Pale Realms of Shade
It was not the being dead that I minded, it was the hours.
No one ever calls me up during the day, and most people decide to wait until after midnight, for some reason. I am a morning person, or was, so meetings in the still, dark hours lost between midnight and the dawn make me crabby.
This time, it was not some comfortable séance room or picturesque graveyard with moss-covered stone angels. I came to the surface of mortal time on a street corner of some American city, mid-Twentieth to early Twenty-First Century. You can tell from the height of the buildings that it is American, and from the fact that the road names are written on signs rather than walls. And Twenty-Second Century streets are not lit up at night, of course.
The main road was called Saint Street. The small alley was called Peter Way. Great. I was crossed by Saint and Peter.
I smelled her perfume before I saw her. I turned. There she was, outlined against the streetlamp beyond. I could not mistake her silhouette: slender, alluring, like a she-panther as she walked.
“Matthias,” she breathed in her low whisper. Her voice was throbbing music to me, despite everything that had happened. “You look well — ah — considering.”
“Lorelei,” I grunted. She was just wearing a blouse and skirt and a knee-length gray coat, but on her the outfit could have made the cover of a fashion magazine. Or a girly magazine. Her wild mass of gold-red hair was like a waterfall of bright fire tumbling past her shoulders to the small of her back. Atop, like a cherry on strawberry ice-cream, was perched brimless cap. My arms ached with the desire to take her and hold her. But I could never touch her, or, for that matter, anyone ever again.
She sighed and rolled her enormous emerald-green eyes. “Sweetheart, this time, you have to tell me if you were murdered. You have to!”
I took a puff of an imaginary cigarette, and watched the smoke, equally imaginary, drift off in a plume more solid than I was. “I ain’t saying.”
“But you must! I cannot rest until I know!”
Now I knew when and where I was. Because I died the day the Korean War ended. July 27. Mark the day on the calendar. That was the day I gave up smoking. This was only a a few months after, judging from the dry leaves scuttling across the sidewalk, the bare branches of the one tree, surrounded by concrete, across the street. Late October or early November.
“My heart stopped,” I said. “I died of natural causes.”
She pointed a slender finger at the holes in my trench coat. “You’re dripping!”
I looked down. The rest of my body was black and white like an old talkie, a thing of sable mist and silvery moonlight. Only the blood was red, bright as Lorelei’s lipstick.
It was not something I was deliberately imagining myself to look like. I guess it was part of my self-image, subconscious or something. That seemed unfair. I had had a tricky subconscious my whole life. It was one of the things I had thought I had gotten rid of, left behind.
“That’s natural,” I said. “When bullets pass through the lung cavity, they naturally make a large holes. One of them went through my heart, and caused it to stop, like I said.”
“Still making jokes!” She stamped her foot in anger, which send a vibration jiggling up through her curves and made her hair tremble and spread. I was reminded of a cat puffing up its fur in anger.
I looked her in the eye. “Lorelei, just leave it alone. Forget about me, get on with your life.”
She was good at hiding her anger. She took a moment to tuck her hair behind her ears, and drew a breath, and spoke in a voice of icy calm, “Your partner found your body. He unlocked the door and walked in. He said you were shot at close range, point blank. From the burns on your coat, the barrel was touching your coat. Your own weapon was still in your shoulder holster, the holster was snapped. That means a friend killed you.”
I said nothing.
She said, “Who was it? I know it was not Cambell. He would not use his blade, not a pistol. Was it Sean? Was it Harvey? You don’t have that many friends.”
“I don’t remember what happened,” I said.
“You always get that same dumb look at your face when you try to lie to me. You are a memory. That is all a ghost is. How can a memory not remember?”
“Fine,” I said, gritting my teeth. I wondered how it was that I could feel the muscles in my jaws and temples tense up when my teeth and my whole body were imaginary. “I was cleaning my revolver. It went off by accident.”
“Funny. Seven bullets were fired,” she said, raising one of her perfectly-arched eyebrows.
“Sylvester said the bullets went though office window behind you, and could not be recovered for forensics. We don’t know the caliber. We assume it was an automatic. You were standing up, and fell backward over the desk. No evidence of burglary. The top drawer of your file cabinet was open, but the lock had not been forced. The file drawer was empty.”
“What does he know? Sly was always an idiot.”
“You have to go the cops and say you were murdered! If it is ruled a suicide, the insurance company reneges! And I have bills to pay.”
“And here I was thinking you had grown sentimental.”
“It was Sylvester, wasn’t it? He wanted …” She pursed her lips like she was about to say the word me, but then realized how that might sound. The lips just stayed closed, a thin, very red line, still looking very kissable.
I should have kissed her more often, in life. Back when I could.
That was a thought like an icicle stabbing through in my brain. It was more a feeling than a thought. But then I wondered how she could still have this hold over me. Can a ghost suffer from testosterone poisoning? Even dead, were men still saps for dames?
She must have thought so.
I looked at her left hand. She was wearing white gloves. I adjusted my eyes and the glove became transparent to me. “You’re not wearing our ring anymore.”
Her expression grew stiff, her eyes narrowed, like she had just stepped on a tack, and did not want to let out a yelp.
I glanced at the cracked sidewalk underfoot, and noticed something odd. Why here? Why this alley? There was no magic circle painted on the ground, no candles, no crystal ball, none of the rigmarole usually needed to call up something like me.
All the stores and shops across the street were closed, wire mesh drawn over their plate glass windows, all dark as a graveyard except for one lonely pawn shop with a broken neon sign that read AL_ HOURS _PEN! We Sell Go_d! We Fix It! The other storefronts were flea markets, liquor stores, gun shops or strip joints.
I was expecting to see a palmreader’s studio or maybe a tattoo parlor with some Satanist emblems hanging in the window, something that could pull a shade like me all the way into the world so that people could see me. But there was nothing.
I closed my eyes, and I could feel the heat beating from her body, the life in her flesh like an electric tingle in the air. But no one else, not for yards in any direction, no one hiding down the alley, no one watching from a nearby window.
I opened my eyes again. Now her expression changed: her eyelids were half lowered, and her lips half-parted, and her head almost tilted a little to left, as if I had said something amusing. “I had to pawn my wedding ring, because I am out of money. I cannot be happy until your spirit is at rest. You have to go to Judge O’Keefe and tell him who murdered you.”
“Then you can collect on the insurance money.”
She pouted and shrugged and look coy. “Being a detective’s wife, I knew the risks I ran. Especially a detective like you, with silver bullets in your gun, and a crucifix under your flack jacket. I knew one day you might come home in a box. So we made book on those risks. Your number came up. It’s my money. If you think about it, all the time I wondered, all the times I was up late, in bed, in our cold bed, just me, just worrying … I earned every penny.”
I turned my head away. I could not stand seeing her performance. Or, if it were on the level, that would be somehow worse.
I tried to sink below the surface of mortal time, back into the ocean of eternity. Nothing happened. It was like standing on a sheet of ice, with my feet stuck in place. What was holding me here? What had called me here?
Turning back, I took a step toward her. Interesting. That meant I could move. The memory holding me here was not this spot, just this area.
Harshly, I said to her, “Sly will pay your bills. Have you moved in with him yet? Cuddled up to play house? You’ve dug all the gold out of the mine called Mrs. Flint, and now you can move on to him. You can be his kept woman for a few months, until enough time passes you can come out of mourning, and blackmail him into marrying you. He was always stiff in the trousers for you, and that makes him stupider than even his admittedly low standard, because the blood rushes toward his groin and away from his brain, leaving it limp and …”
I saw her eyes start to change with anger. There is a reason why the Irish are said to have a temper, and it is not just because the English beat the snot out of them for a thousand years of history. No, there was something wild and Celtic in the change in her face, and I saw in her the old, fiery blood of fairy kings who danced on the wind-roaring mountainsides underneath an unscarred moon, or who battled with the giants from the sea. Her change of expression looked almost like when some shade like me steps into a body not warded from us: the whole demeanor changes, the stance and look and voice. At that moment, she wanted me dead. Or deader. Or whatever the word is.
She swung her hand through my head, or, I should say rather, through the empty air where I was imagining my head to be. Lorelei snatched her hand back, no doubt because of the cold, but she had not hit my face any more than she could have hit a shadow or a fading memory.
But suddenly the ice, or whatever it was, that held me fixed at that point of time was broken. I sank like a stone beneath the surface of time, and saw the flickering shadows of events, past and future events, floating about me like fragments of dreams.
When you are near the mortal world, it is like looking through a pane of rippling glass a few minutes before and after wherever you were laying before you died.
Dreamers can sometime see this, if they wander away from their sleeping bodies, which is why you sometimes see a repeat of that day’s events, or a glimpse of something yet to come.
If you dive deeper, the place gets closer to the timeless, and you can see far off events in the future or past like vast shapes on the horizon, and you can hear, dimly, the ancestral voices calling warnings, the screams of fear and shouts of joy, or catch the roar like the echoes or reflections of a world-shattering battle or glimpse the lighting-flares as if reflected from low hanging clouds, against which titanic shadows move. Visionaries, and monks in contemplative prayer, can see these things, sometimes.
There is a light far below underfoot. It is like a maelstrom, because it sucks and pulls at you. I can fight it off. I looked through the nearby dreams and clouds, and saw something only a day or so away from the present location. Maybe the future, maybe the past. I let myself get pulled into it.
I was standing in the office. Of course. Where else would a ghost go? There was a new carpet underfoot. New carpet. In all our years together, Sly had never sprung for a bottle of hooch, much less something to make the office look nice. Either he had money, or he was expecting some.
I did that trick with my eyes so I could see through the carpet. There was the bloodstain. My bloodstain. Of course. Where else would a ghost be standing?
There was the plate glass window. The full moon was bright, and it shined through the lettering on the glass so their shadows fell around me and through me.
I did not cast a shadow, of course. Shadows don’t cast shadows. The word ‘Psychic’ was etched into the window in elf-letters, so it did not cast a shadow either. Only someone with the Second Sight could have seen the real sign. SYLVESTER STEEL, Psychic Private Investigator.
There was also a distorted image of the office all around me, a memory. It was a memory of unlocking and opening the door just there. Reaching a hand toward the lightswitch, but freezing when I saw a long, black shape on the floor, the shape of a fallen body. Litter from the desk was all around it, and the window was broken with bulletholes. One of the bulletholes had struck just above the letter I in FLINT. Panic and fear choked me.
I was drawn step by awful step, in the frozen way we walk in nightmares, were distances are distorted and walking three steps takes three eternities.
I put out my hand, hoping it was not him, hoping, praying the only prayer I knew. Now I lay me down to sleep…I pray the Lord my soul to keep…If I…If I…
The body turned over before I could touch it, flopping like a dead fish. He grinned at me, a sick, empty, skull-like grin, full of anger by no mirth.
“Oh my God!” a human voice screamed. “It was not me, Matt! I didn’t do it!”
That voice was in the real world. The memory that had drawn me here rippled and faded. The broken window was whole again. Sly was sleeping — not any more — had been sleeping on the rollaway bed we used here in the office for late nights or stowing some client who needed a place for one night. It folded into a couch, and there was a holster on the back where we used to keep the revolver. He was naked, and the sheets were all twisted around him, soaked with sweat, and Sly was fumbling for the holster, finding nothing.
“There is another gun is in the top drawer,” I said, trying to light another imaginary cigarette. I could get the glow of the match reflecting off my cupped fingers correct, but the light was pearly-white rather than red, and the taste was off. “The one marked A. A for Automatic. But we keep that filing cabinet locked, remember? So who did you give the key to? Or is it whom?”
His eyes had trouble focusing on me. “Matt? Is that you?”
That surprised me, so I dropped my cigarette. It did not fall, but floated near me at shoulder height like an annoying little fish. “Can you hear me?”
He nodded. “I can hear you. Faintly.”
“Lorelei wants me to prove I did not commit suicide, so she could get the insurance money.”
That made him tremble. He went over to the hat rack. His hat was not on the hat rack but his clothes were. He got his pants, put them on, put on his shirt, but did not bother to button it up. I knew him pretty well, knew his little habits and ticks: this was what actors call ‘business.’ He was doing little ordinary things to give his nerves a chance to die down.
I wondered where his hat was. It was an ugly thing with a garish hatband, but he was real attached to it. He would doff his hat with exaggerated courtesy to the maidens passing by with a flourish like a cavalier, but only to the fair ones.
He walked slowly around me, got behind the desk, and sat in my chair. I suppose it was his chair, now. His old chair had two books and a potted plant atop it. Maybe he had always envied me my view. If so, he never mentioned it once. And why a potted plant? He did not strike me as a plant kind of guy. Maybe I did not know him so well after all.
“Light up a cigarette,” I said, “If I smell one, maybe I can remember what they are like.”
He chuckled without mirth. “Like that voodoo case down south. Remember that one? The Baron said that cigar smoke called the Loa. Whiskey, too.” But he did not light up.
“I kind of liked the old sign,” I said, nodding at the window. “Thought it was kind of funny.”
“Gave you top billing,” he said with a grimace. “So, do you have any messages for the living?”
“Sure,” I said, swatting the pathetic, imaginary cigarette out of the air next to me. “Look for a stock market break next year, in 1954. There will be large gains for long-term equity investors.”
“Matt,” he said sadly, “This is 1954. It’s been months since you appeared to Rory. The insurance company paid. Judge O’Keefe looked into her heart with the special way he has, and saw her memories, and he believed her, and ruled in her favor. So I know you did not commit suicide.”
I looked around again, this time with my eyes closed. I could feel the beat of life inside him, like heat from an unseen campfire. I finally understood what drove vampires crazy: Being able to feel being alive, but not being able to be alive. Drinking the living blood and feeling it inside you, just for a moment. Almost like the real thing. Undead onanism.
I opened my eyes. “You were dreaming about me. That is what called me here.”
“Matt, I did not do it. I am not the one who killed you.”
” ‘Fcourse not!” I said harshly, letting my face look more like a skull and less like a man. “You never had the guts.”
Hands shaking, he opened the cigarette case on the desk, the nice silver one Lorelei bought me as a present, and lit up. I did like the smell, and it did melt my face back into a more human look. Maybe that voodoo doctor had been right about tobacco and ghosts. Too bad I had not been killed in a tobacco shop.
“So why are you haunting me?” he asked in a small voice. He did not look at me. His eyes were resting on the open cigarette case. Maybe he was counting how many smokes he had left.
“Is that why you are here?” I looked at the safe, made the surface invisible to me, and saw some of the relics and special candles missing. “Good grief! Do you have Father Pat over at your apartment, performing an exorcism? Really? To allay me?”
“Uh, actually, he’s at Lorelei’s house in the suburbs, along with Brother Sean and the Big Black Cat. Your house, I guess. Your name is still on the lease.”
“You called the Big Black Cat on me? You bastard.” I wondered how much that had set the partnership back, either in money or favors owed. The Cat was expensive. And mean. He and I had not even called up the Cat for the Murderer of Saint-Marks-in-the-Bowery.
Then I remembered it was not a partnership any more. It was just his money.
“Why don’t you rest in peace?” he demanded, “Why are you haunting me? You’ve got a nice crypt at Saint Patrick’s. It has not been legal to put any bones there for a hundred years. Do you know the strings I had to pull to get that, and the favors I had to call it?”
“Lots! I was up in the Catskills for two weeks with a bazooka on my shoulder, chasing a hut running on chicken legs, just to get the Great Gray Man to owe me a favor, and listen to me, which I traded to the Lady in the Well, so’s she could put me right with the Commissioner. But I did it! We got you interred, with carved stone with your name on it, and everything. LOVING HUSBAND AND FAITHFUL SOLDIER, it says. Rory and me picked the words. Father Donavon said the blessing. He is blind, but he said he could see you there, smiling. I light a candle for you every Sunday, and two during Lent.”
I did not remember that scene. From my point of view it had not happened yet. The same way a timeless ghost can now and again tell living men their future, men can prophecy to us.
Saint Patrick’s had special crypts set aside for people like us. Sly and I and a good many people in Breezy Point in Queens, Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, and Woodlawn in the Bronx are twilight people like us. Our folks all came from Terryglass Parish in the Diocese of Killaloe, in Cashel.
Saint Columba of Terryglass, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, founded the great Abbey there. The Gray Folk of the Gray Lake, Loch Riach, over which he was lord, are the ones from whom we get our sight. Back before Saint Patrick came, the daughters of Terryglass were sometimes sold into marriage and thrown in the water with weights on their ankles, because their fathers made bargains with voices that spoke out of the night, promising great things. The Bride-girls of the Gray Lake did not quite die, and sometimes they could send their babies to the shore in a coracle, for sunlight people to find and raise; and woe to him who passed the crying child by, and did not pick him up.
I remember Gramps telling how, when the stormwind was high, and the Horned Huntsman was riding with his devil dogs along the black clouds, the lake water subsided and grew strangely clear. One could see the carven columns and twisted spires of the pagan ruins, where of old were worshiped the serpents that Saint Patrick later banished, in fanes far underneath the waters of Loch Riach, and seaweed-coated temples lit by strange torches; and one could see the watching eyes that looked upward, never asleep, looking back. Gramps used to scare the piss out of me with his old stories.
Lorelei had some twilight blood, too, on her mother’s side, and she had the sight. Most of our customers do. Normal people could not even see the crimes folk hired us to solve.
“So you go to mass now?” I asked skeptically. He was not what I thought of as a praying man.
“Regular as clockwork,” he said nodding. I was afraid he was going to say religiously, but that joke might have been over his head. “Ever since you, ah — you know. Departed. We all loved you, jackass or no. The boys down at McSorley’s hoisted a cup to your loving memory.”
The thought of the old gang made me curious. I suddenly felt myself shrinking a bit, looking more human.
“Sly — I just want to know — ”
I wanted to know how Lorelei was doing. If she missed me. That sort of thing. But instead I said, “Nice digs,” I said. “I wanted to know how you pay for all this stuff. Is that a sferra cavallo on the shelf?”
“I’ve had some good cases lately. Remember the Crow murders? Turns out the Crow Cousins were Renfrews, playing footsie with the Night Folk of the Blood Feast. And then there was a whole coven of Drowned Ones cooperating with smugglers and Nicors causing all those wrecks up the coast, near the haunted lighthouse the Good Witch uses. And it turns out the Good Witch weren’t so good. We tried to take her alive, but the Gold-hoofed Snow-white Hart tore off her mask and trampled her. Just like that.”
“You got the Hart to come with you?”
“Some of the buildings in the city are old enough to come awake, and they like me, and the Commissioner likes anyone who keeps the buildings quiet, and he knows Arthegall and Calidore in the Summerqueen’s Court, so yeah. I called the Hart. After the Lighthouse Witch had her mask come off, and she was all worms inside, me and Muddy got all her files—she wrote everything down on dry autumn leaves, so she could keep track and blackmail and curse her ex-partners—and it was pretty hectic.”
Muddy was the name of a police dog in the K-9 corps. Moddey Dhoo was from the Isle of Man, and he never grew a single gray hair in his fur, never failed in his strength, and he never grew any older. Sometimes he helped us on cases. He never talked when there were normal people around, and I always found him surly and sour when he did talk. Sly was just dog people, I suppose. I could just picture them slobbering and grinning together.
“Now, with those files,” Sly was saying, breaking into just such a grin as I had imagined, “the Police Commissioner O’Hanlon believed me when I told him there was one guy behind it all, fixing everything up.”
“Not your ‘Fixer’ theory again!” I groaned. “A Napoleon of crime! A spider in maze! You read too many dime novels.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences. Who else could get half-deads of Undersea and the man-eating mermaids and human gunrunners to mesh like clockwork? Tir-fo-Thuinn and the Tir-na-Nog and great Nodens who reigns in drowned Atlantis all singing from the same sheet music? And the Lighthouse Witch? She had you fooled your whole life. Um. I mean, us. Fooled us. Someone is coordinating all this.”
“The Fixer is just another one of your dumb ideas. You’ll have this business ruined in no time, without me.”
“Actually, Harvey the Pooka believes me,” said Sly, with a bit of a smirk.
“That drunk bunny!”
“He’s got friends at Court. He knows Canacee — you know, Cambell’s sister — and she sometime lends me her ring, for shadowing jobs. And so business has been picking up.” The smirk grew more prominent. He actually was enjoying the chance that never happened in life, to tell me this. To say I told you so.
A kind of dull silence rested in the room. I wished he had offered me a chair. I wished I could sit down. I was beginning to resent how comfy he looked in my chair. It burned me to think that all these years, without a word, without a sign, he had been jealous of something as petty as a chair, a view through a window. I guess you never really know people.
He straightened up in my stolen chair, put his hand on the cigarette case. His voice was a little sharp now. “Nice catching up with you. Good luck in the next world and all that. Can you depart now and — stay departed?”
“Why are you having nightmare about me?”
“I am not the one who killed you, Matt. I keep telling you that.”
“And I already said I know that. I know who killed me. You must know, too. You must have figured it.” I pointed at the drawer marked A, the top of the filing cabinet. I was just as surprised as he was when the drawer unlocked itself with a click and slid open.
It was not me doing it. I am not a poltergeist, just an ordinary ghost. Poltergeists are driven by anger, damned to continually visit the same few spots, over and over again, screaming in rage, throwing fit, throwing stones. They are the only ghosts so heavy with anger that they can touch the material world.
But the drawer came open and kept coming. It made a metal screech as it came. Slowly, it tilted. Sly watched it with his eye wide and wet with fear.
It fell to the ground with a clatter like a cymbal, shockingly loud. The drawer was entirely empty. There was nothing in it. The aspergillum of holy water blessed by an archbishop was gone, the one I had once used to burn an archvampire into nothingness. The bottle of pills imported from Jamaica that we use on the sunlit people if they saw something they were not supposed to see — also gone. The automatic was gone, as were the clip of silver bullets, also expensive, also gone. The relic of Saint Ailbe of Emly, which no wolf or werewolf could approach, because of one act of kindness long remembered — that was gone, and it was priceless. A was for Aspergillum, A was for Amnesia. A was for automatic. A was for Ailbe. Funny, weren’t I? My life was full of little jokes like that.
I felt a pounding sensation in my brain again, and I did not even have a brain, only a memory of a brain. “Where is all our stuff? Our gear? It is all gone?” I looked again at the new carpet, the newly etched window with the expensive lettering only dusk people can see. “What did you do with it? Sell it for money?”
“I don’t have a key to that drawer, remember?” said Sly, his voice suddenly firmer, harder and colder than I ever heard it before.
He continued: “I dropped it down a storm drain when Mayor’s Brother, wearing his rat skin, bit me. Remember? Such an expensive key, made of orichalcum from Atlantis and silver from the mines on the dark side of the moon, because you insisted on a lock made by elfs, a labyrinth lock no human could pick or force, and no gypsy could charm. There were only two keys, and mine fell down the storm drain. You never forgave me.”
I was not listening. I was too busy shouting. “Did you sell my relic, which my grandfather brought all the way from Tipperary, for money? For daylighter money?” My anger was palpable: I could see the papers on the desk fly into the air, the lamp fell over, the windows rattled in the panes, and a dozen little dust devils of wind starting whipping around the room. “Did you sell them all? All the tools and weapons of the work?”
“You don’t remember,” he said in that cold, hard voice of his. “You are becoming empty, Matt. Soon you will be nothing but rage and wind.”
The whirlwind screamed stronger, and the potted plant, of all things, jumped up into the air and cracked him sharply across the face. The pot broke with a bright, sharp sound like fine china breaking. Dirt sprayed across the drapes and window behind, and the shard of the pot hit the wall and ceiling. There was blood all over his face, both from cuts on his cheeks and forehead, and gushing from both nostrils.
Then, too late, I remembered where I had heard him speak that way before. He never talked to me in that tone. He only got that hard note in his voice when he was confronting something from the darker world. Something from deeper in the twilight than humans can go safely. Something nearer the night.
Suddenly, I stopped, and got hold of myself. The papers fell to the ground, and the lamp toppled, but slowed for no reason before it hit the floor, and did not break.
It was me doing it. I was the cause.
“Mary, mother of God!” I shouted. “I am not a monster! I am not haunting you! You just feel guilty because you stole Lorelei from me!”
But it was too late for talk. Not bothering to wipe his face, he held up his hand, and in it was something he had hid in the silver cigarette case. It looked like a small and delicate flower from the blackthorn tree. The little flower throbbed and vibrated with more life-heat than any living human could hold.
“Not all the weapons of the work are gone.” And he said the name of the Big Black Cat.
Of course, I knew what flowers like that could do, what they could summon up, so I spun and dove below time even before he spoke. That just barely saved my life. Or my whatever I had just now.
I struggled, diving, swimming, rushing away from mortal time as fast as my fear could carry me. The Cat was a silent black shadow, immense, powerful, dark, and he came at me silently, swift as a comet. The glinting gold eyes of the cat were behind me, growing larger, pitiless and proud, two full harvest moons.
The Cat struck once, missed, but the current stirred up by that blow sent me tumbling head over heels. Then he swelled up to twice his size like the black cloud of some explosion in a powder magazine.
As huge as a building now, he swatted at me with a paw like a black tree felled by a lumberjack, and claws like a squad of fencers swinging their sabers in unison. I felt my imaginary coat pull on me, and felt my imaginary back get ripped from my spine in long, thin slices of flesh. And the pain was not imaginary at all. One when I was a kid, my older brother Al hit me in the back with a rake. This was not like that.
There was no blood in the water around me, or whatever the fluid of time is made of, but then, as suddenly as I realized there was not, there was. It was not colorless, but red as a Christmas berry. I screamed in pain, except this time, my imaginary voice would not work. There was no noise. I had forgotten what my own voice sounded like.
Then, just as suddenly, the Cat gave one last disdainful look over his shoulder, and was gone. Cats don’t like water in general, and this one did not like getting very far into the sea of timelessness.
I floated in the deep, deeper than I had ever been before, trying to let the panic subside.
I was very far down by the time I stopped descending. The images get more cloudy and more fragmentary the deeper you dive, but I could still see glimpses of the modern cityscape directly above me. To one side, I saw a horse and buggy passing down a cobblestone street lit by a gaslamp; and to the other, a figure in a gas-mask trudging past a fallen skyscraper lying on its side.
I did not look closely at the future shadows of the city in years to come. Somehow, I did wish I could warn the living to enjoy what they had now, to give thanks, and to cherish what they were so soon to have never again, not even as memory. The people and things living and not living in times to come would make sure no undistorted record, no uncorrupted memory, would remain. There were no steeples in that future, no churchbells, just thin, wailing cries from thin, ugly minarets.
I turned my gaze to the past. How to find anything, a dream, a bloodstain, a fear or hope that would draw me to it? A ghost cannot simply step into any scene he likes, any time he likes. There has to be something like an invitation.
Then I saw it. The one building that was much the same. There! Sly said I was interred there, the Cathedral built after the Civil War. Could I not step into a place where I was buried, even if I arrived a century or so before I was?
I soared upward toward the image. Some power was helping me, because I never felt myself moving through the timelessness so effortlessly before.
I surfaced not in the crypts, as I was expecting, but in the nave of the cathedral. At first I thought I was in a crowd. But it was not the living heat from a hundred people that beat and thundered and pulsed all around me. The pews were empty. There were a few lit candles in a stand against the far wall. The heat was coming from the statues to the left and right, from the stained glass windows glinting in the moonlight, from the baptismal font, from the altar, and most of all from a locked golden box at the far end. That was hotter than the summer sun.
It was glorious, warming, making me wish I could remember how to make my dead eyes weep. But it scared me.
I slowly raised my hands, like you do when someone points a gun at your heart. I suddenly remembered that was the exact posture I was in when I died. If this furnace of living energy I had foolish stepped into the middle of was hostile, then I would die a second time in just this same pose.
Nothing happened. I stood there with my back torn and aching, dripping bright red blood on the wooden floor. I was not sure if the blood were real or not. I could not tell any more.
Then I felt something. Another source of living heat. There was someone in the booth to my left there. It felt like male rather than female heat. I cannot explain that; but imagine someone throws a pine log rather than an apple log on the fire. You can smell the difference.
He wanted me to enter the other half of the booth.
I could not open or close the booth door, but I could step through it. I went in and knelt down, wincing at my wounded back, and crossed myself. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been — wait a minute — I am guessing about a hundred years and change since my last confession, but it is a hundred years in the future. What year is this?”
“I am sorry, my son,” came the voice from the other side of the screen. “I cannot quite hear you. There is no need to be afraid. Speak up.”
I tried to imagine my voice more clearly. “I am from Terryglass, the land of the twin streams.”
“That is no sin, my son. As it happens, so am I,” he said with a chuckle.
“I know, Father. That is why you can hear me.”
There was silence from the other side of the screen. Maybe I heard him whisper a prayer. I made the booth walls look transparent to my eyes, and really wished I had not.
The figures coming out of the statues and images were bright and terrifying, and the shape that stood up from the image of the Virgin above the altar was terrifying and beautiful, bright as the sun, clear as the moon, and crowned with seven stars. And the moon was under her foot.
I closed my eyes, but that made it worse. I could feel the heat from the living powers gather behind the old priest in the confessional booth. One of them leaned down and breathed on the old priest, and he ignited with living force like a oil-soaked pine log going up.
I put my imaginary hands over my eyes, and tried to make the booth solid to my vision again. There was no place to run. Even in the waters of eternity, outside of the mortal world, the lamps and lanterns of living beings, beings immeasurably greater than us, had gathered.
There was also a force standing at the right hand of the priest. It was not a saint. I could tell that the saints had once been alive, had once been ghosts like me. I was an empty sack, and they were filled up to overflowing, but they were like me. They were human. They could be pictured with faces and robes and eyes and smiles. The living creature at his right hand had never been alive, never occupied flesh, never entered fully into mortal time. I did not know what it was, but the force that flowed from it was harsher and more solemn than a judge ordering a criminal to hang. The saints were like flames. This was like a lightning bolt, if you can imagine a lightning bolt standing still, making no noise, just looking at you.
I wondered if that being was his guardian angel. My mom told me we all had them. They live in the baptismal waters and came out when we were washed as babies. I believed her as a child, but not after the day she went into the hospital for some routine operation, and never came out again. My Dad and my brothers told me not to worry, it would be okay, that I had only had a nightmare. But the nightmare came true and my Dad had lied about there being nothing to worry over. So after that, I sort of assumed it was all lies. I still believed in witches. Eventually I killed the old granny who had cursed my Mom to her death. I just did not believe in guardian angels any more.
Once again, I wished I could tell the waking world, the stupid sunlight people, the blind ones, what wonders were around them. Did everyone get a bodyguard like that? I thought angels were supposed to be small cute little babies with dove wings, not this silent and inhuman tornado of divine energy.
The priest said, “Did you receive extreme unction before you went to sleep, my son?”
I did not understand what he meant at first. Then I got it. “No, Father. Death came suddenly, and I had no time to confess. Is it too late now? I mean, I haven’t reported in anywhere, or seen a Judgment Seat or Pearly Gate or anything.”
He sighed. “That, I do not know. It is not a point covered in my instruction. I wonder what Saint Thomas Aquinas would say on the matter. We are allowed to pray for the dead, of course…”
Saint Thomas was standing right there. He was wearing a crown of light, so I could not read his expression, because it was too bright for me to see his face. But he spread his hands, and held up two fingers. I have no idea what that gesture meant.
The old priest said, “But, nonetheless, I am sure our Heavenly Father would prefer to have all His little ones come to Him, soon or late. You are a little late, but maybe not too late. I think Trajan was baptized after his death, and he must have heard confession before entering communion, so there is precedent. If I must err, let it be on the side of generosity. I will hear your confession, my son. Of what do you accuse yourself?”
“I am a poltergeist.”
“You should not think so small of yourself, whom God has created…”
“Sorry, what are you talking about, Father?”
“Did you say you were a paltry ghost? Maybe I misheard. A poultry ghost? You were a chicken farmer in life?”
“I was a —” I did not know how to explain I was a detective. I am pretty sure the word did not exist yet. In fact, I am not even sure if Robert Peal had organized the police force in London yet. “— was a married man. I was murdered. And now I am discovering that I am a type of ghost who is full of wrath. Ghost who makes objects fly around the room. I found myself doing it without being aware of it. Because my subconscious mind — ” But wait. That would be also a word no Nineteenth Century man would know. “— I am possessed by a spirit of anger. I just saw the spirit of anger act through me without my knowing, without my say-so.”
“A spirit possessed by a spirit?” the old priest sounded amused. “Well, to make a good confession, you must vow to amend you life — ah, I mean, ah, existence — ah — are you truly sorry for this sin?”
I remembered seeing Sly’s bleeding face. “Yes,” I said. “But I don’t remember the words. O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell; but most of all … most of all.. I forget what I dread most of all…”
“You detest your sins most of all because they offend Our Lord, who is all good, and deserving of all your love. But my son, you have not confessed all your sins.”
I wondered why he said that. But something made me blurt out, “She is still mine!” So maybe I was possessed by a spirit after all.
“No one can possess another,” he said serenely. Then I heard a smile in his voice, “Except, I suppose in your case. But, ah, of whom do we speak?”
“Rory. My wife.”
“No, my son.”
I felt the anger in me again. “What do you mean no?”
“She is not your wife, but your widow. You have been sundered from her.”
He said nothing and I said nothing. A space of time went by as I heard him breathing, and not me.
The old priest broke the silence, “Who murdered you, my son?”
“You don’t sound surprised, Father.”
“One hears many things in confession, and, after a time, one gets a sense for how the heart works. But you are certain it was she? The minds of ghosts sometimes wander….”
That was a scary thought. Suddenly, I was not sure if I could trust myself, or what I could trust. “No, it had to be her. The door was locked. She had the key to get in and out. The top drawer of the filing cabinet was also locked, and I have the only key to it, a key sunlight men cannot even see. She could have taken it out of my trouser pocket at any point. She was crying and crying. You would think a woman like that would be as hard as stone, as hard as flint. Mrs. Flint. Heh. The bullets were silver, so the charms woven around my life did not work, and the gun was made of special metal, so that ordinary humans could not see it. It was something we used for killing werewolves.”
“Do you forgive her?”
“That is the crazy part. After I was dead, I was pulled up toward the mouth of a maelstrom of light, but I turned and looked back, and I saw her hugging me. Hugging my corpse, I mean. She took the bottle of pills out of the drawer. The Mickey Finn pills, but I guess you could call them Fenodyree pills. She cleaned up the evidence before the pill took effect. She left and locked the door behind her. She does not remember the crime. She killed me and collected the insurance and got away with it.”
I tried to heave a sigh, but it did not work. It just sounded like a thin, sad whistle of wind. Creepy.
“Father, she regrets nothing because she remembers nothing. I don’t think it was planned. For all I know, I dropped the elf key, and she was coming by to return it. And then we quarreled…”
“Money. What else do couples quarrel about? I made a joke about Sly, about how dumb he is, and she just exploded like a …”
“Who is this?”
“Sylvester Steel. My partner.”
“Whom you have hated for years, and belittled, and cheated of his wages?”
“Yes, of course. I could take money from the kitty, and put the blame on him for… Hey! I did not say any of that! It’s not true! I was like an older brother to….to him…and he…”
“No? Then why are you still here on earth, poor shade? What sin is keeping you here?”
“I …. I am here b-because I …. want to be …. I am not trapped ….”
“You are trapped like a bird on a limed twig, with lime you set yourself. Ask for release, my son. I cannot grant you the forgiveness and peace of Christ until you admit your sin, and ask it to be cleansed.” He voice was getting dimmer and dimmer like the voice of a man calling from the caboose of a train receding into a dark tunnel. I could barely hear him.
And I did not want to hear him. I had leaped to my feet, astonished and aghast that this little priest, this mere mortal, this dim-sighted fool who could not see the gathered saints behind him, that he would dare speak to me that way.
What the hell did he know about me? What gave him the right to stick his nose in my business? He would be lucky if I did not break his nose off for sticking it where it did not belong!
Had not I always been good to Sylvester? Treated him like a prince, gave him a job when no one else would hire such an idiot?
The winds started whipping around me before I realized what was happened. Yes, I was angry, and I saw my jaw drop down to my belt buckled and my cheeks grow longer and longer to let that happen. My hair was standing up on end like the floating hair of a corpse underwater, and the wailing noise, weak and yet full of hate, that came from my throat I barely recognized as my own.
Through the walls of the confessional, I saw the little candles shake and fall, and the stained glass windows rattled in their frames. The glass images of Saint Peter with his keys and Saint Paul with his sword turned and frowned at me with sorrow mixed with sternness in their eyes.
The guardian angel struck.
The angel was brighter than a drawn sword, louder than the crystal music of the spheres. I fled before its deadly, inhuman beauty destroyed me entirely. The glance of the angel burned my skin and hair away with a thousand lashes of fire, and I was less than a shriveled mummy in a half of a second. When I came to myself again, I felt like the peach-pit left over after the peach is gnawed to bits.
Deeper I was than the Cat had chased me. It was like another layer of the sea where other forms of life dwell, luminous shapes of translucent blind fish with teeth like knives, so deep I did not even know where.
Even here a few dream clouds caught fragments of images from mortal time. At this depth the landscape to one side was all forest, and the skies filled with passenger pigeons, and nary a man in sight, not even a figure in buckskins. To the other side, the moon was black, the seas were blood, and nightmarish shapes stalked amid the burning ruins like warhorses with scorpion tails and human faces, long fangs and long hair, crowned in gold and wearing iron vests.
The whole span of time, from America before Columbus, maybe before the Indians, to whatever horrid future was waiting for us—I could see it all. Eden to Apocalypse. Alpha to Omega.
It made me dizzy, like I was a groundhog trapped in the wheel of an airplane during takeoff, and instead of seeing my shadow, I saw what had been my whole universe like a dark carpet falling and falling away below. The little hidey-hole where I hid my life was lost in clouds and distance.
In one or two places, I saw events that were not to one side or the other. They were not inside time at all: a bright and invulnerable figure, more beautiful than anything human, being shot by a blind archer whose arrowhead was a mistletoe; a harpist dashing his harp to the ground in sorrow and wrath, while behind him a bride was being pulled backward into the cave from which she will never emerge; a huge, bearded man dressed in a lion skin and maniacal grin wrestling a fifty-headed dog to the ground with his bare hands; a dead man wrapped in bandages and crowned like a king, holding up a balance scale, and in one pan, a beating heart, and in the other, a feather.
Somehow, I knew where I was: Deeper, so deep in time now that it was near eternity. This was where the prophets go, or where the poets go to go mad.
On the good side, my torn back no longer hurt, or, at least, that little one note of torture was lost amid the symphony of cuts, lacerations, burns, shocks, traumas, broken bones, torn nerves, shattered organs, melted eyeballs, and various other pains, aches, smarts, sufferings, and vexations. It was an orchestra of agony, with rafts of new anguish and distress crashing in crescendos each time I thought to move, or even thought at all.
I was lucky to be alive! Or whatever.
Maybe I was still angry. Who in their right might leaves absurdly powerful supernatural nonhuman beings just following people around like guard dogs? What kind of crazy universe was this?
In the war, there were soldiers who lost a limb, but could still itches or throbs or burns. Ghost pains, they call it. Now my whole body was suffering ghost pains. Who designs a universe were a man can lose not just one limb, or even four, but every part of his body altogether, and it still hurts?
Remember those pains of Hell I was supposed to dread? I began to wonder how my life as a dead guy was going to go. I thought I was going to be free from all the pains that flesh is heir to.
But instead I found I my new and imaginary body could suffer pain greater than what killed me. More pain. How much more? Who said there was an upper limit?
Why not infinite pain? Why not eternal?
I could not sweat with fear, because my entire body from head to toe was one third-degree burn looking like the surface of a dead lava flow. But I could shake. It was a trembling I could not stop, like the shakes a rummy in the gutter gets in the cold hour before dawn.
You would think a dead guy would worry about this kind of stuff first thing, right off the bat, but I had been kind of distracted. Being dead is a bit like being drunk. It kind of plays tricks on you.
Only then did I really start to wonder, and start to dread. I had known about the twilight creatures my whole life, ever since I was a little child. Many children can see ghosts, or remember things that have not happened yet, but usually they grow out of it when they start to get good at talking. We twilight folk, or anyone who has Otherworldly blood in their ancestry, from selkies or sea-faeries or swan-maidens wed against their will when their coats were hid, don’t grow out of it so fast. The world’s time has not so strong a hold on us.
You would think it would make it easier for a man like me to believe what saints and martyrs said in old books nobody reads, or droning homilies everyone snoozes through, wondering how the Sunday game turned out.
But somehow, knowing it, seeing it, somehow made the whole thing seem unexceptional. Like it was an everyday business. Let me give a f’rinstance. Father Aretino was a gray- haired old Tuscan priest with tired eyes, who drank too much. In one of our first cases after Flint and Steel Investigations was opened for business — this was before the war — I saw Father Aretino destroy a four thousand year old blood-drinking Pharaoh. This was a February midnight in the middle of a frozen white stream the Iroquois worshiped as a god. The Father stood there with no one around him, and the Pharaoh, surrounded with a cloud of darkness and a cloud of locusts, was advancing over the stream. Father Aretino destroyed the mummy with no more than dogeared Bible, a candle-stub, a cowbell and his naked faith. (He had started the evening with a nice silver bell made by a Roman artisan and blessed by the bishop, but a nighthawk carried it off, laughing. Sly managed to find and swipe a bell from a sleeping milkcow to replace it.) I saw the ice crack open, and the river leap as if with joy and reach with watery fingers white as foam to drown the scowling Egyptian king, who shouted in rage as ghosts of jackals howled, unable and unwilling to believe the God of the Hebrew slaves could fell him.
You would think I would believe in God all the more, seeing what His servants could do. But in my line of work, I just sort of thought our God was like Gunnodoyah the Thunder Boy, whom the Iroquois once danced in times of drought and beat the tabor to adore, just a power at large in the world.
A little sneaking thought, no bigger than a worm, snaked into my brain. It was a simple thought: If there is a Hell, Sylvester can go there.
Now, I was in pain, more pain than a living man can understand, when I thought this, so maybe that explains why I did not trample that thought and throw it away. I petted it and fed it by telling myself that she would not have shot me if he had not seduced her. She had always been sweet on him. Girls are drawn to weak men, men they can geld and domesticate, especially smart girls. She had never cheated on me, except — now I found out — in her heart. With him.
He had her in his arms right now. They were whispering and giggling about me, and she was telling him how much better he was, now that business was picking up, a better provider, a better man, able to buy her whatever she wanted, furs and jewels and empty vanities, trips to Broadway shows. And all that money came from my corpse, from that insurance she insisted I buy.
If I were a poltergeist, a spirit of rage, a spirit of death — and there was no use denying it now — then I could still touch the physical world. That meant I could drop a pill into a drink, cut a brakeline in a moving car, pull a trigger, throw a knife. Hell! I could bash in his skull with a brick while he slept.
I felt the mortal world pulling me again. It was strong, insistent. I was like a game fish caught on a line. Why tug against the hook? I rose up in a wash of sudden motion.
At first, I was not sure where or when I was. It was a darkened room, with shelves and tables covered with bric-a-brac. The floor was covered with butcher paper and old newspapers.
It might have been a cluttered museum closed for repair, or maybe an abandoned antique shop. Here were masks on the wall of long-nosed creatures with a spiked chins, or bat-eared creatures with curving fangs, or albino foxes smiling sweetly; next to the masks were braided whips on a hooks with bits of bone and metal woven into the lash; next were staples in the walls from which dangled chains with manacles and gyves.
A wall niche held a blue-faced idol of a many-armed goddess. One leg was raised in a dance-step, each of her hands was holding a bloody weapon or severed head, while a necklace of skulls was draped across the outrageous metal balloons of her breasts. She was stepping on a kowtowing dwarf.
On one shelf were knives with serrated brass-knuckles built into the guards; other shelves held Coptic jars, or bottles filled with pickled meats or eyes or organs; in the back corner loomed an iron maiden, gently smiling, complete with channels in the base for the blood to run into a waterbowl for the cat.
Hanging from the ceiling was more ghastly clutter: medallions of pentagrams and St Peter Crosses, mummified hands with painted fingernails; wooden puppets with exaggerated carved groins poised to engage in various unnatural acts; an alligator body with the head of a dead man attached to its neck, stuffed and tanned with eyes replaced by glass beads. The real alligator head was in a corner by the door, its open jaws being used as an umbrella stand.
Snakes and scorpions hung by their tails among shrunken heads. In a fishtank hanging by chains in the center of the roof writhed groups of luminous and transparent eels whose eyes had been gored out, and the sockets sewn shut. It was good to see something alive.
The walls were covered with mosaics showing overweight Aztec priestesses bearing and flaying children and proffering them to gods with goggling eyes and protruding tongues. On a wooden music stand a black leather volume, bigger than a phonebook, was chained and padlocked.
The candelabrum was a dead man’s hand, with wax candles burning on each finger and thumb. On a rack next to it was a wand cut with Viking runes, a black knife made of volcanic glass, a cup of green copper, a ball of dark brown crystal with a red glow at its heart.
On a throne made of iron ribcages and steel skulls someone had propped the corpse of a Franciscan Friar, complete with rope belt and tall hood, and had propped a pair of sunglasses on his nose, like an actress from California might wear. The mouth of the corpse had been stitched open into a grin, and all his teeth were black iron.
All this gear was throbbing, not with the living heat that comes from men, but with a sucking, terrible cold. I was pierced with numbness through to my broken bones, which brought such a relief, that, for a moment, I did not see how morbid and grotesque the litter of the crowded chamber was.
I saw a window, and a red neon sign in it, but the abnormal letters were from some language I did not recognize.
There was a looking glass in a frame carved like a snake eating its own tail standing directly opposite the window. I looked at myself, now that the pain was numbed, and tried to imagine myself looking human again.
I could not do it. I could not remember what a human looked like. First I was a headless dwarf with oversized arms and legs, with eyeballs at my nipples and a mouth at my navel; then I was a horror with a red funnel for a head, with an eyeball on my tongue, and the mouth was a circle of teeth; then my head was on backward, and my legs were coming from my arm pits. The sensation of sick horror ebbed a bit, and I finally ended up looking like a hooded and crooked thing with dangling arms and the head of a hairless vulture. My knees bent the wrong way, like a dog leg, but at least I was upright and almost humanoid.
Then I noticed the window. I could see it in the mirror. _PEN! We Sell Go_d! We Fix It!
Of course. The neon letters from inside the pawn shop were backward because I was looking at their backsides. The mirror image restored them.
I walked on my backward feet toward this window. I saw no door, but there was a tapestry with an image of the Great God Pan hanging in the right spot to hide one. I looked out the window.
I was right outside the street where Lorelei had called me, earlier. Saint street. My earlier. I did not know where in mortal time this was.
I could see now that the alley was abutting a hotel, one I recognized. It was a hot-sheet joint, one were lovers met for a bottle of wine and an hour of privacy. The Saint Valentine Comfort, it was called.
I tried to put my hand through the window — I mean pass through it like a moonbeam, not shatter it — and found it solid to me. Something was keeping me here.
Bending my vulture head down, I made the floor-litter transparent to my eyes. Beneath the layer of newspaper were the Oriental trigrams and isosceles triangles, a circle inscribed with a pentacle. A calling circle.
That meant that Lorelei had not called me up that first time. I had been being pulled toward this pawn shop here, and my memories of her and hers for me had blown me offcourse like a ship snatched by a gale as it was about to enter the harbor. But then why had she been here?
As I put my hand down, a sense of warmth, of pleasure tingled through my claw-fingers. I had accidentally brushed against a small golden tray of wafers, each one small as a silver dollar, resting on the sill right under the We Sell Go_d! sign.
All numbness was gone. My imaginary bones were straight. My body stopped hurting, just like that. The pain was gone. I could no longer envision nor imagine myself as wounded.
In fact, looking at my hands, they seemed like a young man’s hands, like I remember them back when I played football in school, or toted a rifle in Normandy. Strong hands. No nicotine stains in the fingers. No scars on the knuckles.
I was nude without being naked, for I was clothed in a warm light that shined from my pores. But then I pulled my clothing, shoes and fedora and trenchcoat out of my memory, and found myself dressed in that.
What had I touched? Before I recalled that I could not touch anything, I picked up a little disk of bread and held it up to the light from the window. It was a communion wafer. There was a little cross in the surface and the letters INRI. I never did know who Inri was, or why his or her name was written over images of Christ on the cross. Must have been some early disciple or something.
One moment, I was holding the wafer and looking at it, and the next, when I remembered that I was a shade, it slipped through my fingers — and I mean through my fingers — and it floated for a moment, and fell against the window as if caught by a freak gust, laying flat, and sliding downward. At the same moment, the neon sign it brushed against flickered and went dark, and the streetlamp outside burned out.
The only light now was inside, from the candles on the dead man’s fingers and the glow-in-the-dark blind eels trapped in the ceiling tank. It made the window into an impromptu mirror.
In that mirror, I could see the hooded Friar on the throne of iron bones behind me. His sunglasses were now turned toward me, and the sutured-open grin had widened. He was alive. Or, at least, able to move.
I turned. The real one in the room with me seemed dead enough.
I looked back at the reflection. He smiled and nodded in a genial fashion, like he was my favorite uncle, and he opened his glove. In the palm was a little white dot of silver light that I somehow knew, the way you know things in dreams you cannot possibly know, that the planet Venus was in his hand. He was holding the Morning Star.
“Neat trick,” I said.
I was not sure which way to face. I decided on facing the motionless corpse. I figured that if something was going to hurt me, that was the direction it would come from.
Then he spoke in a voice like a silver violin and the music of his words came from the reflection in the dark glass. I spun back that direction, startled.
“You are come to us because you are broken,” he said. “We fix all things.”
“What are you?”
“As we said. We fix things. Did you not see the signs?”
“What is your name?”
“It was blotted from the book of life. There is no name to say.”
“If I can’t say your name, what the hell am I supposed to call you?”
Again with the iron-toothy grin. “Fixer.”
I stood there, thunderstruck. Sly had been right about that, all along.
I moved and put my imaginary back to the iron maiden, where I could keep both the dead Friar and his reflection in my angle of view. He was not just cold, he was like the South Pole. The cold was coming both from the corpse and the reflection, like a crosswind.
I don’t know how much, if any, heat I was giving off. I was cold compared to a human, but I was not absolute zero. I assume mine was like an echo or a memory of heat, embers from a newly-dead fire, but he was hungry for it. This cold was like something wanting to eat up all the heat in the universe. The South Pole? Maybe the South Pole of Pluto, or some smaller world with no name that wandered away from its orbit and is falling forever and ever in the unending blackness between the stars.
But this was something much worse than merely a clever Warlock running a crime ring, or some ambitious were-seal from Atlantis. Even the heavy hitters in the Big League, figures of strong and ancient dread like Baba Yaga and the Headless Horseman and the Wolf of the Mist and Gaberlunzie the King’s Beggar, all of them were small potatoes compared to this.
“Quite a collection you’ve got here,” I said.”What are you? A devil worshipper”?
“Not at all. Let others worship! We merely see things as they should be seen, and bow the knee to none. Is liberty such a vice?”
Suddenly feeling nervous, I stepped back to the window. I did not like being near the reflection, but the little wafers of bread were like a campfire in the sub-zero cold. I picked one up, but it was slippery, as if unfelt little winds were trying to pluck it out of my hand. I found that it would come to rest on my right palm if I cupped my left hand beneath my right and support it. Like a two handed grip on a gun. The warmth beat on my chin and face, making me dizzy.
“This is a little out of place,” I said. “Why the communion bread? I can tell it has not been desecrated.”
This time the corpse in the real room did move. Like the reflection, he lifted his glove, and I saw he held a star in his hand. Smiling beneath his blind sunglasses, the hooded head now nodded toward the window, and part of the neon sign flickered to life for a moment, and then died again.
“We sell god,” he said.
Of course. The act of selling the Host desecrated it. There was a special word for that. Simonry? Simonism? Zionism? Thomism? Something like that.
Maybe I should have paid more attention to catechism class back when I was an altar boy. But Sly had always known about that kind of stuff. I had been the go-to guy for Romani lore, Voodoo practices, and legends from the Catskills. Maybe, thinking back, I had relied on him for a lot of things.
A worm of thought stirred in my brain again, reminding me how much I hated him.
“What is this ‘we’ stuff?” I said. “You got lice?”
The hooded moved back and forth as the figure shook its head. “You ask not rightly.”
I wondered what the ‘rightly’ way to ask was supposed to be. “How many of you are there?”
“Many. We are Legion.”
“What the hell—?”
“Indeed and well said! We are many. Many have we absorbed, and each screaming relic still trembles and suffers inside us. We are Hell. Hell is us, nor do we escape it. Numberless souls boil and burn inside us, and are consumed, and ever consumed, and none shall pluck them ever from my hungry, grisly jaws.”
He opened his mouth wide. He had no tongue, but spikes and thorns coated every inner surface of his mouth and throat. His throat was glowing as if he had swallowed a red coal.
Then his breath, which was strangely dry and warm and putrid, struck my face, and in the breath, I heard, dimly as in a nightmare, the screams and sobs and moans and cries of piercing, sad despair, men and women and children, and all voices filled with fear and cursing and purest hate. It was the children’s voices that were the worst.
“Shut your damned mouth!” I shouted, putting my head down to my hands, trying to breathe in the odor of the circle of bread, so that I would not pass out.
“None can close the throat of Hell,” he smirked. “Shall we now to business?”
“What do you want, Fixer?”
“To fix you. You are broken. Has not the sacrament of confession rejected you, ignited you, tormented you, and cast you away? No healing comes from there. To the dead, that door is shut; the dead are never risen again.”
“I hate riddles. Speak plain. What do you want from me?”
“Nay. Ask instead what it is you want. We shall be generous to grant. Liberty. Freedom. We are the prince of freethinkers.”
Against my better judgment, I was curious what he had to say. “You are babbling, Fixer! Liberty from what?”
“Prison. You cannot depart this world until your unfinished business here is done.”
He nodded, and the streetlamp across the way came back to life, so that his reflection vanished. “She is drawn back to that house of adultery by memory even as you are. Here she first broke her marriage vow. Here she first betrayed you.”
“You’re lying. She was always faithful.”
“Faithful to her womanhood! My snake coupled with Eve beneath the tree of carnal knowledge, and all her daughters are like unto her. It was with your partner’s love warm pulsing inside her loins when she went back to the office to return the bottles of pills she had stolen. You see, she used them each time to remove the memory, and so remove the guilt. Each time she thought it was a first time, and that made the lure of breaking the law all the more delicious.”
“He resisted at first, because he loves her — because his lust for her burns deeply. But he is a stupid man, and no match for her wiles.”
I wondered what that hesitation had been, that catch in his throat. Could he even make mistakes? Or was everything an act? But no one outwits the devil’s lies. I was out of my depth.
“I want to go,” I said sullenly. “Now.”
“Your will is of no matter,” he smiled, keeping his lips together. “You cannot depart from this world until your business here is done. Twice you have been told that you are broken. Now a third time we say it. Ask of us what we shall give you?”
It took me a moment to puzzle out that last sentence. “You mean you are going to do me a favor?”
He did not even bother to snort at that. He merely turned the dark eye-shapes of the sunglasses toward me with a sardonic tilt of his head.
“A bargain, then,” I said slowly. “A deal with the devil. Those usually turn out badly.”
“Why have you not passed beyond, then? What keeps you in this sad world of suffering and absurdity? You are chained here. Chained to a few spots. What do they all cry out for you to do, that you may rest?”
Which spots? Here in the pawn shop, because I had been called here. The street outside, while Lorelei was there. The place where I was shot, not long after I was shot. The place where I was buried, quite a long time before I was buried. I shook my head. “I don’t see a pattern.”
“But I forgive her.”
“Her?” And he smiled. “Who speaks of her?”
“You mean Sly? He did not shoot me.”
The hooded figure raised a finger (the hand that was not holding the star) and pointed. I looked, and made the wall transparent. There he was. I could see Sly walking down the street in his long coat. The collar was up and his head was down, as if he were hoping no one would notice his face. He was not wearing that ugly, oversized hat he was so proud of.
The Fixer said, “The gas main is under the hotel is leaking, and the basement filled with fumes. There is a tiny stone, a bit of flint, which fell long ago from some ill-fitted crate, and there is the broken blade of a knife which snapped off in a man’s ribs and lodged in the wall there. Look. You can see them.”
And I could. I could see through the street and the basement wall to where he pointed.
“You have the power,” he said. “Ask the flint to raise itself up and strike the steel, and there will be a spark. One spark is all that is needed now.”
“I don’t want to kill him…” I said. But it tasted like a lie in my mouth.
“He will be as you are now. Is that so bad? And do you know, ah, do you know why he is here? He forgot his hat. In the room, in the dark, when he clutched her beautiful and sweating hot body in his arms, when they rutted like swine in heat, grunting, and he poured his sperm into her in a vast, hot, stiff explosion, a joy lost now to you forever. He took no pills. He remembers. And with your death, he is free to enjoy her and use her and spew his seed into her as he might spit into a spittoon on the floor, until the amusement of plundering you of yours is weariness to him. Is this not cause enough to kill? It is justice. The scale is unbalanced. Strike! Strike the flint against the steel! And you shall be whole!”
I pointed my finger. The communion wafer fell to the floor, unnoticed. The cold came into me and gave me strength. In the distance, through the cloudy surface of the street, the tangle of underground plumping and buried cables, through the brick and mortar, I could see it as clearly as the room I was in. Or maybe I was there, in two places at once. Or maybe I was nowhere. What did it matter? But I saw the flint lift up, and poise, trembling.
Hesitation stopped me. “What about the other people in the hotel? Asleep?”
The Fixer stood up. He was very tall, I would guess seven feet, ten inches. “Adulterers and panderers! All are guilty. As prince of this world, we give you permission to execute them. They are Sons of Adam, all guilty, and deserve never again to see the hideous light of the terrible day again. We decree it, and we acknowledge none to be superior to us, to gainsay our word, nor say us nay. Strike!”
The flint was still hanging by itself in a dark basement room, and meanwhile Sly had entered the hotel, crossed the lobby where a single bulb burned, and had jostled awake the sleepy night clerk at the front desk.
I looked back at the Fixer. “What do you get out of this, Fixer?”
“Your prey will escape you, if you hesitate. Strike now!”
The Fixer was right. The night clerk had the hat with other little items in a box labeled Lost And Found right there in the cloakroom next to the front desk. Sly, now with his oversized foolish-looking hat on his head, was coming out of the hotel. He was not quite out of blast range. There was only one other figure on the street, a dumpy, slow-moving shape, ambling slowly in the other direction.
“Answer me, Fixer,” I said sharply.
The slow-moving shape must have been a woman, for Sly tipped his hat as she shuffled past. It was dark, and way after midnight, and so she crossed the street to avoid him, coming toward me. Maybe she was outside the blast radius. Maybe not. I had no way to know, but now, right now, was my last opportunity.
It was a little thing. Such a little thing. But I knew him. I knew his every gesture.
They say that not everyone who goes to services gets into heaven. I am pretty sure most don’t. But some do. Some change.
Sly had come across the dead body of a man who had — let’s be frank with this now — I rode him pretty hard some times. Okay, all the time. And maybe he put more money into the till than I did, and maybe I should not have been so skinflinted about spending it. Half was his, wasn’t it?
But he deserved to die, sure. Sort of. Because Rory was mine. Wasn’t she?
We had known each other since altar boys, when he saved me from the Adolfo brothers. Two against one, bigger kids from the bigger school found me in the park and had me pinned against the wall, and all the other kids stood around, watching. Without asking, Sly Steel just jumped in. He evened up the odds.
We grew up together. We fought together, and also fought against foes together. Then he saw me dead, and it finally sunk into his thick skull that he was mortal, too. And maybe he listened to Father Pat and blind Father Donovan, or went into the belltower where Sister Oona’s voice still lingered, and listened to her sing.
I knew him.
He always tipped his hat at the pretty young ladies. Never at the old ones.
“It is supposed to be a bargain, right, Fixer?” I shouted the words.
I could clearly see the flint, hanging in the air, underground, across the street, more than fifty yards away. The whole underground area there was filled up with flammable gas. The hotel would go up like a blockbuster bomb. I wanted to see it, wanted to see the flames. That was the part of the war I missed. I wanted to see it. But something was stopping me. It was as if a bird had pecked up that little wormy thought telling me to hurry. I wanted to hurry — but —
Damn it. I was a gumshoe, even after I had bought the damned farm. I wanted answers. I wanted to live in a world that made sense.
“Talk!” I shouted louder. “So what is your cut?”
“A mote of food for our endless famine,” came the voice like a raft of violins.
“What the hell does that mean? What do you gain if I kill him?”
“The increase of our kingdom! If he dies now, Hell eats one more soul.”
You know, if the Fixer had just said it to me straight, one right guy to another, if you kill him now you go to eternal torture, but then again so does he, and he never touches your girl again — had he said that, I would have said some unprintable four-letter anglosaxon word, and struck with the flint, and let that have been the last thing I ever said, before screaming and screaming for eternity.
I would have done it. I would have. I was that close.
Because it seemed worth it to me, see? It was all worth the price.
But no, the Fixer had to play it smart-alecky. His kind always does. He wanted me to shed my partner’s blood so that I would break one of those Commandments (I forget which one. The Fifth? Or is that the one against self-incrimination?) and ruin my conscience and give away my soul for free, and get nothing in return but pain. Some bargain.
One more soul into Hell meant me, not Sly. Not two souls. Sly had changed.
It was clear. Now he was the kind of guy who tipped his ugly hat to ugly old broads, even the kind who crossed the street to avoid him. Maybe he would be a regular churchgoing, prayer-saying old stiff, rotary club, all that jazz. Maybe he would be a force for good. Maybe that is what the Fixer did not want.
And maybe, if he played by the Marquis of Queensbury rules and not like an old back alley brawler like me, a dimwitted but goodhearted psychic private eye like Sly would get more help from stronger powers than I could call. There was a part of the twilight world loyal to the coming dawn, after all. Twilight works both ways.
And maybe — now I was getting a glimpse of the future — maybe Old Sly was sly enough to fix the Fixer.
Not fix him for good and all. No human could do that. But get him out of a few lives? Drive him out of a neighborhood? Stranger things had happened.
I stopped pointing at the flint, and instead put my hand on the only thing in the room I knew I could pick up, the only thing that might hurt him — the plate of communion wafers. I threw the whole plateful in a spray of white bread right at him.
It did nothing. I could feel the bread go cold as it all flew fluttering threw the air. That was not something he was doing. I had done it. You cannot toss the precious body of Christ at someone like it was a grenade. I had desecrated the host. The little pure white disks of bread, like a handful of spinning coins, bounced off the Fixer’s brown robe, and fell to the newspaper and butcher paper on the dirty floor.
“You think you can escape?” He drew off his sunglasses and smiled.
It was the most horrible sight, that empty smile, what he had instead of eyes, that face. It was pure misery, superhuman hate and emptiness and loathing. I would have eaten a whole bottle of those damned elf pills to get that sight out of my eyes, out of my brain, out of my soul.
“You think you can reform?” he said gently. “Go, then! For a year, for a hundred years, for a thousand! Your craving to kill him, he who has taken everything from you, will not diminish. You are no longer trapped in time. Let a million years of your time pass, and come back here, to this moment, now. We will preserve this moment for your use. We will place a charmed circle around it. The fire will be waiting. Look.”
A freak gust of wind snatched Sylvester’s hat off his head. With a curse, he trotted after it, then ran, then sprinted, as the hat jumped and hopped and soared just out of his reach. The hat landed just on the doorstep of the hotel. Sylvester trotted up the stairs….
He was right over the buried gasoline tank the hotel used for a small diesel generator in the basement. That tank would also go up like a bomb if the basement full of flammable fumes went up.
I stepped into the timelessness. The scene grew misty, like a pane of rippling glass were now in the way. The voice of the Fixer, more beautiful than the voice of any woman, was dim, but clear.
“No ghost can depart to his judgment when undone tasks, unsated passions, unfulfilled desires, chain him to the world where we are prince and primate. Flee as far as you can. The light will not receive you. There is no place, no time, no where to go but back to this place, now.”
I shouted back at him, “You are damned wrong, Fixer! And damned! I can turn over a new leaf—”
“Mortal men can do that. For you, it is too late. Too late to confess, too late to repent, too late to start a new life. You have no life in you.”
I dove straight down to get away from him.
His voice followed me, silvery, fair words, like music. And that face. I could still see it inside my head, growing larger and clearing in my imagination. Soon I would lose the ability to envision or see any other thing, and my face would look like that face, too. The pain of having all your skin burned away was nothing compared to that face. Those eyes.
He took so much simple, idiotic, empty and innocent joy at my misery, such childlike joy, I had to feel joy at my misery too, and so I hungered for misery and despair to eat me into an ever smaller burnt-out nub, a shadow that shrank and shrank, encountering ever more pain as it crushed itself into ever smaller volumes, smaller than a speck, smaller than a microbe, smaller than an atom. And still I would consume myself and dwindle in misery — but never find an end, never enter the peace of oblivion.
As I swam, I could feel the tugging, towing, hauling, heaving, wrenching sensation trying ever to pull me back, back to the moment where Sly waited for me to kill him. Back toward that face.
That was just once glance in a dim light, from across the room, while his features were overshadowed by a hood. What if I saw him clearly, brightly, in his throneroom of fire?
The moaning and sobbing I heard was my own voice.
That scared me all the more. Because it sounded like something from a cheap horror movie, or even a comedy, one where Abbott and Costello meet a ghost. All those moans you hear about, which the straight man thinks is the wind, and the clown thinks is the dead walking the earth? I now knew what caused those moans.
And I could not make myself stop. I could not remember or imagine what silence would sound like.
The first thing I did was look for was that tunnel of light I had turned my back on during the moment I was shot. If only I had not looked back, looked down at where Lorelei was hugging my corpse, crying out with grief and regret at what she had done — If I had not looked back, surely I would have just soared up.
But that was the funny thing. No direction here in this sea was up. If I went what I thought was upward, the images of the mortal time grew strong and clear, and I was at the surface again. Where was that light? How had I lost it?
Next I tried to find Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. If I could get back into the confessional booth, even if the angel burned me, I could confess, and get clean, and somehow the priest would show me the tunnel of light …
There! An image of the Cathedral when she was young, in a city before the electric light cracked the night, and her spires reached to the stars. I raced for the vision.
And bounced off, thrown back by some unseen force. I tried again and again. It was like trying to push the south ends of two bar magnets together, if the magnets just got stronger the more you pushed. I was a bird battering myself against a soft and sticky windowpane. It was like wrestling in quicksand. It was like trying to break a bad habit: you think that maybe this time you can resist, and then … nope. It was like trying to cure sin.
Over and over again, I dove down, sometimes really deep, and came up in another place. I tried to find some childhood memory that could carry me back into the past, or some vision of the future. I tried to find my honeymoon, the first man I killed in combat, my graduation, my confirmation, my first paycheck for delivering papers when I was a kid, and my brother Al clapped me on the back and called me a man. There are some days you just don’t forget.
But somehow, I had forgotten them. I tried to see the faces of people I knew, someone else to whom to say a farethewell, someone else I hated and wanted to haunt. Anything. Any excuse. Any face.
The only face I saw was the face of misery. His face.
I could not break the surface. The Fixer had fixed it. There was no entry into the world of living, except where and when he wanted me.
In desperation, I turned and dove as deep as I could, to the point where I was past the prophets and the madness, past the eternal visions of myth.
I do not know how long I was there, moaning, and seeing an face inside my mind. I said a prayer. I could only mouth and gasp the words, because the moaning was controlling my lips and lungs.
No, not the Paternoster. Not the Memorare. It was impromptu, and it went like this: Jeezus! Jesus, save me! Save my damned soul, damn it! Fer chrissake, get me out of this, Christ!
Surely the worst prayer ever. But I meant every word.
I saw a glint of light and swam toward it.
Here came images from the mythic memory of mankind. But in one and one place only, they were different. The image of a mythical and timeless event were linked by rays of light like a tree to specific events that happened at specific places in the mortal world. It was like a road or a path — or a tunnel — reaching from the deep parts of eternity, far too far for me to reach, up to the mortal time. It was a pathway or pillar spanning the whole deep of the sea from the surface to the bottomlessness.
The dreams grew thick about me as I approached the path of light. I saw two trees, one white as chalk with silver fruit, one black as pitch with luscious fruit and red, guarded by a freakish shape like an ever twisting snake with wings of bronze, and along all its length, and in every feather, eyes that shot lightning. In the hands of the snake was a two-edged sword that twisted and darted in every direction, but the tip was broken off, so that the point was square and blunt. I saw a barge like a huge box, covered over with a roof, wallowing in stormy sea, up and down waves that passed like walking mountains, and uprooted trees, scattered roofs and livestock, and endless acres of corpses, of women and children and giants, floated in the waves. I saw an empty tomb.
Toward this last I turned and rose. I came to the surface in mortal time. Nothing barred my way.
Next to the empty tomb was a man in white.
The robe was whiter than any washerwoman of earth could have cleaned any cloth. It shined like the sun. When I stared at his face, I gradually came to remember what a human face looked like.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” he asked me. “Why are you a dead among the living, seeking?”
“I have unfinished business,” I said. “I need saving. My soul needs saving. My soul is all I have, now, at the moment. And my soul is wounded, it is forgetting, it is rotting from the inside. I need a savior. Is there a Mr. Christ around? First name, Jesus?”
“He is not here. He is risen,” said the angel.
“I believe in Him. Sort of. I’d like to believe in Him. Can I make an appointment or something?”
“Now is the appointed time. Kneel.”
So, who am I to argue with Gabriel or whoever? I knelt. I saw what being too proud to kneel made you into. I saw what face you wore if you went that way.
“Confess your sin.”
“But I have not done anything wrong! I’ve already forgiven Rory for shooting me! It actually did not hurt that much, and —”
I had to throw both hands before my face. The angel’s face had grown too bright to look at. This was someone more complex than a guardian angel. This was an archangel. It was not just a bolt of lighting, but an intricate symphony of lighting, of pure light, the divine powers blazing with all the colors of the spectrum, and the million other colors human eyes never see, beyond infrared and ultraviolet, all the way from radio waves to cosmic rays, each one more beautiful than the next.
I realized what was happening. He was not getting brighter. I was getting darker.
“Forgive me! For I have sinned!” I cried in desperation.
The whole story poured out of me. “My unit was shipped home before his. She had heard somewhere — I don’t remember, a rumor printed in the paper, or from Madame Zhulyi the gypsy — that his unit was wiped out to the last man. On Normandy Beach. I did not know it was not true. I did not know for sure! He COULD have been dead!”
There was only one way to make it so I did not go blind. “I thought he was maybe alive. So I lied. Wouldn’t you lie to marry a girl like Rory? She was the prettiest, the smartest, and the most smart-mouthed. She knew how to clean a gun and where to bury a vampire so it could not get up again. And that hair! Those eyes! She was the best we had, the prettiest. And — and — Do I really got to say this out loud? Can’t I just tell God privately in my heart?”
“Aren’t you the broken record, then? I lied to get the girl. She married me. When Sly showed up — she had always loved him. The stupid, dumb, strong, honest guys. A guy she could wrap around her little finger. But she stuck with me. Sly never complained. I gave him a job, and that was so I could rub his nose it in a little. Him with all his medals, more than mine, and his good grades in school, higher than mine, but in the civilian life, in the real world, I was the boss, see? He could not spend a dime without my say-so — and — and —”
I opened my eyes again. The angel was no longer blinding.
“And I am the bad guy here. I was the one keeping them apart. I could have sweet talked her out of pulling the trigger. Didn’t try. In a way, that makes it suicide after all. Don’t it?”
The angel said, “Why did you buy the insurance? It was more than you could afford.”
My imaginary mouth felt dry. “Guilt. A wedding gift to them for after my death. I lived a dangerous life. I fought monsters and I mouthed off to elves. I knew I was going to die. I knew she would go back to him. Childhood sweethearts, right? And I knew I could never have children, not after I mouthed off to that fertility goddess, and told her to take her best shot. She always wanted children.”
“Even as you are now, you could have spoken to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Why did you not?” The angel’s tone was gentler now.
He was asking why I had not told the Judge, or Father Donovon, or anyone I knew could see ghosts exactly who had shot me. It was as hard as pulling a tooth without Novocaine to get the words out of my mouth.
“I had already ruined her life. I did not want to ruin it more. Some detective, huhn? I want my murder never to be solved. And my sin is envy. Jealousy. Anger. Even dead, I still wanted to possess the one woman I could never possess. Why does he get to have her? Why? She’s no angel. He’s not perfect. Why does he get to be the hero, and get the girl, and have a happy ending?”
“Because he desires not to possess her but to be possessed. He conquers by surrender, and by dying, he lives. So too does your lord. So too should you. Look backward at your life. You are head down, and see things reversed. Did you not die to save her life, your wife?”
I suddenly knew why the timelessness seemed always to be downward to me. I had put mortal time, the human world, above me when I turned back. I had turned back to see her hugging me as I died. I was like Lot’s wife, who turned and look and got cursed. I was looking down and it became up. I put my sight of her above my sight of the light calling me, and the light winked out.
I knew that if I stepped into the timelessness now, I would no longer be sinking below the surface of time, but breaking the surface. That is, if somehow the curse of Lot’s wife were lifted from me.
I waited, but the angel said nothing.
“Well?” I said impatiently. “I confessed my sins and now I’m sorry. I promise never to marry my best friend’s best girl again, if it ever comes up.”
The angel looked at me with fathomless eyes.
“So? Then can I be absolved?”
Now he spoke. The angel looked surprised, even shocked. “I have not that authority! Who is like unto God? Not I!”
I jumped to my feet, sputtering in anger, and the dust swirled about me, and rocks trembled, reminding me what kind of ghost I was. “What? You can’t absolve me? But you are an angel!”
“And I am no Son of Man.”
“Great! So I am the villain of this story, and I get to go to hell? I was hoping for —”
“For what do you hope, Son of Adam?”
“I was kind of hoping each man would be the hero in his own life. A tragic hero, if he goes bad, or a happy one. But not just cursed from the start.”
“All men are cursed from the start.”
“Great! What kind of stupid universe is this! I could have made it better!”
“You could have, but chose not to.”
“Men are Sons of Adam. He is father and first and king of your kind. His is your law, and you cannot make yourself not to be his child by any power of yours.”
“So how do I get my happy ending, if you can’t absolve my sins?”
“Get thee to Simon, son of Jonas, or some other of the Eleven at this same day at evening, in the City of David, at the end of the street called Straight. Then the Lord shall appear even in their midst, and grant them his peace, and breathe on them, and with his breath they shall become living souls. Then shall he say, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. They do not have it yet. Then shall he say, Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. Without these words are spoken, no sins would be forgiven. For this reason was the lamb of God slain.”
“Uh, what? I thought it was to take away the sins of the world.”
“Your ears are heavy.” Angels can be very polite. He was telling me I was a moron, and that he had just said that.
“How will I find the way? This city, and that street? Which building? Is there a number?”
“Your eyes are slow,” he said, and he pointed. I looked, and, in the distance, I saw a great multitude of ghosts, dozens and scores and hundreds and then half a thousand, all walking and dancing and flying through the air. I saw more in that one moment that all the ghosts in all my cases put together. They were filled with joy, and they seemed to be clear and plain in the daylight, so that their loved ones could see them. They were all headed the same direction.
He picked up a staff that was on the ground next to him. I found, to my surprise, that I could touch and hold it. I realized I had a long journey ahead of me, and even imaginary feet can get tired.
“Thank you,” I said. “But one last question, only one — why was all this necessary? Why did he have to die? Why did I have to die?”
“Unless you die, you cannot live again. Unless the Son of Man dies and lives again, he cannot breathe a new soul into an empty soul.”
“Then the whole thing, the torture and the confusion and devil and the murder — all the pain, and the death — the whole thing was so that he could say those words? Whose sins you remit are remitted? That is what Easter is?”
But the angel must have thought I meant it when I said I had only one last question, for he was gone, and did not answer my other questions. No matter. I know the answers now.
On I went, seeking forgiveness. I was dead, but it was not too late.
* * *
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan that moves
To the pale realms of shade, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one that wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
— Thanatopsis, William Cullen Bryant (1821)