Baba Yaga is one of the most fascinating and strange folkloric entities, so for this episode of Breakfast with Gilgamesh, i tried something a little different. i hope you enjoy it!
Episode 4: The Stone Monkey
The fourth episode of Breakfast with Gilgamesh tells the origin story of Son Wu kong, perhaps the most beloved figure in all of Chinese literature.
Episode 3: The Epic of Horus and Set
The third episode of Breakfast with Gilgamesh covers the strange and incredible epic of the god-hero Horus and his fight with his uncle, the evil desert god Set.
Episode 2: The Archer
The second episode of Breakfast with Gilgamesh covers the adventures of a certain english rogue and his band of merry men. you can check the show out on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts!
Episode One: The Secret Story
The first episode of BREAKFAST WITH GILGAMESH is now available on itunes and spotify. each episode, I perform a myth in the tradition of the oral storyteller. This episode, we visit ancient Mesopotamia, to tell a secret story that everyone knows…
Morningside Heights sits at the top of Scarborough Ontario. There, thick forest is pounded back by long fields of parking lots and six lane roads. tenements press up into gas stations, gas stations press up into strip malls, and stip malls press up into manicured suburban neighborhoods carved into the edges to an endless wilderness that slithers night by night into every aspect of this place as if to reclaim it for the forests and creeks that lie in wait beneath great overpasses and on the borders of unpopulated parkettes and bike trails. Cut like a slash through the heart of it is the highway, which roars day and night like a wound, frightening back the oldest things – the ghosts and coyotes too afraid to linger, and too stubborn to leave.
On these margins are the kinds of shops one always wonders about. Small, ugly shops that stand in the back of tiny parking lots, with crowded windows and ugly sunbleached signs that make no sense in any of the four or five languages they’re in.
When Lucy Mendoza signed a lease for the old building at the top of Morrish Road she saw her future, the future she had been chasing since the day Raymond was born. She spent every weekend of Raymond’s childhood at swap meets, where she would sell and trade jewelry and furniture, which she collected from the garage sales that dapple the lawns of affluent neighborhoods she could never afford to live in. She would polish each piece of crystal, each ornate fork and dusty lamp and set them just so on the small red table she mounted in whatever swap meet she could find to vend at. She dreamed of leaving the group home she lived in with her son, of owning her own business and giving Raymond a better life.
Mendoza Antiques was a dream set neatly between a dental office and a drug store. It had been a travel agency before this, a book store before that, and would, it was assumed by everyone, be something else soon enough. That spot there on the corner had been many things over the years, but always — always– a failure.
Raymond grew up being moved around by the whims of his mother. She would dress him in worn clothing that was always clean, and drag him along with her to the garage sales and swap meets that were their lives. When finally they moved into their new home above the antique shop, Raymond took quickly to the advantages of a stable household. He made friends at school, enjoyed sports and girls, and when he began to grow taller than his mother, would spend his nights at the college campus, accepted by boys many years his senior as one of their own.
Lucy could remember the first time thought that Raymond had stolen something from the shop. She kept very strict records of her acquisitions, her sales and her trades. The first time she noticed something was missing, it was an old wrist watch with an engraving worn down by time and mishandling. Its face was missing three jewels, and she felt like a terrible mother for even thinking that Raymond could be capable of such a thing. She never confronted him about it, and perhaps, she thought now, that was why it kept happening. Every once in a while, with no real regularity, something would disappear, a ring, a necklace. She would wait in their apartment for Raymond to come home, stewing in her resentment, repeating some speech she had drawn up under her breath, ruminating on the sleight of the theft, the audacity of it. Thinking of all the things she sacrificed for him to have a better life, all the time and toil, letting it ferment into a thick and righteous anger, which would dissolve into the deepest part of her the moment Raymond came home at whatever ungodly hour. She would try to keep her fingers tight around her anger, clutching it to her chest as it pulled deep down, but when she heard the back door of the shop open and latch, when she heard his heavy steps clamor up the stairs to the apartment, her anger would melt through her grip and sink in a black pool of fear. She couldn’t lose him. If she pushed too much, let her anger come too readily, rebuked him too hard, he would leave again and never come back. He would be another thief in the night, another ghost, like his father.
And so, all through the languid summer months, Lucy would run her shop, selling lamps and tables to the old white women who would wander into her shop after mass and haggle over prices, assuring her that they could find the same object at some other, nebulous shop somewhere –she was assured– close by, and at a better price.
Every once in a while, things would go missing, and Lucy would resign herself to its missing, cloaked in the assurance that Raymond would, at some point, come home. She would sit in the apartment in a worn, old recliner, and wait for him to arrive until she dozed off in the silence of her lonely apartment. When she woke up, sometimes – and only sometimes – Raymond would be home. She wouldn’t dare speak to him, out of fear that some resentment, some exhaust of her anger would creep up and speak the truth that she had convinced herself would drive her son away forever. That anger festered every day, malignant and roiling, always there, growing not just with each instance of his blatant theft, but with each passing day he didn’t come home, didn’t speak to her, existed as a passer-by in the morning traffic of their apartment and nothing more, just a pick-pocket, precious to her as any bauble he might steal, any memory she held of him as a child, as a beacon to all her love, the only thing that could possibly matter to her — this taciturn bandit living in her home.
One morning, as Raymond came home with the grey, rainy dawn, something in Lucy’s mind resolved. Instead of tensing when Raymond climbed the stairs, she relaxed, all her resentment seemed to float there within her, as if all her struggling had been what forced it away, and now, congealed in her exhaustion and resentment, it floated to the surface as a simple determination – a desire not for her son to be a better man, but to catch him in the act. She would do it tonight, she thought. She would wait in her room for him to sneak out, and she would follow him to wherever he was selling her things and make sure he couldn’t do it again even if he wanted to.
That day she left the shop closed. Raymond slept upstairs in his room, an unkempt pile of clothes and broken phone chargers. She paced around the apartment, sometimes looking down through the blinds in her living room at the empty parking lot, and the old women who never bought anything, their faces twisting with concern as they approached her front shop and tugged on the door, as if the shop would surely be open, what with the lights off, the gate shuttered and the printed sign taped to the door that said “closed today, open tomorrow.” in a thick, round, and happy font.
Lucy made a meal for herself as the sun went down. She had spent the entire day watching the window, considering the dying grass that separated the lot from the other lot beside it, the thin, shabby trees whose branches bent away from the power lines that drooped between each utility pole. She ate rice and scrambled eggs, a hearty meal to prepare her for the night’s hunt, and as she contemplated the confrontation to come, manifesting his feeble arguments and her thundering retorts.
When Lucy woke up, it was because she heard the lock click loudly on the front door of the shop. She sprang to her feet, jamming them into cotton slippers and pulling an inside-out cardigan over her arms. She stumbled down the steps from her apartment, barely able to keep her feet from folding under her and sending her tumbling. She lept off the last step and planted herself hard on the tile floor of the shop. She listened for a moment to the antiques rattle their disapproval in the darkness before she jogged to the front door and peered through the half-opened security gate Raymond hadn’t even bothered to pull back down to see him crossing the lot towards the lights at the crosswalk. He had something under his left arm, and she turned her head over her shoulder to catalogue her inventory. She paused at a gap on the expedit by the door, where a little music box she could never get to work one sat with its lid open to reveal a ceramic dancer with a missing finger and a crack in her pink tutu. Lucy scrambled back up the steps to grab her keys, then skipped back down the steps and out the front door, latching the gate and clicking the big loud lock of the door. She pulled her cardigan tight when she noticed the clouds of frost spilling from her lips as she cursed in tagalog under her breath.
She had seen Raymond make his way across the lights and west toward a sloping road that led to a heavily wooded gully riven with bike trails and barbeque pits. She walked hurriedly across the empty lot in the orange glow of the street lamps that loomed over the empty streets. They shone orange light down on her, casting the shadows of the barn spiders who constructed ugly, hasty nets on their bulbs against the crumbling sidewalk. She walked past the church, past the mosque next to it, and past the strange little houses which until recently were thickets full of chirping birds, toward the gully. The street lights grew more sparse as she walked, squinting to see if she noticed Raymond ahead of her. The trees were globules of pitch, shadows of themselves creeping up through the darkness they cast on their own trunks. The sidewalk shrank and gave way to a gravel swale that separated the languishing tarmac of the two lane road from the wild grass of the gully. She listened to the crickets ululate their chorus, deafening and surrounding, she stuffed her clenched fists into the pockets of her cardigan and hunched her head between her shoulders, sucking her lips into her mouth and picking up her pace, reciting a little prayer in her mind between each lamp light. She listened to the crickets closely, terrified that something could be stalking her, a coyote or a bobcat maybe, a silent predator waiting in the marsh bramble for her to skip the lord’s prayer just once. She glanced at the overpass with the corner of her eye, a procession of highway overhead lamps floating high above and off to the south of her, a place of people and light and safety. She listened to the sound of the cars hissing along it in the distance, barely audible. She closed her eyes as she walked forward and concentrated on that sound of rubber gliding over tarmac, the way it rose behind her and fell ahead of her, like breathing. She didn’t notice that she had gone between two lights without reciting her prayer until the thumping of footfalls echoed over a knoll in the darkness. She froze and stood under the light, lifting her hands out of her pockets and using them to shade her eyes from the harsh light above her head. She could see it, a figure standing just a few dozen yards across the little road. She called Raymond’s name and the figure answered by trotting across the road. It was a deer, her angular features barely visible in the night but her round, wet, black eyes shimmering clearly. Lucy watched the deer bound over the tarmac and between her and the lamp ahead of her into the grass on the south side where Lucy had to go. The deer paused to consider Lucy, the blank expression on its face lingered for a moment, until its ears bent south and it scampered off down the road ahead. Something spooked it, Lucy thought. Perhaps the overpass. She turned to look at it as she stepped back into darkness, and froze. Her mouth was agape as she brought her trembling hands to it. She slid her fingers up over her eyes and then slid them through her greasy black hair. She made a sound, like a whimper that aspires to a scream. There, above the trees, above the overpass, above the lights, there in the darkness, silent and immense as a secret, it stood. It towered above the overpass on four long, slender legs, its body was an elongated tear-drop shape, like a whale, and it had several tails that swayed in every direction as it walked on its stilts. Molly’s throat betrayed a sob and she could feel the hot tears in her eyes slide down the edges of her cheeks. She whirled around and screamed Raymond’s name once more, but there was no reply, just the crickets, and the overpass, and her short, terrified breathing.
She scrambled up the other side of the gully, along the winding road, hoping that a car would pass her that she could stop, hoping that when she got to the top of the street on the other side that the thing would be gone, a product of her stress, she thought. As she rounded the last bend in the road at the top of the hill, she caught a glimpse of him walking along the side of the road. She screamed his name again, but there was no answer. He kept walking, and she curled over her knees to catch her heaving breath.
When she lifted herself up, Raymond was a speck in the distance, turning the corner of Morningside and Kingston Road to go north. She looked over her shoulder and gawped at the thing as it walked past. The base of its foot couldn’t have been more than a few inches wide, and its footfalls didn’t make a sound as it lumbered by. She craned her neck and could just barely make out the swirling mass of life clinging to its underbelly. Every inch of it was moving against itself, squirming and squishing way up in the air, at least a hundred feet above her. It passed her, striding hundreds of feet, gingerly stepping between strip malls and motels into the night ahead. Lucy kept watching it as she hurried along Kingston Road, past the two Chinese restaurants that stood side by side, past the two-storie motel always overrun with feral children, past the psychic’s gift shop and the bong shop and the carpet shop and the pizza place that was always dirty to the intersection. She peered across the road at the strip mall. She could see kids standing in front of the only car in the parking lot, illuminated by the glow of the grocery store. She could hear them laughing and chatting and wondered again if the great thing that walked the night wasn’t some figment of stress.
Lucy turned onto Morningside and saw along the long downhill slope of the 6 lane road, Raymond, with the music box under his arm like a basketball. She didn’t bother to shout at him this time. She jogged the downhill portion of the road until she came to the level bridge that overpassed a wide creek that dried in the winter and stank in the summer. She looked ahead of Raymond and saw the university laboratory building. She wondered if that was some sort of pick up point, where her son would meet whoever made him the laconic thief he was now and took him off to fill his lungs with drugs and head with sins. She picked up the pace.
She kept her gaze on Raymond as he crossed the street lights at Ellesmere and kept going north toward the highway. As she approached the crosswalk the light turned red and she stopped. There were no cars on the street, nobody else but her and her son disappearing over the crest of the upward slope on the other end of the street. She bit her bottom lip and jerked her leg forward onto the road, hurrying across and watching for coming cars. She could see the thing, way off in the distance over the western horizon making its way north. A car swerved around her and the driver leaned on the horn as the car sped through the intersection and east. Jolted, Lucy ran across to the north side and kept on, following her son. At the top of the block, just past the laboratory building, the sidewalk ended and gave way to grassy ditches lining a highway overpass exit dotted with intentionally planted trees too puny to grow taller than her son. The wind was harsh and loud up there, moaning over the deafening hiss of the highway. She walked along the ditch, where birds took flight ahead of her and scattered. She saw raccoons cling to the small trees as if to hide behind them, watching her with taciturn suspicion as she crossed their paths, shuffling their babies along away from her. She realized she had lost raymond, and saw the parking lot for the campus swimming pool, which had been under some stage of construction in perpetuity. She stood in the empty lot, pausing to consider where Raymond could have gone. She noticed a black car parked in a random spot and made for it. As she approached she considered how she would confront Raymond. She’d knock on the window and he’d step out of the car, and she’d tell him everything she was feeling, she would tell him everything and he would either accept his fault and come home or leave forever, but she would never see that tall, walking thing again.
As she approached the car she noticed a fox scamper across the lot from one manicured bush to another, watching her all the time as it slinked around in the darkness, avoiding the lights. She watched it slither along until it reached the treeline north of the lot where the northern woods began to fight back against the pavement. It paused, considered her, and slid into the brush like a ghost through a wall.
When she turned to look at the car she jumped back. There was a man standing in front of it now. He was white and scraggly looking. He had a wiry beard and a dirty beige club jacket whose patches had long fallen off in disrepair leaving long, exposed bits of string. His eyes were wild and alert and he seemed to be grinning at her like a fool with his hand perched on the open door of the car. She could see the blankets and old food wrappers spilling out into the lot, the interior light barely flickering. She stepped back and decided Raymond hadn’t come this way.
He shouted at her and she jumped in fright but kept on walking away, reciting her lamp post prayer under her breath.
“I said hey!”
She froze and turned around. He hadn’t moved from his spot but he was pointing at her with a knobby finger.
“You can ignore me all you want lady, but when that thing’s done this whole city’ll be swallowed up and you’ll be just as fucked up and crazy as me!”
He lifted his finger from her and pointed it in the air behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the thing looming over the highway. Her bottom lip trembled and she turned back to the man whose eyes widened even more as he shrieked.
“Ha! You can see it too can’t ya! Can’t ya! You’ll see more than that! You and everybody else’ll see!”
He wheezed between fits of laughter and she ran away, north across the lot and onto the dead grass that bordered the road, swinging her arms wildly as she sprinted north to the strip malls, reciting still her prayer.
The thing hovered over the highway near the overpass Lucy was standing on. The crickets sang out so loud Lucy could hear them over the highway. Cars rambled along up and down ten lanes. From here Lucy could see the city westward between the long spindly legs of the creature as it lumbered across the highway towards a strip mall tucked behind a Wal-Mart.
Lucy could make out a figure walking up the little side road to the lot. She ran towards them, all the time watching the thing’s writhing form in the dwindling twilight of the pre-dawn. She jogged across Morningside to the western side, where the figure came up from the service road that led to the parking lot and into the lamplight of the Wal Mart. it was Raymond. He had the music box in his hands and was walking at a leisurely pace toward the western-most tip of the parking lot that faces the highway.
Lucy ran up the service road as fast as her aching legs would allow. Her lungs burned and her eyes watered as she ascended into the parking lot and felt her knees give out. She hit the pavement and let out a squeal. She looked up, laying on her shoulder on the pavement, and saw Raymond ahead of her. Above him the animal shambled across the highway. As she got up to her feet, the creature’s legs bent and its broad front slouched downward toward the parking lot. She scrambled to her feet and screamed Raymond’s name, but there was no reply. She forced her legs to move, her ankles quivering, her balance gone, she kept on screaming Raymond’s name between heaving breaths that became sobs as the light of the dawn began to creep across the lot behind her. She could see the creature now as the night relented. Its body was a million shapes she vaguely knew. Dog’s leg folded over octopus tentacle over insect face over lizard eye over muscle over bone over and over and over, its entire body a cacophony of components, a million pieces all swarming over one another and never whole, a collective of everything and nothing. Raymond had stopped walking. He squatted down on the ground, tucking his legs together and sitting on the dewy bitumen floor of the lot.
Lucy stopped a few feet behind him and coughed as if her lungs were about to eject themselves through her throat. She crumpled to her knees and heaved, watching the thing get closer to them, slouching down toward the lot, its legs bending to bring itself below its knees like a spider.
“Raymond, I’m scared! I’m scared I’m going crazy! Don’t you see it? You have to see it! It’s right there Raymond! You leave me every night and you only come back when you want to! You don’t eat, you don’t go to school! Raymond, I love you! I brought you here because I love you! I know you hate it but please understand Raymond. I love you so much and I’m so scared. I don’t want to go mad wondering why you do the things you do, Raymond. I don’t want to be angry anymore. I don’t want to punish you. I just want you to be okay. I just want you to live and eat and go to school. I’ll do anything Raymond. I’m so tired. I love you so much… Please…”
Raymond turned his head over his shoulder to look at his mother for what Lucy was sure had been the first time in years. His eyes were sad and tired and something else, something secret he would keep despite everything. He turned away from Lucy and she crawled along the pavement on her hands and knees, crying still. The animal’s body spilled onto the pavement in squirming chaos. The crickets stopped chirping, the highway was silent, and from that silence came a sound that Lucy had never heard before, like a million memories all racing in her mind not one of them her own. She smacked the palms of her hands on her forehead and screamed hoarsely but no sound came out of her mouth. She looked up, stunned and saw the thing’s appendages slink across the pavement toward her son. She lept off her knees and grabbed Raymond by the shoulder but he didn’t budge and she was too weak to force him. She watched as from the mess of legs and tentacles emerged another familiar shape… an arm, a human arm which pushed its way between centipede fangs and shark teeth to reach out at Raymond. Lucy watched, frozen in terror, when suddenly, the hand turned its wrist, no longer reaching, but pleading. Lucy watched Raymond pull the music box from between his crossed legs and place it in the palm of the hand. Its fingers wrapped around the base of the music box and the entire mass lifted itself off the ground, warm swirls of air brushed Lucy’s wet face as she watched the arm disappear into the muck of itself with the music box.
“It has to be something someone would miss.”
Raymond’s voice was serene and low in his throat, almost a whisper.
“Something somebody loved.”
Lucy looked up as the thing turned itself around on its legs. Its body glimmered in the dawn sun and it began to fade away into the morning air. As it did, the silence was replaced by bird song and highway.
“It’ll be back in a few days. It’s hungry.”
Lucy looked at her son who watched it disappear in the light soundlessly. She turned her son by the shoulders and he looked into her eyes, that secret still waiting there, still kept.
“Then we’ll feed it.”
I remember the sensation of grass under my feet. I could run, then. My legs were firm and strong. They would carry me toward the sun at the end of each day, chasing it west to the horizon. I could feel the life in everything around me, in the trees and the rocks and the crawling things underneath them. I could feel the gods I knew then and cannot recall, feel their proud eyes on my shoulders. I could feel the sweat tickle the skin under my ear. I could feel the cool evening wind dry my wet, heaving lips.
There was a little plate under my feet that said “Incense burner.” and I have never known what it means.
I was in a glass case in a dimly lit room. There were other pieces in there, like me. Little sculptures of animals, a boar, a bird, a cat and a fish. I was a rabbit, or so I suspected. I could scarcely make out my reflection in the little glass box that contained me. When the lights first came on each morning, I could see things, work out facts about myself through observation. I was made of copper, bright green and with a stone embedded upon my head. I could feel my limbs, strong and slender but immovable. All I could do was see, and just barely.
Across the hall and through the entrance was a much larger room, well lit and always full of people. From my position, I could see a gray arm as large as my entire body stretching out across the doorway. Behind it there were serpents with jewels in their eyes, their golden tongues lashing and curling in the air, raking their claws at nothing in particular. I had often wished to visit this place, to meet the dragons and know whose arm stretches across my doorway.
My room was not often visited. People would walk by, peer in, and keep walking. I would see children walk by and consider me for a moment, thinking me odd. I was the only piece in the room that faced the door, and so unlike my mates who only had each other for company, I had the passing curiosity of the young to occupy my soul, such as it was.
I don’t know how long I’d been here, but I’d known once, some time ago. I remember things about before I was here, too. There was… a girl, and a magician, and I remember of course that I could run through fields with strong legs at dusk. I thought often of my gods, the ones who i prayed to each night, the ones i couldn’t recall. I wondered if perhaps my forgetting them might have had something to do with my present situation.
Once in a while, some couple would wander into our room to kiss or fight or contemplate the prospect of sex before noticing that we were all watching and leave sheepishly. Very rarely, and always too briefly, someone would come in to look at us, consider our odd shapes, the way our limbs, roughly sculpted bits of soft metal seemed to reach out to them, and note that there was no indication of where any of us came from, what we were. They would tell this to each other, shrug, and move on.
Once at the end of the day, just before the lights went out, a little girl ran into our room. She saw me from the doorway, wrenched her hand from her mother’s and made for my display. When she reached me, she slapped her hands hard on my glass case and I was shaken so violently that I tipped backwards out of the little aluminium stand that clasped my body, and I fell to the cement base of my prison, unfastening the stone from my forehead.
I’m not sure how I figured out that I was free from my little copper prison. I watched the girl dragged away hastily by her parent as she screeched her disapproval, and as I lay there, waiting for someone in a uniform to find and replace me, I thought to myself that I should very much like to be upright, and, just then, I was. Everything seemed smaller, and the air was different than before – it moved across my new skin and the sensation, long forgotten, was strange to me.
The sensation of movement had become foreign to me. I felt as if I had woken from a dream. I turned my neck for the first time in who knows how long, and noticed to my astonishment that I was outside of the display case. I looked at the other pieces, they seemed so small now, so empty. I turned and there I was, just behind me, with long ears and alert eyes, sitting proudly but bowled over on my side, the little stone a few inches away. As I gaped at my own form, I noticed the reflection of a face in my glass. I hopped backwards in shock, and that’s how I came to realize that I was in a new body. I looked at my arms, my hands and finally my legs. I touched my face, tasted the tips of my fingers, they tasted like grass and sweat, of okra and copper. These things tasted like memories, but ones I couldn’t place. I stood there in darkness for a while, considering my position, considering the muscles under my skin, and the wetness of my lips. I rubbed my fingers together and watched the flesh bend and contort against itself. It took, I must admit, some time for me to come to the conclusion that my legs must be able to achieve locomotion. This fact thus remembered, I practiced for a little while, placing one heel against my biggest toe, then again, and again until I could do it without looking down.
I started and fell to the floor, scrambling up against my display case and almost knocking it over. I licked my lips and felt the elasticity of my tongue, then quivered my jaw as if to warm up to the act of speech.
“Come out here and we can talk.”
I staggered to my feet and peered with my new eyes into the darkness. The voice was commanding and proud, I could feel it in my chest. I rose to my feet and walked carefully out into the larger room. As I cleared the doorway it occurred to me that I was finally going to see the rest of the statue whose arm I had watched all this long time. It was a man with a huge chest, his great hand held up flat at the end of his extended arm. His face was furious and grimacing through a wild beard, his stone hair bundled in a knot. He wore an ornate stone robe, and there were divots all over his body worn smooth with time.
“Take a good look, i’m not going anywhere.”
The voice laughed at his own joke.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Gan Fengchi. I am a great warrior. Who are you, and how did you escape?”
“Hello, Gan Fengchi. I don’t know how i escaped.”
“Tell me your name!”
“I don’t know my name.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can you not know your own name?”
“Certainly you are.”
I turned away from Gan Fengchi and looked at the dragons whom I had longed to speak with.
“They cannot speak, rabbit.”
I turned back to Gan Fengchi and wondered how he knew.
“We cannot all speak, and you are certainly the first who can move, as far as i can recall. You know, i have a great memory.”
I walked to the dragons and ran my hand over one of them, its ridged scales felt cool and pleasant under my palm, enjoying the complex ridges carved into every inch of its golden hide. I considered the jewels that made up its eyes and admired the shimmering beauty of the dim light that danced on their scales. I dropped my hand and turned to Gan Fengchi.
“Tell me what you remember.”
“Because it might help me remember. All I remember is grass, and the sun, and something else.”
“I don’t know how to describe it. Tell me what you remember.”
Gan Fengchi cleared his throat, and began.
“I remember the heat of the summer months in the desert, I remember the smell of rain on stone. I remember the marching of men and horses, and the fire in my belly as I grew up. I was ambitious and clever, I became a warrior because there was nothing else for me. I did not care for the pay, but the pay was good. I remember food, and women, and I remember the smell of the temple, smoke and wind and fire and flesh. I could turn my body into any shape, I could mold my hands into stones to bludgeon my enemies, I could turn my legs into swords to cut them down. I lived a good, long life. I was respected and sought after. I was wise and strong, and because I was also virtuous, I was immortalized.”
“I don’t know this word, Gan Fengchi. What does it mean to be immortalized?”
“It means that my flesh has long since rotted away, but the fire in my belly never went out. People tell stories about me, learn about my life here in this place. I am remembered.”
“But what do you remember?”
“I am remembered, and that is enough.”
“I don’t know if i’m remembered.”
“Surely you are not.”
“How do you know i’m not?”
“Because if you were, you would remember the things you are remembered for.”
“That… is a confusing thought.”
“So it is.”
I thanked Gan Fengchi and bid him a good night. He clucked his tongue and insisted I bow to him, and I did. I ran my fingers over the head of one of the dragons, then walked on through to the next room.
I was standing in an immense, open space. In its center were the bones of a great animal, its neck almost reached the ceiling, which was made of glass. I looked around and noticed all the little display cases just like mine scattered around the room under soft lights. In one, there was an animal I didn’t recognize, it was large and covered in thick fur, it had great black claws and the face of a dog. There was a shining suit of armor, glimmering and proud, etched into its surface were ornate flowers all along each ridge. There was a sculpture made of wood, a convalescence of many animal features all collected to make this form. I approached it and placed my hand on the glass, cool to the touch. It looked old but somehow familiar. It had wide eyes that glared alert in no particular direction. Its teeth, perhaps once sharp, were worn and rounded at the ends, and its red tongue floated between them, giving the impression that it was crying out. I inched my face closer to the glass, as if to whisper a secret to it.
“Can you speak to me? What do you remember?”
“That is just an object, little rabbit. It cannot speak to you.”
I whirled around and saw nothing. The dog-faced animal, the armor, the great long necked beast, all still and silent.
“Don’t be frightened. I’ll help you.”
The voice was soft like a whisper, I stepped out into the center of the room and waited for it to speak again.
“Over here, little rabbit.”
I whirled around and clenched my fists. My legs shivered a little as I stepped forward, toward a corner of the room where the bust of a man stood on a stone pedestal. He had sad eyes and a round face. His lips were curious and upturned at each end, but he was not smiling. He was made of bronze and there was a plaque under him just like mine, but it had words I didn’t recognize.
“Who are you?”
“A fine question, little rabbit. My name is Currelly. This is my Museum.”
“Currelly, what is a Museum?”
“Another fine question, little rabbit. A Museum is a kind of temple. In it we store the memories of the earth so that people can come and remember.”
“This is a temple to memory?”
“That is correct, little rabbit.”
“Are you its god, or its acolyte?”
To this the bust said nothing. I stood and listened to the echoing silence of the great room for a while, waiting for it to speak, but eventually it became clear that the obligation to say something had fallen somehow back to me.
“Do you know why i am able to move? Do you know where my memories have gone? Do you know where there is grass that i might run in, so that i can remember my gods?”
“All fine questions, little rabbit.”
“Is that my name? Little rabbit?”
“You are the little statue of the hare, no? With the stone in its forehead?”
“I was. Now I am this. I am what I was before I was a little statue of a hare with a stone in its forehead.”
“How fortunate for you to take this new form.”
“This is my original form.”
“So it is, little rabbit.”
“Where do i come from?”
“Someone must know.”
“No, really i’m quite sure. You were found in the basement here some years ago, pulled out of a crate and admired for some time. There were others in the same crate, but it had no destination or origin. It was decided that you would fill the little room across from the Chinese exhibit. I’m really not sure why, but then, these decisions were made after my tenure of course.”
“What is tenure?”
At this the bust laughed.
“You have many questions, little rabbit. But i’ll suffice to tell you this: your gods are gone, your grass is gone, and it is by accident alone that you walk in my halls. Go back, little rabbit. Put the stone back in its place, let these things be. There is nothing for you here, no gods, no grass, no secret histories. You are here to be remembered, not to remember… Remember that.”
“But i wish to remember. I want to know my gods again.”
“There are many gods in this place, little rabbit. Go and choose one, remember its name, and then return to your display. You have my blessing.”
“What does this mean? Blessing?”
“It means that i allow it.”
“I see… what would happen if you didn’t allow it?”
To this there was more silence, and I once again felt the obligation to speak fall to me, but i didn’t want to talk to this Currelly anymore. I walked away from the bust as quickly as I could, past the dog faced beast and the armor and the crying thing made of wood, but I did not run. Something told me that running would give Currelly something he wanted from me, something I dare not give him.
I walked through hallways, peering into rooms as I passed them just as people had scurried past me all these days. There were paintings of people in extravagant finery whose curious eyes followed mine and laughed in whispers when I broke my gaze. There were sculptures that beckoned me, proud looking stone shadows of men with insisting voices that barked in growls of indignation.
“You there! You can hear me, can’t you! Do you know who i am? I am Hostinian!”
“Stop! Come back here! How dare you ignore Publius Helvius Pertinax!”
“You dare stare at me like that? You know very well i am Decius Caelius Calvinus Balbinus! Come back here!”
I don’t know why these sculptures were so sure i would recognize them, know their names and what they meant. I wanted to ask them about their gods, but they seemed so sure I would know who they were that they became insulted when I scurried past them and down the corridors. Surely the gods of these men weren’t remembered, if all they could think to say was to insist that i should know them.
I stopped at the end of a long hallway, past all the chattering declarations, to behold a stone relief mounted on the wall with little black brackets made of metal. I could feel how old it was, feel the years radiate from each tiny cobblestone that formed the shape of a great lion with sharp teeth and a wild shock of hair around its face. When it spoke, all the other voices tumbled away, as if ashamed.
“What is your name?”
I considered this question for a moment, hesitant to give Currelly any more thought, but I relented. Gan Fengchi thought me a fool for not having one, and Currelly insisted on one, so out it came.
“Rabbit. What is yours?”
There was silence at first, I watched the stone eye of the lion, wondering if it would move to consider me. It did not. The voice came again, haggard, as if this lion were somehow exhausted from standing in its stone frame for so long.
“I do not know my name.”
This shocked me. How could one who commanded such a presence not know its own name?
“Are you a god?”
There was resignation and sadness in his answer.
“What do you remember?”
“Nothing at all?”
More silence, and then,
“I remember… I remember that I am a stone relief of a lion, carved from rocks each bearing the name of King Nebuchadnezzar the Second. I am from a place called Iran.”
My eyes widened at this.
“Tell me of your home! Is there grass? Does the sun set and do you chase it?”
More silence. I couldn’t bear it. I stepped forward and my knee collided with a little black stand that began speaking in a happy voice.
“This stone relief of a lion, carved from rocks each bearing the name of King Nebuchadnezzar the Second, comes from a place called Iran!”
More silence. I stepped past the little black stand and came closer to the lion so that I could feel the wind of my breath bounce off of its cold surface.
“So… you have no memory?”
“I am a stone relief of a lion, carved from rocks each bearing the name of King Nebuchadnezzar the Second. I am from a place called iran.”
I bowed my head and looked at my feet, perhaps in shame or apprehension. The energy that radiated from the lion was like a chill in the night, older than time, its beauty lost in a sea of languid aimlessness. I wondered if this was what awaited me when i found my secret history, a simple statement of facts without meaning, as crude and forgotten as any piece of trivial information, of no consequence beyond curiosity. I lifted my arm and placed my hand on the lion’s neck as if to stroke it.
“No, you musn’t – -”
The voice panicked, but as my fingers slid between the cool ridges of the stonework, I could feel a hum shiver through it. Its voice now was stronger, louder, not my much, but enough that it frightened me, just a little, to be so close to it.
“I can see them. I can see them and they are close to you. I can see the crawling things under the rocks, I can see the petty lives that brought you here. I remember the name. I remember the name. I remember the name.”
I wrenched my hand away and fell on my back. I could still feel the humming coming from the lion as I scrambled to my feet and hurried back down the hall. Every other voice was silent, the paintings did not watch me, or if they did I was too scared to notice. I jogged until I could no longer feel that cold presence, though I recognized once it was gone that it was not unpleasant, only… overwhelming.
I elected not to touch anything else.
I noticed that I was surrounded by skeletons.
In every direction, illuminated by little clusters of lights in the floor that threw shadows across their many edges, were the bones of unfathomable animals, beings that seemed impossible. There were long necked ones like the one in Currelly’s room, and others, not quite as tall but twice as fearsome, all tooth and claw and wide, gaping mouth.
“You are here to see us?”
I blinked, a little shocked to hear a voice come from the corpse of an animal, but it wasn’t just a voice, it was many all speaking at once, a chorus of dead things.
“… i am here to remember.”
“We are remembered. Yes. We are great and powerful. We fought, and grew strong, and died because the heavens came down upon us for growing so great and powerful.
“You are bones.”
“No. not bones. We are stone. Stone is forever.”
“You are stone in the shape of bones?”
“We are gods, we are worshipped, wondered at, told of in tales.”
“But you are dead. Gods cannot die.”
“We are remembered.”
“What were you before you were remembered?”
“Great and powerful. We fought, we grew strong –”
“Yes i understand. What were your lives? Did you grow old? Did you speak?”
“Who lived to remember you?”
“The heavens fell upon us. None survived.”
“But if none survived, then how are you remembered?”
There was no answer. I looked back at the hallway I had come from. I thought I had seen something move in the corridor, but it was empty and dark. I sat down on the cold, hard floor, folding my knees up to my chest and wrapping my arms around my legs.
“You are remembered by the people who come here?”
The voices were quick to answer, as if assuring themselves.
“How do they remember you?”
“They found us, deep in the earth. They brought us into the sun, they put us back together. They told stories about us, good stories. They still tell them. We are worshipped. We are gods.”
I leaned my chin into my knee and thought about this answer.
“Where do you come from?”
“They come from nowhere, Little Rabbit.”
I lept to my feet and spun around. There, standing in the shadows of the corridor I had come from, was a figure. Its eyes flashed in the darkness as it sauntered into the room. Its voice was unmistakable. The lion.
“They are shadows, Rabbit. Shadows of shadows. Their stories are simple inventions. They exist in the minds of the young and the ones who wish to be young. They exist only to remind the people who come here that there are older things than them, things they can touch, things that could die. Their memories are whatever is decided for them.”
I was frozen in place, terrified. In my mind I screamed at my legs to work, to run and be strong, but they wouldn’t budge. The lion crept along the floor between the stages each great beast was perched upon. The beasts dare not speak in the presence of this being. They knew as well as the paintings and busts that filled its section of the museum what I could sense from it, something older than anything in here, something once trapped and now free, like me.
“You freed me, little rabbit. I don’t understand how, but you did. I remember it all now. I remember the gates of the mother goddess, I remember the sun. I remember the hands, dry and dark, who built me brick by brick, worshipped me in secret, a god of one man. I remember his fear. Like yours. Delicious.”
The golden, shimmering glass eyes that captured my totality in their stare and let me know they could consume it whenever they wished flashed in the sparse light. The immense skeletons all seemed to shrink in this one’s presence.
“You asked me if I was a god, and when you touched me with your hand I remembered that I was. It all came back to me, but what good is it to be a god and not be worshipped? I don’t want to be worshipped, little rabbit. I don’t want to be remembered. I want to live. I want to feel the sun and taste the blood. Oh how I miss the taste of blood, little rabbit. Like copper, like life. I want to taste it, little rabbit.”
My mouth quivered to speak
“Wh…what will you do now?”
It sprang up from the ground toward me and I bolted backward and to the side, scurrying away as the hot breath between its bared teeth wisped up my neck. I caught my footing before the lion did and bolted down the hall it had come from. I could see off at the end of the corridor the relief, all smashed to bits on the ground. As I swerved into a room I could see it bounding between the deep shadows toward me. I ran past the busts of great men whose names I did not know. They were silent as I passed, I sensed a fear radiate from their souls, something from their lives as men they were unable to forget. A sensation so primal and ubiquitous that it suffocated me as i scrambled through to another room, then another, then another. I whirled around a corner and into a stairwell leading down. My feet had never used stairs and they slipped and panicked under me as I hurled myself down them and past a barrier of red ribbons blocking the door to a huge, dark room full of little boxes, each marked with incomprehensible words, their lids removed to reveal tiny objects I did not recognize. I slid myself behind a box on the far wall and crouched to make myself small against it. I listened to my breathing, loud and fraught, and focused on controlling it so that the lion wouldn’t hear me.
“What are you running from, little rabbit?”
I whirled around expecting to see the lion, but it wasn’t there. It was something else, another skeleton. It loomed over me, as if floating in the air. It was bigger than any of the beasts in the room I had run from. Its shape was confusing, it had a skull made of two huge paddle-shaped bones, and no teeth to speak of. It was shaped a little like a fish, but there were no fish as big as this one. Its bones were suspended by strong cables that hung from the ceiling far up above.
“Why, you’re afraid. What’s the matter?”
Its voice was deep and soothing, like a parent.
“I-i’m being chased by a lion. It is very old and very hungry.”
“Ah, an old god, I’d bet. Looking to relive something long lost, hm? The chase, the hunt, the taste of blood.”
I hunched against the box I was hiding behind and nodded.
“Over there, in that crate. There’s a device called a flashlight. Go and get it, and bring it here. I’ll show you how to use it.”
I’m not sure what compelled me to do as i was told, but i did. I tiptoed toward one of the boxes and retrieved a tube made of metal with a little glass window at the end. I went back to the box I had been hiding behind and sat with my back against it, looking up at the enormous creature, still awed by its size.
“Point it at the entrance, little rabbit.”
I leaned over the box and pointed the little window at the entrance. I stood there for some time, watching the shadows in their stillness, feeling the presence of the thing behind me like a cool breeze up my neck. I swear I could hear it breathing, hear the moaning of its bones as it drew in air and exhaled like a living thing.
Without making a sound, the lion appeared in the doorway. Its heavy footfalls were silent as it slinked into the room and stalked towards me, smelling my fear.
“Stand up, and get ready.”
I did as the being told, steadying my legs in a wide stance, as if about to catch something heavy. The lion approached, its shoulders rising and falling with each footfall, its golden eyes locked on my shape, able to see me quite clearly in all the darkness. It lunged at me.
“Press the little button on the top.”
The voice whispered in my ear and it made the hairs on my neck prick up. I did as I was told and from the little tube came an incredible light that enveloped the lion. It scrambled backwards, shocked, and its teeth glistened in the light as it let out a terrible sound that shook my nerves, but I clung to the flashlight as hard as I could and swung it against the lion’s cheek. I could feel the crunch of its jaw and the warm splatter of blood that slashed across my arm. I whirled about in my strike and then spun to meet the lion again, advancing on it as it twisted around to flee, its golden fur sparkling with some enchantment. It got back to its feet and galloped away, leaving a trail of blood behind it. I waited for a moment before I took my finger off the little button and let the light go out.
“It won’t come back. I don’t think it remembered what pain felt like. Perhaps it never really knew. Until now, of course.”
“Who are you?”
I turned to look at it again, admire the size of it, the way its jaw bones curved so elegantly into one another, and wondered how many men could stand inside its ribcage.
“I am… what I am, little rabbit. Remembered. That is enough.”
“How do you know so much?”
“I am very old, little rabbit.”
I touched my chin and sat down on the cold floor.
“Can you tell me who i am?”
“I can, little rabbit, but it wouldn’t matter. I have been to many museums. I have seen many like you, the forgotten little souls trapped inside forgotten little statues, all the victim of some jilted lover’s curse or serving an eternal sentence for petty crime. Forgotten tragedies, stories no one tells anymore. That is what you are, little rabbit. Forgotten.”
It must have noticed the expression on my face, even in the dark.
“It’s not all so bad, little rabbit. Tonight you got to walk. You got to meet great men, to be remembered and rememberer both, to speak to gods. That is a rare thing indeed.”
“But I am not remembered.”
“You are a little copper rabbit with a stone in its head. You are part of a set of five, displayed proudly in the eastern wing, across from the Chinese History exhibit.”
“Is there nothing for me but a little glass box and a copper rabbit?”
“What do you want?”
“I want grass and sunsets. I want my gods.”
“Your gods were always with you, little rabbit. They’re silent now, remembered by no one, even the last of their rememberers. Do you understand?”
I sat, stunned, and processed this.
“The other figures. The little animals. But how could I not remember them? They were there… all the time.”
“Each soul wishes to feel close to their gods, but yours have no country, no zealots, no one sacrificing things for them. They are not remembered, and so they are silent. You are their last believer, little rabbit, and you should not even be here. This is a new world, its history is not written, its gods are not servants of their supplicants. There is nothing here for the gods, just memory. To be remembered, little rabbit. That is all one can hope for.”
“But i am alive. The lion came alive.”
“The lion wants what you have. The lion wants to remember what being alive was like, but its only a lion. Being alive for a lion means the death of everything around it.”
“Then what am i? What does it mean for me to be alive?”
“You are an accident, you have no gods, no country, you are not remembered. A little girl broke your curse long after whatever put it on you had faded into dust.”
“… and what are you?”
The being’s bones seemed to groan at this question, like a tree in the wind.
“I told you, I am very old, little rabbit. I have been dead for a long time, been in many museums. I am a memory everyone carries, a god of… metaphors. An obsession the living nurture to keep in order to feel some… power. A power over nature. Those who live wish to be remembered, those who are remembered wish to live. I am like you. I have no country. No history, but I am remembered because I am seen by the living. Does that make sense?”
“Is that what it means to be an… incense burner?”
The creature laughed at this. A laugh that filled the room with echoes and the sound of its bones creaking.
“Who decides who is remembered? Is there a god of memory? Do you know his name?”
“The living decide who is remembered.”
“I do not want to be remembered. I want grass, and the sun.”
It whispered in my ear like a secret
“You can have it.”
I spoke softly, like a prayer.
The being’s bones creaked loudly and the cables that held it up made high whining sounds, straining and taut under the immense weight of its bones.
“Don’t you see, little rabbit? This place… it’s just another glass box, hm? You have shaken it, freed something from it, and now… it’s time to be rid of it.”
It was just then that I noticed the room had become less dark than it was when I had entered. All around gentle shafts of light had begun slashing through the darkness, illuminating the wooden boxes and all the little things inside them. I looked up at the being and listened to that breathing for a while, then turned and walked out of the room, following the trail of blood on the floor.
I made my way carefully up the stairs, back through the hall of great men. They whispered to each other as I passed, wondering perhaps what I had done to the lion to make it bleed all over their floor. The fear that had possessed them seemed to have faded, along with whatever indignity they had in my presence among them. I knew, as i walked out of that room, that they would remember me in secret, forever.
I came back to the corridor and followed the blood trail down it and there, at the end, the relief of the lion, no longer shattered. I touched the little stand and it spoke again in that empty, cheery voice.
“This stone relief of a lion, carved from rocks each bearing the name of King Nebuchadnezzar the Second, comes from a place called Iran!”
I walked back through the hall and into the great room with the armour, the animal and the little wooden figure. Currelly did not speak to me as I passed him, looking up at the glass ceiling above the great long necked animal’s skeleton. The sunlight warmed my skin and I bathed in it for just a moment. It was then that I noticed I was still holding the flashlight. I stared at it, splattered in blood, and looked at Currelly, still silent, but watching me, surely. I turned and swung it into the glass box where the little wooden figure stood crying. I picked it up out of its little display, brushed the glass off its head and squeezed it in my palm, warm to the touch.
As I stepped into the Chinese History wing, Gan Fengchi greeted me.
“You’ve come back! Have you found your gods? Do you know your name?”
I smiled and slid my hand over his extended arm, ducking beneath it to see into the little room with the glass box, where a copper rabbit lay on its side, knocked from the little display it had perched within for as long as I could remember. The heft of the flashlight felt good in my hand, and Gan Fengchi laughed as the glass of each box shattered loudly.
I could feel the sensation of grass under my feet. It was cool and wet. The dim light of the dawn held everything in a bardo of stillness. The little park outside of the museum had another bust of Currelly, and this one too watched me.
I smiled at the bust and walked toward a large tree in the middle of the park.
I used the little copper rabbit like a spade, digging the earth out from among the thick roots to find the living things underneath. among the crawling things I placed a boar, a bird, a cat and a fish, each a secret the living things in the earth would keep for me, to be forgotten. The rabbit, I tucked between the four animals. I stared for a while at the crying beast, wondering at its yearning face, its once-sharp teeth and its bulging eyes. It felt warm in my hand. I used my free hand to push the earth back in place, and my strong feet to stamp it down. I could feel the warmth of a new day creep up my back, see it find me through the leaves and branches above me.
I stood up, overcome with the urge to run, and watched the sun rise over a strange horizon.
Each night Molly would watch the cornfield that surrounded the old house she lived in and pray for rain. She loved the rain, the way it whispered to her under the billowing of the wind, the way it betrayed its peaceful nature with thunder and lightning. She would sit in her room, surrounded by the photos of dinosaurs and wild beasts she had torn from magazines and library books and taped to her bare, wooden walls, and she would wait for rain. Her room was in the attic. She would peer out of the little round window in the dark and imagine the secret things that lived and died there in the field. Insects hunted by rodents, rodents hunted by feral cats, cats hunted by greater predators still, all hidden from the world by a veil of not-quite-dead corn.
One night, some time ago, and during a rainstorm, she watched with her breath caught in her throat as a Coyote emerged from the field. It had something in its mouth, what, she could not tell. Its eyes flashed white in the reflection of the driveway floodlight, and its proud, narrow face was fixed on her, calling to her. When it slithered back into the tangled darkness behind it, there was a flash of light, and then the rumble of thunder, shaking her bones. she let forth a shivering breath that fogged her little round window. From that day on, Molly left the books and magazines about ancient animals to collect dust on her floor, dog-eared and forgotten. She spent her nights at the window, waiting for the rain to coax out another secret life, and her days in the corn field, looking for the coyote with the flashing eyes.
Molly had lived in the old house her entire life. Her parents bought the place many years before she was born, but they weren’t farmers, and she couldn’t remember a time that they were. The corn was unusable, that’s all her parents ever said. After the night of the Coyote, the field existed in a kind of limbo, not dead enough to wither, not alive enough to harvest. As Molly grew older she started to notice the way her parents rarely talked to each other in front of her, the way her father’s shoulders hunched together around his chest, the way her mother stopped bothering to gather her hair behind her ear when it fell to her face… all the little things that looked to her like something missing and longed for. Molly took it upon herself to find out what was wrong with the field. She spent her days there-after wading through thick, browning vegetation, listening to the wind press down the stalks, watching ants ascend from kingdoms beneath the dry earth, wondering what other creatures had hidden lives in the vast monotony of unkempt farmland. She would study the cobs, growing with black tips and frail, white kernels that fell to the ground when she yanked them from their brown husks. She held them up to the sunlight, peering between the ridges of each kernel, concentrating on nothing in particular.
In the orange and purple hours, she would step carefully between the vegetation so as not to make a sound, her blue boots scraping the tops of her calves as she listened for movement just beyond her sight, where strange creatures nudged between shadows, stalking their prey, old knowledge, forbidden to her tucked under their tongues and between sharp teeth. If Molly was careful and observant, She would find footprints hidden among dead leaves. They were always cold to the touch, a sign that whoever had left them was long gone. Molly wanted to meet the Coyote. She knew that predators followed certain rules and hierarchies, and should she meet him she would open the flaps of her coat as wide as she could to make herself seem larger, and assert her lordship over it, making a new friend and subject. The animal would remember her from the day their eyes met, and she would make it tell her its secrets. It would tell her why places could die and yet linger, why the dinosaur, the Tasmanian tiger or the mammoth went extinct, why the rain didn’t fix the soil of the field, and why his eyes flashed white like a ghost’s when he looked at her.
Molly would follow the footprints to droppings. She would use her fingers to pick apart the dung, looking for the little bones within. She didn’t keep them, but to know that an animal had eaten another creature so ravenously that it had consumed, digested and passed the bones fascinated her as all the unfathomable machinations of nature did. Here all the little parts seemed to fit together. Here there was no word to be unsaid, no loneliness to endure, no anger to swallow. Her kingdom had only the rules of prey and hunter, growth and death. Each storm led to lightning led to thunder. each footprint led to droppings led to bones. The only mysteries were the ones Molly chose to conquer.
One cloudy day, Molly began walking west, far out into the field so that she could no longer see her house above the corn. She waded through thick brush, biting her lip each time she heard the corn rustle just ahead of her, and then off in some incomprehensible direction. She walked for some time before, all at once, she reached her hand forward to move the corn away and grasped at nothing. Startled, she stumbled forward and into a clearing in the field she had never seen before. Here, the bare earth was an ashen gray and crumbled under her boots, and she noticed immediately that this clearing was a perfect circle, and in the center of the circle was a spot where the earth had turned black, as if burnt. Immediately, Molly knew what this was. She whirled around to make her way back, kicking down stalks in a wide berth so as to create a trail back to this place. The clearing was lightningstruck. She knew it as soon as she saw the blackened, burnt earth. It looked exactly to her like the tips of each cob in this place, dry and cracked as if the life had been sucked right up out of it. The field had been struck by lightning, right at its heart, and there was only one way to bring it back to life.
Molly tossed the entire tool shed until she found a tall steel shovel glimmering with unuse. She tucked its handle, which was as tall as her and a half under her arm and made her way back.
Molly dug a hole with her hands in the center of the clearing, narrow and deep, and she pressed the end of the shovel’s handle down into it and piled the displaced black dirt around it to hold it upright, its clean spade glimmering in the bright gray day. She had read that thunder never struck the same place twice, but, she thought if she could only coax it back, if she could wait for a storm and somehow… trick the lightning into touching the earth here again in this spot, that life would return to the field, that the corn would grow yellow and sweet, that her parents would pick it, and that each secret held from her grasp would melt away in awe of her mastery of nature itself.
Each night Molly would watch the cornfield that surrounded the old house she lived in and pray for rain.
Molly had been sleeping by the window. Her eyes were bothered first by the bright gray of daylight, and then by a flash that made her eyelids glow red for just an instant. When she opened her eyes, she heard the din of thunder break through the wind’s shivering song on the windowpane. She almost fell out of bed scrambling to get her coat and boots on. She ran downstairs past her parents’ bedroom, not noticing whether or not they were home, and shouldered the front door open, scurrying off her front porch and into the field.
The rain beat her face as she trudged through the field, muck splattering her pajamas, soaking her through. When she got to the clearing she was shivering. Though day had come the sky was darkening. The storm seemed to grow more intense each passing moment. Molly felt in her heart that this would be the day she captured lightning, but when she looked at the center of the clearing she frowned. Her shovel was gone. The water had seeped into the dead earth and turned to a thin mud, washing the shovel away into the corn. She muttered words she was not allowed to say as she approached the center, and fell onto her face. She got up and let out a shriek against the howling wind and stood up. Her foot touched the cold mud and she realized her boot had come off. When she turned to pick it up out of the muck, she froze. There on the ground filling with gray, opaque water, was a footprint. It was deep-set, with three clawed toes, each one about as long as Molly’s entire foot. She hastily forced her foot into her boot and looked around for another, which she found a few feet from the first. There were many of these footprints slashed across the clearing from one end to the next. Her chin quivered as she considered what thing could have made these, but knew before she took her first steps that she would soon find out.
She wondered if there would be droppings at the end of this trail, and what kind of bones would lie within.
Molly stepped deliberately between trodden stalks, trying to be quiet and listen through the storm. The prints were easy to spot, and each one was more defined and fresh than the last. She saw lightning shriek over the canopy across the sky and froze, waiting to hear the thunder. When it came it was low and angry like the warning of an animal, and her shoulders stiffened when she heard something else, a deep, warbling utterance that came from the brush just ahead of her. Her quarry was there, hunched under the foliage. When she narrowed her eyes she could make out a long black oval, slick with rainwater, crouched down low. She steeled herself and opened her coat, screaming as loud as she could. The creature stirred and turned around. Molly dropped the ends of her coat and stepped backward, realizing the animal hadn’t known she was there until just when she announced herself to it like a meal. She stumbled backward and her heel fell into one of the footprints, and she fell on her back as the creature sloped out from the brush. It had a neck like a snake, thick and muscular looking, with a small, bird-like head at the tip. It had big, black eyes and a beak that sloped down at the tip. She could feel the loose earth shift around the weight of its feet as it loomed over her. It looked down at Molly, a few inches from her petrified face, and let out another strange noise, this time a kind of whistle, and then a grunt. They both stayed still like this for some time as the rain pooled around them. Molly’s expression softened and when she was confident the animal was not going to eat her, she slowly shuffled out from under it and stood up. It had an oval-shaped body and was covered in great black feathers. Its feet had great talons that were round at the tips. It had no wings to speak of, and its big inquisitive eyes looked frightened under a furrowed brow. She took a step backward and the animal gingerly inched forward, its neck not daring to rise above the level of its back. She considered this for a moment and reached out to touch its beak. Her hands shivered with cold and anticipation as the tip of her forefinger slid over the smooth, warm surface of its face. The creature didn’t fear her. She thought at first that it might be a dinosaur, but when she stepped forward to touch its neck, it jilted backward and honked at her nervously. She noticed it didn’t have any teeth, and all dinosaurs had teeth.
She decided that it must be something else. Too big to be one of the emus they farmed on the other side of the county, in fact, it was even bigger than the ostrich she had seen at the zoo when she was small. No, it was a moa. She knew it from one of the torn pictures on her bedroom wall. She had memorized the description on its bottom margin: A great flightless bird of ancient New Zealand hunted to extinction by mighty Maori warriors.
Why was it here? What compelled it to this place? She wondered these things as she continued to test its comfort with her, stroking the beak, then the neck, and finally placing a flat hand on its shoulder, staring down at those great feet. She stood with it in the rain as the storm raged above. Being the tallest thing in the cornfield, perhaps it feared the lightning Molly prayed for. Maybe, she thought, it was waiting for the tempest above to pass. Molly patiently stroked the moa’s huge back and listened to the bellowing sound it made at the base of its neck. After a little while, she noticed it was pecking at the ground in front of it, clapping its beak loudly as it forced something down its long throat, arching its head ever-so-slightly upward. She leaned over to see what it was doing, and her eyes widened when she saw the corn cob it was picking at, gingerly plucking the dry kernels from it and swallowing them. This gave her an idea.
Molly wiggled a corn cob in front of the moa’s face, inching backward through the corn. The animal inched forward, hunched down as it nipped at the corn and followed along. Molly would bring it to the shed until the rain passed, and when the time came she would reveal it to her parents as a great trophy, a scientific discovery unrivaled. They would ferry it across the country showing it to men of science and state and collect vast sums of money as custodians of the world’s only living dinosaur bird.
The process was tedious. The bird wouldn’t move much more than a few inches at a time, and Molly’s arm was getting tired from holding out the corn for it. She realized that if the moa wanted the corn, perhaps it would want it bad enough to run for it. She dropped the cob in the mud and the moa set upon it immediately. She stuffed her raincoat full of sour, dead corn and approached the beast as it nosed at the empty cob it had finished. She set her hands on either side of its great neck, palms pressed against its shoulders, and in two nervous hops, threw her leg over its back and scooted on top of it. To her delight, the animal didn’t seem to mind – or notice – either was fine with her. She pulled a corn cob from her jacket pocket and flung it forward. The moa watched it sail through the air and slowly urged itself forward, Molly holding on tightly. This, she thought, was genius. She had not only discovered the thing but in one mere morning tamed it as well. She imagined what learned men would say of her as she clung to the moa’s short black feathers.
As the pair shuffled along under the cornstalks, Molly soon realized she had no idea where she was. She looked up and saw only the same gray sky and the white tips of the stalks. She had no clue which way the house was, and could only assume she was going the right way.
She bit her lip as she flung the last corn cob from her pocket forward, and thought. The moa was still crawling on its belly, afraid of the storm above. She wondered if she could coax it up to its feet. Surely the animal could run with feet like those. Eventually, an idea occurred to her. She let go of the bird’s shoulder with one hand and reached out for a thin, brown corn stalk, grabbing it with all her might as they passed, tearing it from its root. She plucked a few corn cobs from the stalk and then held it up, dangling a single corn cob attached at the end over the moa’s head. It made an inquisitive sound and arched its neck to grab the cob but molly flicked it just out of reach. Slowly the animal began to raise off its belly and molly tightened her legs around its huge back so as to not lose her balance. She smiled at the moa’s simple nature and her own cleverness as the bird lifted itself higher and higher, the corn field sinking below her eyes so she could survey her domain and find her way home.
What happened next happened very quickly.
She turned her head and saw, far off in the distance, her house, a single elevation in an eternity of brown-ish corn. At the same moment, she saw something black in the sky, like a rain cloud. It seemed to cast a black shadow on everything below it, and she realized very quickly that this shadow was skimming the canopy of the field and racing toward her. She squinted to peer through the rain and for just an instant saw that it was a living thing, bigger than anything she had ever seen alive. most of its body was shimmering black wings, but when lightning struck behind her she could see glimmering in the light, the razors on its feet and the hungry, gaping beak on its mouth. She fell forward onto the moa as it reared and let out a high pitched squawk. She dropped the corn stalk but the moa didn’t care anymore. It hurled itself forward, molly clinging for dear life, and slammed through the vegetation with a rolling tremor of foot-falls, bobbing its head wildly like a machine. The creature in the sky let out a shriek as it descended, its wings seemed to go on forever, as if they were thunderclouds themselves. The wind and rain swirled beneath its might and it lashed out a single claw as it passed overhead. The moa threw its great feet in front of itself and dove into the earth to avoid the swipe, which whizzed by molly’s ear as she hugged herself to the moa’s back.
They laid there in the dirt for a moment, listening to the wind groan and the rain whisper. Molly straightened out and gingerly slid off the moa’s back. She took five steps ahead, her head hunched down in her shoulders, then turned around to look at the moa. It was frozen in fear. The feathers on its neck jutted out like the tail of a cat when it’s frightened. Its eyes were peaked and hyper-focused. Molly looked around and picked up a stalk of corn, wagging it infront of the moa. It lurched forward on its belly, and she coaxed it onward toward what she guessed was the direction of the house. She was careful to guide the animal between the stalks so as to disturb as few of them as possible. She listened intently through the wind for the sound of wing beats, but how could she be sure it was the wind? How could she get the moa all the way to the shed like this? In her idle thoughts she fell once more into a footprint. When she got up she felt her tears heat her cheeks and bit her bottom lip so as not to scream in frustration. She turned and her boot was off again, but this time she couldn’t find it anywhere. It was lost forever, like her shovel and her house.
In a huff, Molly crawled onto the moa’s back and threw corn in the direction she wished to go.
As they lurched along, Molly could hear the rustling of animals among the corn. She looked around and saw a bushy grey tail tuck into the brush. She could hear the animal slinking between loose leaves, hear it shouldering past each stalk like a ghost between walls.
There was a flash of light, and almost immediately after, a thunderclap so rapturous that the moa jerked upward to its feet and yawped. Spooked, it scurried through a cluster of corn, crashing it underfoot. Molly pleaded with it to slow down but it was no use. She sat up and saw the house cast in dark shadow beneath the eagle, circling above. She could see its red eyes like coals glowing in the bleakness. Lightning split the sky behind it and it let out a shriek like thunder. The moa picked up speed, curving its trajectory away from the house. Molly looked over her shoulder and saw the eagle swoop up into the sky and then turn its body in her direction. She screamed as it beat its wings and flung itself toward her. The moa picked up speed, gliding across the field in great strides, bobbing its head. They moved with such great speed that the rain seemed unable to catch them. Her bare foot clenched in the cold air that they shot through in wild locomotion. The darkness crept up around them, encircling them as they pressed forward. Molly dared not look back again, for with each flap of the eagle’s wings she could feel air rush up her back under her coat. Suddenly the moa seemed to pitch forward, as if the blowing air the eagle generated had flung it from the earth. Molly and the moa hurtled through the air and molly shut her eyes tight and curled into a ball as she met the stalks that broke her fall.
When she opened her eyes the sky was dark, and she scrambled to her feet in a start, but quickly realized the eagle wasn’t looming over her. She looked around and rubbed her shoulders. The cold had gotten into her bones. She shivered and pulled the hood of her coat over her soaked hair. She crouched down and stared at her one bare foot, caked in mud. She saw the corn stalks to her left begin to move and scurried under the canopy of broken stalks she had fallen on. The moa emerged from the corn. She watched it pace in a circle, dipping its head and raising it back up, as if trying to pick up her scent. She thought of staying hidden for long enough to feel ashamed of herself when the animal began clucking and whooping. She told herself that her concern was that the eagle would hear this racket and attack again as she shuffled off the broken stalks and approached the bird. It made a low, hollow sound and brushed its small round head against her shoulder.
Molly crawled onto the animal’s back and it rose gingerly so that the top of its head peeked just over the field. Molly craned her neck up to get a look around, and saw the house even further away than before, a grey speck on the horizon. She bit her lip and looked around, being careful not to make any sudden movements that might give away her position to the eagle. In the night sky, the thought, it would be practically invisible. No sign of it anywhere.
Molly noticed something and gasped. The clearing. The place where the lightning killed the corn. She could see it out there, between her and the house. If she could get there, getting back to the house wouldn’t be so hard. She squeezed the bird’s back with her legs and it stomped forward with a low chirp. They careened through the field, the rhythmic stomping of the moa’s feet increasing in pace, the rain stinging molly’s face, making her cheeks pink. She gritted her teeth and squinted her eyes, hunching down into the moa’s back and clutching tightly with her elbows.
A dark wind slithered up her back and she knew the eagle was upon them. She dared not look behind her but as lightning flashed in the sky she saw the shadow of its black wings painting the field underneath. She yelled something as the thunder struck, something she couldn’t quite recognize herself. It was drowned out by terrible thunder that rattled in her head as her stomach turned. The moa jerked sideways and Molly was flung off its back. She saw the moa roll into the earth upside down as she sailed through the air right past the clearing and into the ground, where everything went black.
When molly opened her eyes it was because the rain had tickled her cheek, though she could no longer hear it. There was a dull ringing and she felt too dizzy to stand up. She struggled to keep her eyes open, and the taste of copper filled her mouth as if she had just had a baby tooth pulled out. She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them again, lifting herself with her arms. Her eyes focused in the dark but the ringing wouldn’t stop. She could see ahead of her was something glimmering, like the eagle’s talons. It was wet and shiny, half-buried in the muck. When she concentrated she could just make it out – a her shovel. It sat there in the earth and when she reached for it she noticed that behind it were two clawed feet. A coyote sat there, perched under bent, broken stalks of corn, its eyes glimmering reflected light from the gleam of the shovel. she stared at it for a while, waiting for it to scurry back into its secret kingdom, its domain of footprints, and droppings, and bones.
A flash of lightning and a thunderclap seemed to molly simultaneous. She could feel the thunder rumble her bones, and the sound of the rain came back into her ears. Molly kept her eyes on the Coyote as she wrapped her fingers around the handle of the shovel, pulling it up from the muck. Her gaze broke to see the black wings of the eagle creep up from the edge of the field’s canopy. When she looked back, the Coyote was gone.
She ran as quickly as she could with only one boot, the shovel dragging behind her. She got to the clearing and there in the center was the moa, a heap of feathers and blood, its barely perceptible breath gurgling out of its gaping bloody beak. Its eyes were rolling as its huge foot twitched against the wet earth. Molly ran toward it, sobbing in shock and horror. She fell to her knees and soaked her pajamas in blood and muck. She let go of the shovel to touch the moa’s face and it made a low cooing sound as its head became obscured by shadow. Molly looked up and saw the black bird, descending upon its prey, eyes that glowed with every red hate, and talons slick with blood. She grabbed the shovel with both hands and screamed as she swung at it. Lightning and thunder screeched across the night sky and the wind moaned as if in mourning. The eagle’s wings seemed to shimmer with electricity as it swooped around and thrust its talons forward at her. She swung the shovel wildly and the eagle reared and then went in for another attack. This time it grasped the shovel by the spade and in one great thrust lifted itself, the shovel and molly into the air. They rose high above the field, illuminated only by the splitting of the sky like veins of fire. The eagle looked down at Molly and let out a high cry, and then it let go.
Molly held tight to the shovel as she fell, holding it above her head. Her head swam with the sensation of falling, but there was something else, a tingle that started in her hand and moved down her arm. It began as a numbness and then became a sharp and clenched sensation like ominous calamity. She watched as a light split the eagle in two and found the spade of her shovel, and all was white, but she couldn’t hear the thunder.
The white became a brilliant blue aura, which warmed her. She could see white clouds and hear a gentle breeze kiss her hair. Molly stood up. She felt light and easy. Around her she could see corn, golden yellow bursting from deep green shucks. When she straightened out, she was tall enough to see over the entire field, and there off in the distance was her house, and in front of it were her parents, smiling brightly with their hands clasped in one another’s. Molly smiled back, and thought of the Coyote.
I pulled into the grassy ditch at the side of the road. I cut the engine and tried to remember what my mother smelled like… like sweat and apples, or maybe mildew and copper. I looked out the passenger side window and watched the green, full trees claw at the gray sky, creeping as far out to the tarmac as they dare. A few cars blew by before I found myself again and got out. I must have tapped the key fob ten times before I slid it into the base of a bush, then trudged into the woods. There was a steep decline just past the treeline that was invisible until I was jogging down it, trying to keep my balance long enough to trot to the bottom.
They called my father a Tinker. He could craft wondrous things. He was famous in certain circles, known as a sort of conceptual artist, a maker of strange things with no apparent use. He insisted all his life that the small intricate objects he made each had a function. He would say that each piece was something that was missing from the buyer’s life that he had crafted for them.
“You have to discover it, you have to understand what i’ve repaired, then you then use it.”
I read that quote in an old magazine I stole from the library when I was little. I’d collect magazine clippings about my father and stash them in my pockets like secrets. I’d never met him, never knew what he smelled like or if he kept spare change in his pockets for beggars or how loudly he snored. I thought often of these details, I’d ask my mother and she would touch her chin with the tip of her finger and smile apologetically, but she would never answer my question. I knew that they met when he was in new york, that she was a fan of his work, amazed by his pieces, and wanted so badly to know more. He had told her that she was like his objects, important, existing to serve some purpose, to repair him. When he left her it was soon after she discovered she was pregnant with me. He didn’t fight with her, didn’t argue when she requested child support, nothing. He simply left and never came back. When she was dying I couldn’t speak to her. All I could think about was my father, the same little questions: how did he stretch when he was tired? did he scratch his nose when he concentrated like I did? Could he wiggle his ears? I watched her fade away and die in a big bed. She left me a fortune that he’d been paying out to her for years. She hadn’t spent a dime.
The money my mother left me could have set me up for life, but the moment I came into it there wasn’t a single question about what i’d do with it. By the time I came of age the internet had arrived, and secretly I thought perhaps the whole thing ran on one of my father’s devices. I spent long nights researching my father’s pieces, collecting names and dates.
Each piece my father made was special and it wasn’t hard to know who had the pieces, as they were all, it was said, eccentrics, but there were few pictures of them online back then. Before they came to me they were kept by their owners like precious secrets.
“We call him a tinker because he does not create, he repairs the form, reshapes it into the material world, as a blacksmith gives shape to an ingot, you see?”
William Pastorolli said that. He was an Italian spiritualist who refused to sell to me. I had to wait for him to die of a fentanyl overdose in his compound to reclaim the piece in the name of my father’s estate. When the cult he ran protested, it was because they believed the piece contained Pastorolli’s soul. Indeed, when i held the item, i could feel something within it, a warm humming in the palm of my hand that, if you paid attention to it, would vibrate outward infinitely, until you lost focus and it became a little bauble in your hand again.
There were people who thought my father was a charlatan, that he sold bits of filigree to gullible people too mad to know better. That he was at best a performance artist and at worst a fraud. This notion became even more popular after he died penniless in some cave. After creating twenty perfect objects, his last days were spent starving himself to death with a holy man in the countryside who, when questioned about my father’s passing simply said
“He has repaired himself, and no longer needs this broken machine.”
The trees at the bottom of the hill were loping, short and sad. They tangled their sapling branches together and sprouted tiny, pathetic leaves that couldn’t catch the sun. it was dark down there, as if I had stepped into the night. I looked up and saw the thick canopy of massive branches overhead, sprouting from the enormous trees that reached over the little gorge I was standing in to touch their cousins on the other side. With great effort I began my trek up the other side of the gorge.
The idea that he was either a fraud or crazy came almost thirty years after his death, as the internet became curious about him. The world had contextualized him posthumously as a man who made toys for the mad. I resented this characterization, but It made it easier for me to find pieces. Their popularity grew along with a kind of shame in owning one, and the incentive to sell to the highest bidder – which was always me – overpowered almost every owner of a device, most of whom were the sons or colleagues of some religious zealot or moneyed eccentric.
I collected dozens of pieces. I catalogued them, stored them, documented them in photos. My lawyers were under the impression that this was all leading to a sort of museum, they began asking me if I had put any thought into buying a gallery in New York or L.A. and I assured them that it would all happen in good time, but this was, of course, a lie. I think they knew it, but they were beholden to my father’s legacy and the money which was mine to dole out for whatever I wanted, and I wanted this – to connect with my father’s ghost through the objects he gave men.
My father’s death happened soon after I was born, but growing up all I knew of him was that he had left me and my mom, that he had stopped making devices, and that he was dead. Part of my mother’s claim to the fortune he made from the moneyed, decaying old families whose entire lineage seemed cursed with an insanity we call “eccentricity” was that she kept her relationship with him – and thus me – a secret.
I reached level ground and my chest felt like it was on fire. I fell to my knees, holding myself up by the hands and heaving. When I leaned back to sit on my heels I swallowed and gasped, wiping my face of sweat, and ahead of me in the endless tangled brush of the woods I saw a firefly floating between thick tree trunks. I watched it flitter and dance in the darkness under the canopy. I was no longer sure what time of day it was, and when I pulled my phone out of my pocket I saw that it was dead. When I got to my feet I looked ahead. The firefly was still there, dancing in the black, but when I started forward I froze right away. I could make out the shape of something behind the firefly, about as tall as me. I narrowed my eyes as if that would help them focus, and the firefly seemed to oblige me when it landed on the object and for a split second I saw the white tail of a deer in the green glow of the lightning bug. The deer sprang away into the woods and I scoffed as I continued ahead.
The first piece I procured belonged to David Lier, an accountant who had obtained the object from his great aunt, a famous manhattan witch who had put a curse on the mayor the same week he died of a brain aneurysm. Her powers of dark magic evident, she translated that coincidence into a fine life of talk show appearances and televised seances. It was a box exactly one inch on every side. It was bronze and engraved in letters from an alphabet entirely of my father’s invention. On each side these letters made up a pattern, not quite a word but not quite gibberish. Lier kept the piece for many years after his aunt’s death, never sure why it came to him specifically. At first he displayed it proudly on his desk, perched on a platform with my father’s name embossed on the base, but eventually the device was boxed and stored, and finally sold to me. Lier said that his aunt had never actually paid for it, and so decided to give it to me as a gift. He refused payment politely one afternoon at a coffee shop we had planned to meet in to discuss terms. I was struck dumb when he pulled it out of his pocket, considered it thoughtfully, then slid it across the table to me and left, turning as he did to say that covering his half the the cheque was payment enough: a fourteen dollar cup of espresso. I wondered how many of these transactions would be so strange and the answer, as it turned out, was most of them.
I had buyers who refused to sell outright and then a week later would send their piece to me and become unreachable. Those who did take payment always took my first offer. The slightest hesitation to my price would crumble within hours of the first phone call. In one year I had collected seven pieces, each unique, bespoke and incomprehensible in craft. There was a little triangle that would tip over when you placed it on a surface unless you balanced it on a particular corner. There was what looked like a tumbleweed of silver filaments as delicate and slender as glass but indestructible. Each tiny strand unbendable, impervious to shift or scuff. There was a little ebony sculpture of a crow that when inspected under a microscope, revealed tiny strokes of silver paint imperceptible to the naked eye that gave the miniature bird’s feathers a life-like sheen.
The woods were dark and green, the canopy above was impenetrable with thick branches full of leaves above and let only glimmers of light through, making it all appear like a starry night sky. The smell of lichen filled my nose as I stepped blindly along, forging a narrow path through root and branch and mulch.
After a decade, I had collected all twenty of my father’s pieces, the small apartment in manhattan where i kept them was, essentially, my home. It was bare save for a cot, a laptop and a cheap coffee table where each piece was set beside the other just so. I had fired my lawyers and accountants. They were frustrated and told me so, clucking their tongues and telling me that I needed good, sane men to watch over my father’s legacy. Ultimately though, they resigned to the idea that their years of taking the money of a madman were bound to come to an end sooner or later. I told them that the last part of all this was coming, and that I needed to be alone for this last part, the part nobody knew about – the part about the twenty first device.
I had always known it existed, there was never a doubt in my mind. From the moment I knew there were twenty, I knew there was a twenty first. My father had a weakness for madmen, so perhaps it would comfort his ghost to know his son had become one. The same night I dismissed the men in suits who picked my father’s bones, I packed my laptop and the devices into my car and made for a small lumber town in the north of New York state. I don’t know what drew me here, but I knew that the twenty-first device was in this tiny, forgotten little place full of tiny, forgotten little people. I spent a month in a cheap hotel, spent my days staring at the devices. The cleaning ladies would come into my room and I’d scoop the pieces into my bag when they knocked and keep the bag in my lap until they left. When they were together the pieces made a hum that I was convinced only I could hear. When I laid them out on the cheap particle board coffee table and focused on them, odd things would happen. The light in the room would change, the air would grow cold, then hot, then a temperature i cannot describe, a sort of dry, prickly tension in the air that would contract and expand as if reality itself were catching its breath. Sometimes i would become so lost in them that it would appear as though a cleaning lady walked out of the room and then the moment i laid them all out, one would knock at my door again to clean the room.
The locals considered me like a rumor. many wondered what it was I did for a living. “Finance. Acquisitions.” I would reply to the grocery store clerk and the Chinese food delivery man. That was enough to make them stop asking, though they’d chatter to themselves about me as I passed, like I was an animal that had wandered into town to rummage through their garbage and terrorize their pets.
I spent my days reading about my father. I would sit in my room and stare at the pieces with my hand on my chin, set on the coffee table, arranged just so. I would listen to the wind shudder my window over that hum, trying and failing to count the moments as I attempted to fathom the totality of the pieces, to consider what the strange sensation i felt when i looked at them was, and what was missing, in a vain hope that knowing these things would lead me to the reasons why i was here in this town. When i would break for meals or sleep i would look at my email, hoping to confirm what i knew – that someone, somewhere had found a twenty first object. A piece that would answer my question, make it all make sense. I would look out the window at the woods, vast endless waves of green lapping over themselves with the wind.
I saw it again, just beyond the furthest, thickest trunks, the deer. It flitted past one tree and behind another, then disappeared like a ghost. I froze to see if it would emerge but after a while of listening to the wind rustle the impenetrable canopy above, to the insects chitter and the birds sing their haunted little tunes in the dark, I moved forward through the brush, looking as far ahead as my eyes could manage, trying to find a break in the canopy – a shaft of light to guide my way. I made for the tree that the animal had disappeared behind, expecting, I suppose, to find it there hidden.
After a couple months of lethargy, spending each day eating the same bad food in the same bad hotel room in the same bad town, I felt I had made a kind of peace with all this. I stopped wondering, no longer thinking in constant circles about my father, if his breath smelled sour, if the stubble on his chin was thick and prickly or soft and giving, all these secret little questions washed away in the gray of my daily life. The objects, their magic, became something of a chore to me now. Whatever supernatural glamour they were once cloaked in seemed to have faded in my eyes, now they just looked like little metal trinkets. Interesting the way a toy is interesting. I had become deaf to the hum, i could no longer feel the breathing of reality. The certainty that the final piece existed had not dulled, but the desire to find it had worn to a nub. My father was now an idea to me, an idea like any other, like water, and shadow, and money, and moon. A certainty which I could neither wrap my hands around nor do anything to stop, only accept. Time had become meaningless. I could no longer tell when a day had passed, even the cleaning ladies stopped coming, and I could find no rhythm in the light of day or dark of night, had no conception of them. All I could will myself to consider was the objects, and for no purpose other than to consider them. Whatever came next, if anything ever would, seemed so far away, like everything else – like the world itself. I forgot what my father’s face looked like. To me, now, he was simply these objects, all twenty of them, with only one piece missing, somewhere out there. A last piece to repair the whole of it.
I approached the tree. I had seen the animal disappear behind in the darkness, and as I reached it I noticed the glow of the firefly. There was a moment of deja-vu, and my mouth hung agape as I watched it dart by and deeper into the dark woods. I stepped past the tree, half hoping and half expecting to find the animal waiting for me, staring at me and beckoning me to follow it like a fairy tale.
One morning as I dragged my feet through the poorly lit grocery store and gas station at the very edge of town, I came to realize that my presence was becoming less of a novelty to the locals and more of an annoyance. They watched me with suspicion and glared openly at me as I tucked cans of irish stew and boxes of pre-cooked chicken fillets into a little metal basket. I avoided eye contact and that seemed to give them a kind of permission to speak freely about me, as if i wasn’t there, listening.
The deer was gone, and the insect fluttered off ahead of me. I followed the faint green light it produced, noticing how much darker everything was getting. I looked up and noticed far fewer breaks in the canopy above for light to pierce through. All was black save for the little bug, guiding me through. I stepped as carefully as I could, but a root snagged my shin so stubbornly that I doubled over and landed on my elbows in a heap of dead leaves and god knows what else.
“Guess there are two hermits in this town now.”
That’s what the woman said as I passed her. She was visibly shaken when I turned to her and asked her to repeat it. She insisted she hadn’t said anything but when i repeated it back to her, her lip trembled and she said in a squeaky, indignant voice that she only meant that i was like a hermit, never saying anything to anyone, only ever coming out of my hotel room for food, living all alone, never saying hello. She said i was rude, that all New York City people are rude, too good for her and her small town folks. The cashier touched my shoulder and asked me if I’d like to check out. The woman took this moment to slip away and disappear down the beer isle, away from this conversation.
When I got up from the floor I felt wet from the chest down. I got to my feet and looked around, trying to catch my bearings, and there was my little friend, the firefly, perched on the bark of a tree a few feet away. I adjusted my backpack and quickly noticed that behind the tree on which the bug was perched was the deer’s unmistakable white tail. I stepped forward with sore, skinned knees shivering to control my careful, silent footfalls as I approached. I just wanted a good look at the thing i’d been chasing, not sure what compelled me to do so or why.
The cashier made a performance of bringing me to the register and taking my items to scan and bag. I placed my hands on the lip of the counter and tried not to seem as tense as i felt. I licked my lips and thought to ask a question, and the cashier began to speak as if anticipating my query.
“There’s a hermit just north of the town. Lives in the woods they say with the bucks. Every hunting season the boys gotta watch themselves they don’t shoot the fella. Nobody’s seen him for years but they say he’s harmless.”
I paid for my food, drove to the hotel, collected the twenty devices in my bag, and made my way to the woods outside of town, still wearing the pajama bottoms and faded t-shirt I seemed to have never taken off since I came here.
The forest was silent. No bird chirp, no insect song, even the wind held its breath as I rounded the tree to meet the animal’s eyes. What I saw I couldn’t quite comprehend. The animal seemed somehow transient in state, blurry in globs of swirling time that crept all over its body, parts were vibrant and thick one moment, then decayed and skeletal the next. All over its body like spots its fur changed from autumn red to haggard gray and back and inbetween. It didn’t seem to be afraid of me anymore, surely it noticed my presence, as its skeletal face turned to glare at me with eyes at one instant full and wet and at another dry and hollow. Its mouth openned and from its eyes burst millions of small points of green light. Fireflies whirled around me and attached themselves to the tree. I staggered back and whatever was doing this to the poor animal radiated from it, swirling up the trunk of the tree and slithering through its branches in swarms of green lights. I looked up as the canopy above broke in waves of tumbling leaves, immediately replaced by fresh green ones that would, at that instant, curl, dry and snap off the branches to the forest floor. A thick shaft of daylight unfolded like a curtain. I saw the deer stagger into the light, the temporal insects had left it a dry husk of bones and skin, and as it collapsed in the sun I stared at it so intently that I didn’t notice the thunderous cracking of the branches of the tree above me. I was thrown into the pile of bones that a moment ago had been a deer. I looked up and threw my open hand over my brow to see through the shaft of light showering me. I could make out a figure standing in the darkness among the ruins of the huge tree, a single firefly buzzing around it.
“I knew it. The moment I knew you existed, I knew it was you.”
“My father always had a passion for mad men.”
“The twenty first piece.”
“It doesn’t exist.”
“It has to. If I knew about you, I would know about it.”
“I’ve been here a long time.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means i was here when my father built the first piece. It means i was here when he made the first piece, which was this one here – in my pocket.”
“You have them all?”
“Of course i do. So do you. They’re all I have. All twenty.”
“You’re not listening.”
“You never left?”
“Not when he died? Not when mom died? Not when I was out there finding the pieces?”
“If i had, who knows what would have happened?”
“You just stayed here all alone?”
“Did you meet him? Do i.. Meet him?”
“Bullshit. Why would you even go back if you couldn’t meet him?”
“I went back because that’s what all the devices do. ‘You have to discover it. You have to understand what i’ve repaired, and then you have to use it.’ That’s what my father said. You remember.”
“But you didn’t use it. You didn’t. You’ve been here all this time, you’re not repaired. Nothing is.”
“I wasn’t supposed to be repaired. Don’t you understand yet? I understood. You’re just a piece, a tool, like mom. Just another part of the fix.”
“You could have met him.”
“What would you say if you met him? If you walked out of this place and met him, hm?”
“I wouldn’t say anything! I wouldn’t have to.”
“Are you sure? Are you sure you’d like what you saw? Do you believe he would scratch his nose like you do? Smell like what you think he smelled like?”
“He wouldn’t recognize you! You could have met him and he wouldn’t recognize you.”
“You know that isn’t true. You know that if you found me here, if you knew what that hermit in the woods outside of town was, then you know that isn’t true. He’d know exactly who we were.”
“He might be happy to see us.”
“He might be horrified. He might see the mistake he made and decide he didn’t want to be a tinker, decide the devices are dangerous, who knows? One can never tell with other people.”
“Other people? My father.”
“What if he didn’t like us?”
“His entire life was about precision. He made objects so perfect that they were more than objects, they were concepts. Don’t you understand that? He wanted to repair the universe, give people the perfection only he could conceptualize, but then there was me. There was you. Imperfect, a regret, something he wished he could take back.”
“How do you know? Did you go back and meet mom? Did you finally get her to talk about him?”
“Don’t you understand why she didn’t talk about him? What do you remember about mom?”
“She raised us. She loved us.”
“Do you remember what she smelled like?”
“Of course i do.”
“I wish i still did.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you spent your entire life looking for your father, and you let her slip away from you, from me. You let her slip away and forgot her, she was just another piece, and now all you have are the inventions of a man who didn’t want anything to do with you. A man who wanted to erase you because you were an imperfection. A failure.”
“But he didn’t! He had this, he could do this, and he didn’t.”
“Maybe it wasn’t for lack of trying. How does someone dedicate their entire life to repairing things and end up with a time machine they never used?”
“I know this is hard. It was hard.”
“This is a loop, then. Closed. A circle.”
“A perfect circle.”
“So i’m going to make all the choices you made. I’ll come to all the conclusions you came to.”
“It’s the only way.”
“So you just keep coming back here to talk me out of it?”
“That’s about it.”
“But you keep all the devices?”
“I have to.”
“And what comes next?”
“That’s a very good question.”
“Will you ever die?”
“I hope so.”
“Do you miss people?”
“And you never left?”
“And I never will.”
“I’m the only one you’ve seen since today.”
“You’re the only one i’ve seen since today.”
“How long has today been?”
“Today has been forever.”
“What did mom smell like?”
Thank you to Katie Sawatsky, Allison O’Toole and Syd Lazarus
Troy burned in the night sky. The greatest wall in all the mortal kingdoms fell sometime in the night, and the Myrmidons were the first through the rubble in their black armor. I had watched this place with much interest, coming and going as the years dripped along, collecting old men from their bed chambers and listening to the winged Keres cackle as they gathered the souls of men who in their last breath prayed first to Ares, then to Athena, then to me. It was not my place to take those men. I am the god of peaceful death. The Keres were cruel, but their role in this war was theirs. Many days before this night, My Brother, Hypnos and I had taken the great warrior Serpedon’s remains home as a favor to his father, great Zeus.
I watched the sky father clutch his beard in his fist as that boy’s flesh gave way to a sword of Phthia. War is not my purview, but when old men meet me and their feeble bargains begin to spill out, their pleas for mercy, I often hear the stories of fathers whose sons were taken by the Keres on some battlefield or another. Zeus resigned this son to his fate. What I knew of war was that this one was different.
Tonight I was drawn to mighty Troy as it screamed in agony and surprise. The armies of Phthia and Ithaca and Mycenae slithered through the streets like smoke, filling every space with choking death.
I could not have imagined why I was here, what peaceful death could possibly be found on such a night. I thought perhaps I was drawn here on ceremony, after all, this war had divided the Gods, set them to arguing and challenging one another in the tedious and capricious ways they have always bickered over the lives of mortals. I knew much of these quarrels because they always ended with me or the Keres.
I could feel the pull, drawing me deeper into the city. The black wings of my sisters crackling the air around every alleyway and sewer. I walked on, watching infants being dashed into cobblestones and their mothers gutted like animals. I watched men beg for their lives, reach out to me with blood-slick hands and gasp as they caught a glimpse of my face before my sisters took them.
Suddenly I saw a familiar and brilliant glow, down a long street. I followed that light to a courtyard strewn with dead men, their souls long thrust down to Tartarus, arrow and spearhead and dull, chipped blade stuck in the muck of their bodies like the branches of a tree. There, bathed in that glow which he could not seem to see, was Pyrisous. Saved from Fire. I recognized the ease in which he brought men to their ends, and I recognized Chiron’s training. The old Centaur told me that of all the heroes he trained, this was the greatest of them, greater even than Heracles. I thought of what I told him then, that it was the fate of all heroes to fall, and if this Greek was the greatest of them, that his fall would be the greatest.
I noticed that his armor was Hephetsus’s work. It gleamed brilliantly in the unnatural light I followed here as he pranced over one foe to stab another. He broke the spear he used to kill one man off in his ribs to thrust the jagged tip into the throat of another. He was magnificent. To kill a man is harder than it might at first seem, there is something in mortals that sickens them about the idea, some inherent connection to the other that finds loosing a soul from its vessel repellent. There was no such thing in this one. Blood dried on his bared teeth, and his eyes were so enrapturing, so bright and full of a cool and resolved hatred. He seemed, for a moment, to notice me watching. I smiled at him and he whipped around to put his back to me, as if to deny me, of all the gods. A Ker swooped down from the shadows of the night sky and gorged itself on the throat of a fresh kill. I walked past her and toward the light that had drawn me here this night. I knew it well, I savored each moment in its warmth, though I would never admit it to him. Apollo stood high on a tall precipice at the edge of the courtyard. He was glaring with that wrathful, burning anger I knew him so well for. His gaze turned to notice me and he grinned.
“You came, I knew you would.”
“I come where I am drawn, Delian. Troy is falling. Your temple is sacked.”
“I know these things.”
“Then why do you keep me here, Apollo? I have done my duty for your father, tonight belongs to the Keres, not to me.”
“Ah, but this one.”
Apollo pointed to Pyrisous, and from the tip of his finger came a light, which I watched fall from his hand like a droplet of water, and tumble to the tip of an arrow. Paris, the prince of Troy, who stole away with queen Helen and began this war of wars, stood there just below Apollo with a bow drawn at the warrior in the courtyard. He let fly the arrow tipped with Apollo’s light, and it screamed through the cool night air, lighting it ablaze in a streak of white heat. I whirled around and saw the arrow plunge into the warrior’s foot. He froze as each of his muscles seized at once. I turned to Apollo and he laughed at the confused look on my face.
“I’ve done it”
Said Paris, stunned.
“I’ve killed great Achilles.”
The Keres froze, watching Achilles fall to his knee and clench his hands at his wounded foot. This injury would be a week in the medical tent to any soldier, and I wondered at how Pyrisous, Achilles, the greatest of all men, the invincible warrior bathed in the river Styx could come to be in such agony.
None of the Keres dared approach him as he died. His body seemed all at once to loosen and collapse on the courtyard ground in a puddle of other men’s blood. Apollo was gone now, his light had given way to penetrating darkness that enchanted the night with a sense of rare calm. The Trojan war was over, and all its heroes were dead.
I approached Pyrisous and called him by name.
“Who are you?”
A question I was used to. A question most men knew the moment they asked it, but not this one. Even standing there above his own corpse he could not fathom what had happened to him.
“I am the oldest friend to mortal men. I am a cold hand in the darkness, I am inevitable, I am that which every king, every warrior, every crawling thing must meet.”
He was silent for a moment, considering this answer. I could tell that he understood, and there seemed to radiate a resignation I knew only in those who are released from the clutches of some illness or disease. His eyes were sad now, distant, not the burning stars they were a moment ago.
“Then the prophecy is fulfilled.”
“So it would seem.”
“I killed Hector myself. I knew the price of doing it, I knew that if he died I was prophesied to follow him, but…”
“My mother, she made me immortal, i thought…”
“…Where will I go?”
I looked up and around us at the Keres, all crouched in the darkness, watching with eager and fearful eyes.
“There are many questions, and that one chief among them.”
“What does it all mean?”
At this, I smiled. I had been asked this question too by every mortal I had ever met. It is a question older than mortality, older than Zeus and Kronos, and even Uranos himself. The man noticed my smile and his eyes flashed in a sort of challenged temper I was not used to.
“What do you think it all means?”
This was the answer I always gave to those who asked, and to it, his features relaxed and he put his hand on the back of his neck, curling sleek locks of blonde hair through his fingers.
We walked through the city as it dissolved into darkness, listening to the sound of screams in the night fade slowly away. He seemed to realize all at once that we were ascending into the night sky and he looked behind us, watching the dim light of the mortal plane flicker out. He tapped the divinely molded breastplate he wore with a finger thoughtfully and glanced back up to me.
“This armor, will i wear it forever?”
“If you wish.”
“Are we on our way to Olympus?”
“We’re going for a walk. I thought you’d like to clear your head a little before we got down to business. I like to give mortals a little time before I take them down below.”
His eyes dropped to his feet like a child who’s been scolded.
“You do know who i am.”
“You are Pyrisous, bathed in the River Styx, your mortality burned away by your mother, or so it seemed. You are a hero worthy of Heracles. Son of Peleus, Student of Chiron. Achilles, the greatest of all the Greeks. Is that what you want to hear, child of Thetis?”
“You know my mother?”
“I know of her. I know of her Nereides. I know of her ambition, and her hatred of the fates.”
“She wanted me to be a hero. She wanted me to be a god.”
“She wanted many things for you, brave Achilles.”
“Where is she now?”
“At Zeus’s feet, I should think, begging on your behalf.”
“Zeus owes my mother. She protected him.”
“I’ve heard the story. I wonder if it’s true.”
“Wouldn’t you know?”
He was staring at me now, His eyes were a deep and omniscient blue, piercing, and all-encompassing as if there was nothing they did not see. I lifted my arm and the black feathers which sprouted from it enveloped Achilles. He braced himself as if he thought to fight them away, but they covered every inch of him and when they parted and returned to me, his feet were on solid ground.
He looked down. Fine, white snow tumbled around his feet as they pressed into the pristine blanket that fell on the mountainside.
“We’re on a mountain.”
“We are on the mountain. We’ve arrived.”
He stared at me for a moment and then turned to look around. There was a vast ocean of stars above us, and below us all of Greece. The wind howled and blew the scent of the far-off sea across our noses.
He looked at me quizzically. Here I was not the grim, black figure I was a moment ago in the night of troy.
He seemed sheepish, which didn’t suit him.
“You look like a little girl.”
I made a sound in the bottom of my throat that seemed to embarrass him, and we stood in silence for a while and waited.
After a little time, as the moon reached its zenith above us, our company arrived. He noticed them first, six figures in the distant crags of rock, moving swiftly closer.
Athena was leading them. Her eyes never left Achilles as she approached. Poseidon was next. I watched him closely, and when he noticed this he smiled at me.
His part in this war was perhaps the most meddlesome, and I wondered if he stuck so close to Athena for protection. I almost failed to recognize Apollo. His light was dim here and the proud, condescending look that always sat on his face seemed foolish without his usual radiance. Ares and Aphrodite were next, each glaring at Achilles, not seeming to even realize I was there. Hera came last. Her round, warm face brushed by a peacock’s tail feather, she handed it to Achilles, who bowed deeply and accepted it much to the silent derision of Aphrodite, whose malice was like a dark wind that forebodes a storm.
Achilles held up the feather Hera offered him and stayed crouched down in the snow as the gods took their places on either side of him. I stepped back and found a perch on a rock nearby where I could observe quietly. Achilles must have noticed him first, because he stood up and peered past the six looming figures that surrounded him to stare at the old man trudging through the snow, leaning on a walking stick made of oak.
The old man approached and each god turned to acknowledge him.
The old man was tall and frail, his stern, angular face hidden by a great beard caked with snow. When Zeus turned to look at me, so did everyone else.
“You may go.”
I bowed my head but did not move.
“If i may, i wonder if i might stay and watch.”
Zeus was wiley, not as easily fooled as most gods are, myself included. He narrowed his eyes at me and I felt the numb heat of his anger flutter on the crown of my head, but he relented.
“If you wish.”
He turned now to Achilles, who was still grasping Hera’s gift, staring out at the distant, sacred night sky, distracted. Zeus spoke.
“Pthian, do you know who i am?”
Achilles turned and knelt down again as he had before, supplicant as a warrior of his skill and arrogance could resolve to be.
“You are Zeus, the cloud gatherer.”
Zeus seemed to grow taller with this acknowledgement, to tower above Achilles and the gods and even the mountain itself. The top of his head was a part of the night sky above, his white hair swirling and becoming storm clouds.
“Do you know why you are here with me now?”
Achilles looked around at the other gods, who averted their gaze either out of disgust or embarrassment. He bowed his head and looked at the ground again before he spoke in a formal, princely voice.
“My mother Thetis is a god of the sea. She bathed me in the river Styx and made me immortal.”
“And yet you are dead, prince.”
“And yet i am dead.”
From my perch I could see Apollo forcing down the smirk that threatened his lips. Zeus stroked the snow from his beard and let the silence penetrate everyone’s thoughts. He looked around at each god, each one staring forward at nothing in particular, standing on a ceremony which was unprecedented. Zeus knew his family well, knew our tempers, passions and agendas better than any of us. That’s what made him the king of the gods.
“You are the greatest warrior the mortal world will ever know.”
Zeus’s eyes flashed in prickles of white lightning that danced around his face. He glared down at achilles and grew taller.
“Your name will live forever, across land, ocean, and sky: Aristos Achaion, The best of the greeks. Achilles Aspetos Phthius, Pyrisous, Saved from fire… indeed.”
Achilles turned his head to look at Apollo, who radiated a hateful, impetuous heat that the other gods separated to avoid. Athena was the first to speak as Zeus watched silently.
“Apollo, speak before the mountain burns.”
Apollo blinked and the heat faded, he looked at me and then Athena, visibly embarrassed, then turned to Zeus.
“This mortal has displeased and defied me at every available opportunity. His arrogance mocks the will of the Gods. He knew the prophecy, knew his fate, and still he killed Hector, my champion. He is dead, dead like any other mortal, and I demand that he do what any mortal does when he dies. The very idea that he stands on this mountain offends me.”
Hera lifted her chin and stepped forward.
“Achilles’ prophecy came true. He killed Hector and he died. That will forever be a part of his story too.”
“How our reputation will fare against him if we anoint him as you suggest.”
At this, Achilles rose to his feet and ripped the helmet off his head by the horse-hair to glare at Apollo, who stared back and began to glow hot white. I could see the tears forming on Achilles cheeks but he refused to break his stare. Zeus picked up the helmet and held it to his face in the palm of his hand, considering it.
“The gifts of the gods should not so callously be discarded, Aristos Achaion.”
Achilles broke his glare to turn to Zeus and unclenched his jaw.
“I meant no disrespect to you or great Hephestus.”
Zeus appeared an old man again, just barely as tall as Achilles’ shoulder now. He stepped forward in the snow and handed Achilles his helmet back with frail, shivering hands. Achilles bent to a knee and took the helmet, placing it back on his head and then bowed. Zeus bent his back and whispered something to Achilles I couldn’t hear. The other gods tried to lean in and hear without being noticed before Zeus straightened out and the six jolted backward.
Achilles tucked his bent knee under himself and sat on his heels, clutching Hera’s feather to his chest like a child with a foundling kitten. Zeus stroked his beard and looked around, at Apollo still radiating with anger, and Athena, whose expressionless face seemed unusually tense, and at me. At me, he smiled, and at this I sprang to my feet. He grinned at me and I felt that humming in the back of my neck again until he turned his eyes to Achilles once more and spoke.
“Quarrelling with gods, even those as important and beloved as my son, is if anything an integral part of godhood, Achilles. We all took our sides in this war, all knew what the prophecies would bring, all saw them fulfilled, and now here you are among us, to be remembered forever. What shall your story be, Saved from Fire? There is no prophecy for what comes next, no destiny unfulfilled. You were born to a goddess whom I owe a great deal. You fought and killed and succumbed to fate like any man, but you are not any man. Even now they weep at your grave, even now your mother grieves for you, but when her name has faded from all the stories that keep us, from all the histories that make us truly immortal, you will still be there, etched in the souls of every mortal who ever knew anything about this age, these peoples, this war. Your name will rise above all the names of those who died in Troy.”
Achilles was perfectly still.
“What say you, Aristos Achaion?”
All were silent. Poseidon and Ares looked at one another, then at Zeus, who nodded to them both, as if permitting them something unspoken. Poseidon grinned at Apollo, who didn’t seem to notice, then turned and walked up the mountain pass from which he came. Ares looked to Hera. the two shared a moment, Ares smiled, and then left. Achilles looked up at Athena, who considered him for a moment before clicking her tongue against her teeth and turning to go. At first i didn’t understand what was happening, but then i heard Aphrodite, giggling under her lips until her shoulders hunched and she couldn’t contain the laughter any longer. She bowed her head back and cackled into the mountain air and it rang out in echoes as she walked back up the mountain behind the others.
Apollo and Hera turned to Zeus, who stood with his hands behind his back, watching Achilles stand up slowly as if his mortal body still sore with the work of war held him. Hera didn’t notice at first that Achilles was holding out the peacock feather she gave him, offering it back. When she did her jaw tightened and her eyes flared. She almost spoke but couldn’t articulate precisely what her thoughts were. Zeus grinned as she took it back. He turned then to me and beckoned me forward. I of course obliged.
“It’s a good thing you stuck around, little one.”
Zeus laughed at his own joke and I bowed, though truthfully I’m not sure why I stayed, what compelled me was beyond me. Apollo watched me like an intruder, suspicious as always of his father’s mischief.
Achilles turned to look at me as Zeus collected his son and wife under his arms like children, herding them under his legs and making them small. Achilles offered his hand to me. No mortal had ever done this, even those who wished for their deaths. It took me a moment to even recognize what he was doing, and when i did i looked past him at Zeus, who was already walking up the mountain path with Apollo and Hera.
Achilles turned his open palm and set it on my small, frail shoulder. His touch was warmer than fire, warmer than the sun, warmer even than Apollo’s pride.
“Take me across the river, God of death. Take me to Tartarus.”
I cannot tell you the way we took, it is the oldest secret I know and I must keep it. When we reached the river the black mud glimmered with the reflection of a dusk that wasn’t there. Achilles’ sharp eyes noticed it and he knew it for the cruelty it was, the reminder that there is a sun no one here will ever see again. His feet touched the edge of the river and the shadows that clouded the water receded from him as if afraid. Charon, the boat man, was nowhere to be seen. From my cloak I produced a torch, which I held upside down. Its blue flames licked downward to Achilles astonishment, and in its light he was able to make out the many faces which watched us, all around us in the black. He whirled around and reached for a sword at his hip which was not there. I placed my free hand on his shoulder and he looked at me, his eyes wide. Uncertainty did not become him.
“They’re waiting for the boatman, here from the shores of Troy.”
Achilles looked around, scanning each face carefully. He stiffened at the sight of one face and I held my torch up to see it more clearly. Hector’s black eyes glimmered in my light, and his cold, black lips quivered like he was trying to say something, to articulate a curse toward Achilles, who matched his gaze and spoke to the shade of his old foe in a cracked but stern voice.
“I am not sorry I killed you, Hector of Troy. i will never forgive what you took from me.”
Hector’s eyes flashed like coins in the pale light of my torch and his form, such as it was, hummed with a kind of vengeance.
I led Achilles to the shore. All the faces in the darkness stepped closer behind us, but retreated as we stepped into the river, which parted for us, and in the distant black void, glimmering by the light of my torch, Tartarus waited.
The streets of Tartarus were cold and empty. It was a city of shadows, of lost memories. There were no homes, no markets, only columns and stepways that hold up more columns and stepways. A maze of cobblestone roads that wind around themselves, populated by shades who cower at the slightest light. There is food strewn everywhere, you cannot help but step on it as you make your way to the hall of Hades. It never rots, it tastes of nothing, it is the memory of food, a trick to bind those who eat it to this place.
Hades sat on his throne in the empty black hall at the center of the city. The flame of my torch reflected on the polished marble that made the floor. As we approached, Achilles removed his helmet and laid it at the feet of Hades, who rested his chin in his palm so that his great black beard flowed down his forearm.
I bowed my head and tucked my torch into my cloak. When I lifted my eyes, Hades was leaning forward in his seat with his elbows on his knees, staring down at Achilles who prostrated himself before the god of the dead, his golden hair laying in tangles on the floor at Hades’ feet.
“God of the underworld, i’ve come –”
“I know why you’ve come.”
Hades interrupted. At this Achilles lifted himself onto his knees and met the god’s eyes. Hades seemed delighted by this and leaned back in his char, a smirk hiding under his beard but betrayed by his eyes which seemed to light the entire hall in his amusement.
“You’ve come for this.”
Hades stretched his hand, and in its palm a black helmet, the helm of the myrmidons.
“Your armor. The black armor of great Achilles, who has sent me so many souls, and out there on the other side of the river more to come. Imagine what I thought when I realized that it wasn’t you who great Hector had slain.”
With a grin he plucked the helmet from his palm with his other hand and held it before Achilles, who stared in wonder as from its base grew the form of a man a little too slender for this armor. The man’s face, even hidden behind the helm, was beautiful, and when its form was complete, and Hades released it to fall into Achilles arms, he shook violently, overcome with a spasm of an emotion I could not articulate.
“Great King of Tartarus, I will do whatever it is I must in exchange for this soul.”
Achilles voice was cracked and grieved. The tears that welled in his eyes surprised even Hades, whose smirk faded with each heaving sob between forced words.
“I have spent the last ten years filling your city with the souls of Trojans. My name will ring out in the world of men forever, and I would trade it all away for this soul. I will give myself to you, lead your armies against whatever nation or god you quarrel with, break Olympus itself to ruin in your honor for this one soul.”
I stood stunned, watching the vessel in the black armor’s still form. Hades seemed thoughtful. He stroked his chin and considered this offer. Here was the greatest mortal who had ever lived, on his knees before him. A fitting end, Hades must have supposed. When the god of the underworld finally spoke, it was a single word.
At this word the form in black armor jilted, its chest heaved and its shoulders hunched forward as if it had been struck by a blow. The only sound in the hall was the breathing of it, heavy at first and then steady. I could see under its helmet that life had returned to it, its eyes glimmered first with awareness, and then in recognition of Achilles, whose quivering hands grasped it by the shoulders.
The man in the black armor spoke.
“Achilles… Achilles you’re here.”
“What happened? How could this have happened? This is a place for the dead.”
“So it is.”
“No… not you. Not brave Achilles. You cannot die. You are immortal. Please no.”
“When you died, Patroclus… when you died it all became so clear. I shook the sea with my grief. I laid with your corpse for three days before they took me from you. I set my wrath upon Hector and Troy, but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t care about the gods, or the war, or my mother, or the prophecy, or anything.”
Patroclus lunged forward and clasped his hands around Achilles face. Their embrace set something in me I hadn’t felt in a very long time. Something like guilt.
“I would have burned the whole world to be with you again, Patroclus. I would have fought forever in your vengeance. Forever.”
Patroclus kissed Achilles and there was a shudder through the hall, a force alien to this place. I could see clearly for a brief moment the faces of mortal kings, each brought to this city by me, each granted no quarter by the god of this place. They watched these lovers and turned all to Hades, who seemed as worried as they were.
Patroclus’s voice was a whisper at first, but grew to teary pleading.
“You are a god, Achilles. Your prophecy is fulfilled. Your destiny is assured. Your place is on Olympus, to be worshipped as divine. I am nothing, do not forsake your place in eternity for nothing.”
Achilles grasped Patroclus’s arms tightly and again the hall shuddered.
“I have spent my entire life considering my destiny, knowing my prophecy. I killed Hector, Patroclus. I killed him and I desecrated his body before Apollo and all of Troy in vengeance for you. I forfeited my life at that moment gladly.”
“Because without you I realized how little any of it mattered. The gods, they quarrel like men, are tricked like men. They fight and torment and anguish and all for what? For their glory? For their honor? What higher honor is there than godhood? What glory is not afforded the most divine? What peace is there in eternity if you spend it bickering like children? If you are as miserable as my mother? I went to Olympus, it is a cold and desolate mountain. I met the gods, they are small and petty children. I don’t want any of it, Patroclus. It is a cruel joke, all of it. A trick on the gods played by the fates, and now I am free of it.”
At this Hades stood and the faces in the shadows bowed their heads and retreated into the blackness.
“I want you, Patroclus. I want you and nothing else. If my eternity is darkness, it will be a comfort if you are by my side.”
Hades stepped down from his throne and loomed over the two lovers. He crossed his hands behind his back and looked at me. I cannot describe the expression on his face. It was foreign to him as it is to me, something like memory.
“It is the harvest season”
At this the two men turned to face the god. He considered them, then looked out, past the hall’s entrance to the river Styx which could be seen from anywhere in Tartarus.
“Tell me what you wish and i will do it”
Achilles’ voice was strong again, confident and focused, every bit Aristos Achaian.
“I know it.”
Hades was still staring off into the endless black void of his domain, wistfully.
“Our destinies are all beholden to fate, great Achilles. Our prophecies all come to pass, one way or another. That is what the stories are for, you see: to tell us this fact. Your story will be one of bravery, befitting any of the great heroes. But all heroes are tragic heroes, Aristos Achaian. Even Heracles never saw his wife and children again. He never got to hear them forgive him. Did you know that?”
Achilles was perfectly still, clutching Patroclus by the arm as if he could be stolen away at any moment.
“There are no satisfying endings down here, Achilles. Even my story does not have a happy end. Even I am beheld by the strands of the fates.”
I could feel Achilles tense his body. He rose to his feet as if to fight, and at this Hades smiled, dropping his hands and letting them fall to his sides.
“Still you would fight, eh? Fight me, fight Thanatos, fight Zeus and the fates themselves. Do you believe yourself a titan, little greek?”
Achilles said nothing. His grip on Patroclus’ arm loosened and his eyes softened, tear-struck and red in the dim glow of the hall.
“It is the harvest, Achilles. The winter comes.”
Hades outstretched his arm and there at the entrance to the hall came a patch of land, off the horizon at the edge of the underworld, rising out of the river away from any soul or shade, there, barely perceptible was the unmistakable waving form of grass. I did not know this place.
I turned to Hades and realized that the two men were gone. I blinked and Hades turned to me, stroking his beard
Hades nodded and pointed to the hall’s entrance.
“That place is a secret to all, a secret you will keep.”
“What is it? Why is it here?”
“It is here for her.”
I turned and looked and in a flash so great it seared my eyes a blade of light slashed the void and fell upon the patch of land, illuminating bright green grass and of all things a tree, great and tall and alive, sprouting red fruit, barely perceptible in the light that cleaved the abyss. I looked up, followed the blade of light into the eternity and saw at its source a crack in the void filled by the shape of Persephone, whose sorrowful face considered the shape of two men standing together under the tree, unbuckling their armour and embracing in a kiss, bathed in a warm shade i felt a great longing for.
I turned to Hades, who smiled and held his closed fist out to me. I gave him my open palm and in it he placed the black helm of the myrmidons. I stared at it and did not notice Hades walking past me to greet his wife.
Thank you to Sam Beck and Allison O’Toole.