, she stopped him. A burst of pain stabbed at Mia’s back but passed just as quickly as it came. Using her hands and nodding her head, she let him know she was okay and could continue.
He took Mia back along the path through the woods toward the freeway. It was slow going. Mia shuffled as if lame. They passed through the woods and came to the white fence where the horses had been. Mia looked but did not see the piebald. The field was empty.
She saw the man’s car alone on the berm. The freeway was no longer a parking lot. The obstruction, whatever it had been, was gone from the freeway now; cars zipped toward the east at high speed. Mia looked for her own car and seeing it gone, guessed it probably towed and waiting for her at the nearest police station. There would be awkward questions to all of which Mia would never answer, even if she lived until the morrow to claim it.
The man laid Mia carefully in the backseat of his car, and she slid thankfully onto the cool leather with a groan.
The man climbed into the driver’s seat and asked, “Hospital?”
Mia told him no and gave him the address.
* * *
When I awoke there was a man standing at the foot of the bed. I say man, but he was more Goliath than any man I had ever known. His size filled the room absorbing any light that dared to slip between the heavy curtains. His face was a sickly white but dark too. It was as if he wore a white mask lightly brushed with soot. His expression was grim and contorted in pain. An untidy black black beard, trimmed at the jowl practically bristled with fury. His stare was sharp and pointed and all of it was tremulous with a growing thunder. A great mat of black hair sat high upon his head falling untidily to his shoulders. His body was thickset and chest easily a yard wide. Like Bartholomew, he wore a heavy black fur cloak that wrapped him like a monk. At his sides, hung two powerfully clenched fists both as large as ham hocks. His fists moved and shifted at his sides as he were a boxer readying for battle, and with eyes as yellow as a cat’s and as big as walnuts, he seemed ready to attack.
He did not blink.
Everything about him was terrifying, and it should have been enough, but what made this man truly remarkable, what made him the most terrorizing thing I’d ever seen, was a porcelain-white bone protruding from out of the middle of his forehead. It was every bit the general shape of a rose thorn, thick at its base and streamlined at its tip, but easily ten times the size. It looked to be easily seven or eight inches in length – its tip as honed and as sharp as a Samurai’s Sword glistened in the dimness. But ‘horn’ is wrong the word to describe it. The damnable thing looked more like the deadly, upright spine of some poisonous tropical fish than the dumb stub of the rhinoceros. And from its tip; FROM OUT OF ITS TIP a vacuous, colorless fluid leaked. The fluid slid grotesquely down the spine to the embedded base of his disturbed, angry, furrowed brow finding its way into his hairy, ungainly eyebrows, and from there, dripped like rain down to his cheeks and beard. The liquid ran freely down all of his face as if he were crying. But to be sure, these were no tears, and he made no attempt to wipe them away.
I reached for a pillow and pulled it tightly to my chest in a pathetic effort to shield myself.
Scudamour stared down at me, waiting for me to make the first move – which, considering the circumstances was remarkably polite of him. Beside me, the sleeping form under the covers shifted and the blond bob of Camellia’s head emerged. She looked and saw the dark, hulking horror of Scudamour there at foot of our – their bed – and instead of screaming in shock (as I was about ready to do), she smiled simply, plopped her head back upon her pillows, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
* * *
Mia, with her eyes closed, and with the gentle hum of wheels on the road, lulled herself into a trance. She sought the counsel of her sister in the Shadow Lands…
Beyond the light or darkness of the Earth – that which is life and all the life that exists in the ever-vastness of the universe is the boundary marker of our in-between lives. In this place, our doppelgängers reside. And in that place these strange creatures mimic our very locomotion through time – our footsteps, hand movements, facial expressions and even our darting eye movements – all our motions are captured like fish in a net with mirror-like precision in that terrible, ashy-gray place. But it does not end there. Our emotions too, captured – roiled and mulled upon, but repealed and annulled, turned backwards upon them: when ecstatic the Eidolon is suicidal; when suicidal the Eidolon is ecstatic – the Shadow Lands are the antonym of emotion, for the Eidolon has no emotions from which to gauge its own existence – it only knows what we give it. There are no hands, arms, or brains in the Shadow Lands to take what belongs to us. The Eidolon is a bloodjelly receptor upon which to record us in toto. They are soulless beings filled with those opposite things which we project. If you are a man filled with a lifetime of joy your Eidolon is a bloodjelly monster filled with hate. Just as the proton has an anti-proton and the quark its anti-quark, so too, it is the same with us.
Earth and Death are conjoined twins, and that meeting place is the Shadow Lands. Adam showed me this place: “It is but a footstep on the long path to either Heaven or Hell, exnzpat. Don’t go there! It will only bewilder you. It is an event all of its own making. Where I, the Father of Death, deal only in the reparation of the flesh the Shadow Lands are the impression of self. Don’t go there, exnzpat! Never! Travelers who cross from Earth to the Shadow Lands bring back to Earth only conflict. The traveler’s memories will be deformed. And an imprecise and deformed memory will conflate with Self. Don’t go there, exnzpat! In the Shadow Lands, there is no King. No real thing reigns there.
“I am the King of Death, and to my bride, Eve, she who is the Queen of Earth, and to my lost love, the Lilith, Queen only to herself, and you, her companion and advocate, Lincoln, beware.”
He reached down and petted me on my head, running his fingers though my fur and fondled my ears kindly. He sighed and said, “The unicorn will release you soon and Mia will want to take you into the Shadow Lands.
“Don’t let her! Kill her if you must.”
* * *
I retched; choking on my own vomit, I tried to push Jerry from my chest. I was dying and I fought violently to prevent it from being so.
* * *
As suddenly as the flash had come, I was returned to Scudamour’s bed beside his mistress, or wife, or whatever Camilla was to him. And that dark master still stood there glowering down at me.
“Camellia!” the great man barked. His voice was hard and deep, sounding more like the grindings of a boat cresting a sandy beach than any kind of human speech I knew of.
Camellia remerged from under the blankets. Her mussed blond bob of curled hair lay askew her head like an upright mop. Her breasts exposed, hung gently above her soft belly. She looked up at him and said quietly, “It is done Michael. As you suggested it should be done.”
In either world, I was dead, or about to become so very soon. But to my surprise, the great man, with his deadly spine protruding from out of his forehead, only nodded. He turned away and without another word, left us.
* * *
“Lady, what is your name please?”
Mia stirred from out of her trance and answered, “Mia.”
Her trance had not been a deep one – she had not found the Shadow Lands but saw clearly the crackle of fire that marked the way, but the path she saw was as twisted and as crooked as an old man’s back and hardly navigable at all. The newcomer’s power was growing, and Mia, weak from exhaustion and broken in body was as shunned as a leper at a County Fair in July. Maybe she could do this one last thing: reclaim Ben, or even die in his arms. Her love for him had changed her all those years ago – it made her weak for sure, but no serious challenger had come for her in almost sixty years – and not a one before had come for her like this one. Iniquitous and bitter, angry at the world, she had come for Mia like a starving wolf. The young woman was bereft of love. It was a weakness to her. She knew not its power to balance wrong against right, pain against its absence, and joy against grief. Yes, Mia was weak but it was, to Mia, a happy weakness and Mia smiled to herself just to know that however this ended she would not be lost to God.
Mia stretched the muscles in her back. It hurt to do so, but it felt good to stretch. The ache in her chest was back, but it seemed soft and distant now. It was as if the hand of Death caressed her heart now instead of throttling it as He had done before. She sunk into the deep leather of the seat and felt better for its comfort. The respite under the tractor and the help of the lookalike had given her new strength.
“Tell me please, Mia. How is it I know you?”
Using her arms Mia weakly shifted her legs into a more comfortable position.
“Very well, if you like. The drive will be long and there may not be another chance, but let me ask first. What is your name?”
“Ah, like your grandfather?”
Mia nodded, understanding now.
“In tent thirteen we kept the dead. And it was there I met your grandfather. It was wartime, and in those times, opportunities did not afford American blacks well. I was fortunate. Your grandfather was not. We met in a combat support hospital in Flanders in 1926.” Mia paused here to shift her legs again. The strange caress of pain in her chest had moved to her left thigh, and for now, its touch seemed no more than an irritation.
In the front seat, Zach concentrated on his driving while Mia shifted and spoke quietly behind him. If Zach believed the timeline of her story impossible, he said nothing about it. A light rain had begun and he switched on his window wipers. They made a soft, comforting swishing sound as they arched back and forth across the pane.
“I was a staff nurse and had been stationed in and about the lines for four months. I moved where I was needed.
“Late one evening I heard something. A man singing. His song was a Death Song like nothing I’d never heard before, and his voice… his voice… it was as pitch perfect as Christ’s, and his melody and timbre brilliant as star shine.
“I immediately went to find him.”
“Your grandfather was with another, a man who went by the name of Sandalphon. (I’ve always wondered on his name, for it was he who took me to Ben). Your grandfather I thought at first to be a coward, for he did not help at all. He understood though… he understood a house of the dead contains more than just corpses. And when we argued, when we asked his help to carry Ben’s body into the hospital, I saw into his head. Inside it, I saw the ghosts of every dead soldier of that place – that dreadful tent thirteen – and each ghost-man he saw stood dully at attention before their own corpse – all of them waiting for their next assignment like the good little soldiers they were.”
The caressing hand moved from her left thigh to her leg and began to strum gently upon her calf. It was an oddly reassuring and familiar sensation.
“There is much of him in you, I think…
“Things have recently changed in the world for me. I have lost most of my sight, but you have come for me… and so I know you understand such things.
Mia saw the woolly head of Zach nod lightly. He did not need to say anything. He had seen ghosts all his life.
The hand touched her left foot and Mia scrunched her toes in discomfort.
“Sandolphon took me deep into the tent. It was an awful place. Buckets of kerosene placed at neat ten-foot intervals in each aisle failed miserably. It wasn’t enough – could never be enough. The smell was suffocating.
Ben’s song was fading when we found him – barely a whisper now in my head. A Death Song, Zach, is not a song of words but a fabric of soft pastels, fields of corn, cotton, and pumpkins in fall. It is new snow on a new winter’s day and the encapsulating warmth of trueloves embrace. It is all that we are at death. You know why they wait, Zack?” Mia said this last with sudden sharp authority, her tone changing completely.
“Do you? Like wet dogs in a cold rain?”
“They have nothing to sing about – not enough experiences, too many shortcuts, too many wasted days! Oh, Lord, I’m as guilty as the rest. I made my life easy cause I could, but most others just run and hide from the world.” Mia stopped speaking here. She looked down at her hands clasping her knees. Veins the size of mountain ridges ran up from her knuckles and disappeared into the sleeves of her uniform. They were purple, dark like smoke. Intertwined within the lattice of melancholy that was all but upon her now was joy. Mia drifted to sleep but woke almost immediately. But in that moment she was a girl again staring in wonder at brilliant white cotton-balled clouds sailing across an endless blue-black Georgia sky. She felt the dry grass catching in her hair as she lay upon it and the delicious sent of a lost breeze snatch at her hair. Her feet hurt and she was awake again, Zach’s old head before her in the driver’s seat.
“They wait,” she said, this time softly, her harshness gone. “They wait because they are lost, I think.
“I’ve lived long… but when I think of my life in my head I know who I will sing my song for. Ben. Yes, Ben it is and must always be. My love.”
Zach levered the left indicator down and slowed the car imperceptibly in the anticipation of the fast approaching exit.
So caught up in her reverie Mia barely opened her eyes, but she managed a small interlude: “Not this one – take the next, it’s quicker.”
Zach, like his grandfather before him, a man of few words, said nothing. He turned off the blinker, shifted the car to the right, and returned to his normal speed and continued along the freeway.
“Your grandfather did not follow us into the tent, nor would he enter when we called to him for help.
We found Ben’s body on a second shelf at the edge of the tent. We lifted him down and called to your grandfather for help and still he did not come.
Sandolphon lifted Ben by the arms and I cradled his head so it would not drag along the rough planking of the floor. We called to your grandfather again, and once again, he did not come.
After much dragging and pulling, we reached the mouth of the tent where your grandfather stood lounging against a post smoking. He looked down upon Ben disdainfully and pronounced him dead. I hated your grandfather for that, because he was right. Ben was dead but his soul had no place yet to go and so it remained within Ben to sing the song of him. I knew… I knew I could save him… but not without earthly medical help, I couldn’t.
“Sandolphon brought down a lantern and together we inspected Ben’s wounds. Ben’s chest, neck, and face were puckered with shrapnel; his left leg was almost severed. But someone in the field wound a tourniquet from the sleeve of his shirt and so had slowed his blood loss.
“I knew I… the doctors, and with my special help, could save him…
“Sandolphon begged his companion for help to carry Ben out into the rain and through the mud to hospital tents, and again, your grandfather refused, repeating his proclamation.
“At that, I rose up from Ben in fury. Your grandfather flicked his cigarette aside and immediately lit another doing his best to ignore me. The smell of tobacco among the rotting corpses, the mud, the creeping dampness and mould, and the astringent stink of kerosene were so foul to the point I wanted to vomit. I placed my hand on Zachariah’s chest to strike him dead, but he looked at me in an amused way and said, “‘You can’t touch me, witch.'”, and I saw it true. For it is an odd thing for a man to see ghosts, it is a Sight of sorts. A low Sight perhaps, but Sight all the same – maybe he be more ghost than man – I do not know the answer to this, then or now. God’s factory, produces many strange things, your grandfather and probably you too Zach are some of those things, but nevertheless, I kept my hand on your grandfather’s chest and spoke these words: “‘It is true, I see this now. Therefore, I still command you – to give me whatever help I need, when I need it. You will be my slave. If not you Zachariah, but one of your next generation, or the next, or the one that comes after that, and all that come after them. When I need you, you will come.'”
“I pulled my hand away from his chest and looked into his eyes to see if the spell took. I sought satisfaction in fear, but he had none. “‘So be it, witch.'” he said to me, “‘I am cursed, but before you leave off and return this man to life,'” and here he pointed at Ben prone on the planking, “‘I say this one will truly be dead at our next meeting.'”
Mia stopped speaking, closed her eyes and lay back against the leather. And here, a long uncomfortable silence settled over the two occupants of the car. The next exit came up fast and Zach set his blinker to the left.
* * *
Camellia yawned and, pulling her knees to her chest and hugging herself like a child, said coyly, “It is done, but if you would like we could do it again.”
Dumbfounded, I could only stare in her direction. Saying nothing, I climbed from the bed and went to the door. Scudamour had left us. We were alone again.
Camellia in the bed waited.
For countless minutes, I stood staring out into the empty living room waiting for something, anything to happen, and when nothing did, the sudden realization I was cold filtered into my doused and confused brain. I wanted to be warm but did not wish…
I looked back to Camellia… And slowly, very slowly, I closed the bedroom door, latched the bolt, and went back to her.