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When Stars Die by Alec Bryan

When Stars Die by Alec Bryan

Fiction, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009

§”When Stars Die” is Part II of IV of a novel; Part I, “The Tugs and Pulls of Existence,” appeared in Prick of the Spindle Vol. 3.2. Read it here.

After the restless night of wobbling back and forth in a somnambulistic state, perched on a branch swarming with fireflies—the only light it could find—the creature, groggy in its mind but feeling a vital energy pulsing through its body for having made it to morning, took to the sky. Rather than trying to pass over the formidable western mountains and once more risk the nausea of high altitudes, and rather than backtracking into the dark woods of its infancy and youth, it deemed it best to attempt crossing the large, meandering river to see what verdant pastures might lie there and what frolicsome humanity could be dispersed eastward. It moved on, impassioned by its peculiar desire to impart humanity with the message of the old man’s struggle, to find light at the heart of unnecessary suffering.

The creature had not flown long before it came across a crass-looking man. The man’s demeanor and appearance revealed all the customary accoutrements of a vagabond: unkempt clothing, an unruly air, unclean skin, a miasmal stench, tarnished nubs for teeth, one silver and one gory-colored orb for eyes, and on top, a silly tuft of hair harboring smack dab in the middle of his otherwise hairless pate which acted like a giant weathervane, letting all know which way the wind blew, and as an act of providence, perhaps, letting all know which way to stand so as not to be downwind from him. Barring such blaring indicators of an invidious disposition, the creature, attempting to discern light rather than judge physical attributes, and seeking the comfort of conversation more than anything, assayed the man as suitable for such chatter.

What naiveté on the creature’s part, for not only was the man affected by a duality of personalities which would cause him one moment to sound refined, educated, even poetic and the next moment crass and vulgar, emotions which came and went as randomly as the flipping of a coin, but a human being would have noticed foremost the man’s blind right eye with the pupil, grey as a fish scale, coated with mucus, and a human would have shunned such a person from their social network based on appearance. Clearly, the creature had not, as of yet, been indoctrinated into the world’s standard of judgment, and so it fluttered near the man and with childlike temerity, sought to catch his attention.

In full gait, the man noticed the creature and with a perspicuous glance upwards, he raised one corner of his upper lip, creating a semi-scowl. Before the creature could retreat, which is what it wished to do after realizing the man’s appearance might replicated his demeanor, the man perfunctorily asked: “What do you want, vermin?”

Unaccustomed to vituperative language, the creature remarked with meekness that it wished to cross the river and wondered what route was best. The crass man told the creature he too was crossing the river, but rather than pay the toll and use the crowded ferry, he served as his own coxswain and captain in a tiny makeshift raft he had constructed out of fallen timbers, and if the creature so desired, it could join him. “I just so happen to have one seat left for a creature of your size,” mumbled the man sportively.

This magnanimity of heart and joking nature of the unkempt man offset his initial disagreeable demeanor, which demeanor, the creature now viewed as a simple ploy to keep people at a distance. Even so, the creature did not immediately answer the man’s generous proposal. It had not decided on a proper course of action as of yet and needed time to think. Naturally, it feared to upset the man by being rude, but it also wanted to keep its options open, and as of yet, the man omitted neither discernible light nor darkness. Worried that the silence had gone on too long and that not responding would be mistaken as a rejection, the creature told the unkempt man it was grateful for the offer but would refrain from a decision until it could see the river. Grumbling, the man exclaimed, “Suit yourself, but I offered it.”

The unkempt man continued to converse with the creature by asking where it had come from and what it had been doing. In its zeal to express the singularity of the old man it had been assisting, the creature commenced a lengthy dissertation on its past few months. With alacrity, it explained how the old man was digging a hole so deep in an effort to find light on the other side or the fire at the center. As the creature explained its enterprise of the past few months, the man’s gait slowed, and his body in a brisk motion raised and turned towards the creature as it described the old man. Of a sudden, and in a peculiar manner, the unkempt man stopped the creature mid-sentence with a jarring laugh accompanied by a halting wave of his hand. “Please stop. Please stop,” the man begged with both his voice and hand pleading as his midsection rumbled in flabbergasted convulsions. The man stayed hunched over, and each time he tried to compose himself, another fit of laughter would afflict him.

“You know this man I take it,” said the creature, flummoxed, but wishing to understand what the man could possibly find so hilarious. The unkempt man finally gathered his composure. He looked up at the creature and still with a wry smile upon his tar-stained teeth stated: “Oh yes, I believe I have made acquaintance with this man; with this so called ‘digger of metaphysical holes.’”

He explained to the creature how the old man had long been known around town as insane, as somewhat of a village idiot. “You mean to tell me, creature, you have been assisting the gravedigger’s son? This was your venerable task?”

The creature did not respond to the unkempt man’s derisive talk. For that matter, the unkempt man did not expect the creature to say anything, for he sallied forth and continued to poke fun of an obvious sore spot with the creature.

After the unkempt man finished having fun at the creature’s expense, by mocking the old man’s method of digging holes, he began telling the creature of others who found the old man about as “smart as a sack of rocks,” as he was fond of saying, and he told of those who had grown angry with him.

“Many a townsfolk have sought redress after they happened to stumble upon and fall into one of the crazy man’s abandoned and hazardous pits that pock the land. One such seeking redress is our town drunk. True, perhaps he is not the most trustworthy adversary of the old man, but no doubt, he did not fake the following incident, and no doubt, the old man is at fault.

On this particular night I speak of, our town drunk could be found riveted to his usual seat at the end of the bar. And he could be found, as usual, with his stomach of steel, rhythmically draining shots of heavy liquor and washing them down with a beverage of malt. Well, when it came time for the saloon to close, the bartender sent the town drunk on his way to stumble into any open barn door he could find where he could curl up in the hay to sleep the night away. Only this night, he so happened to be walking to his abode under a moonless sky, with an inebriated shuffle—mind you—when he stumbled into one of the gravediggers son’s pits. He began his fall into the abysmal black and in despair screamed out: ‘Hell hath enlarged herself and opened her mouth without measure, and I, unwittingly, have thrown myself into her gaping jowls.’

No sooner had he yelled out such drunken gibberish, says he, than he brutally bespattered the bottom with his broken body. He lay there all night, cold and in agony. When they found him the next morning he lay unconscious. They did not think he would live. He had suffered two broken legs, a shattered pelvis, three cracked ribs, and to this day he suffers from incessant headaches and spells of dizziness because of the fall. Fortunately, the only slight remedy for his malady was and is alcohol. However, this man does not find the digging of such pits laudatory, nor does he believe one might break through such a hard, cold crust, and find light or life at the bottom, for he felt the brutal reality of that destitute, dark, and cold place when his body crashed against it, and he does not wish to ever see such a hole again.”

The unkempt man continued. “If the tale were to end there, then perhaps, the town drunk would not seek redress, but this is not the worst of it, creature. The poor man no longer feels safe stumbling through any open field or along the corridors of a dark alley. Because of his fall, he has set his parameters for life within the small town, and the time frame for living within the day. The man feels hedged in. Now, he only gets drunk when the sun is up. Can you fathom just how degrading it is for this drunkard, this wild man who loves to roam the streets at night, to howl at the moon in inebriated moans, can you fathom what it costs him to have to be escorted, in the day, to an open barn door and then laid down in the hay like a child? And all of this caused by your old man and his frenetic mind which deemed it a good idea to burrow down into the dirt. But rest assured, vermin, the town drunk does think of your old man. Oh yes. He dreams of bumping into the mentally-deranged gravedigger’s son, so he can usher in a period of bruised darkness for him as well. Unfortunately, such a meeting has not as yet transpired, but if the town drunk ever, or many others who share his sentiments ever, come across your venerable old man, they would greet him with a lot more than a smile, if you know what I mean. They would put that loose dirt and empty pit to good use.”

The unkempt man laughed a little and then checked himself before he began another fit of hysterics. The creature did not like to hear such rubbish spoken about the old man, and it would not allow the man to continue to jeer and mock it any longer. The creature pleaded for the man to stop. The unkempt man turned to the creature with hatred spilling from his different-colored eyes and said, “Why should I not speak of him in such a manner? He is my older brother after all. I am the one who takes the brunt of the town’s jokes on his behalf.” This latest revelation stunned the creature. It could not find the words to speak, but it would not have mattered anyways. The man ceased having his fun at the creature’s expense, having arrived at the banks of the river.

In the distance, the ferry sounded but could not be seen. The creature recognized the outline of a throng of workers lined up, awaiting its arrival. A sliver of fog clung to the river, and as the crowning sun gleamed through the fog, it shrouded the river in ghostly white. The man stumbled down the steep banks of the river and called to the creature, inviting it to join him once more. The river was wide and the creature’s wings were untested for such a long journey. The creature looked at the distant and outlined crowd it had wished to join once more, and it realized the tight quarters of the ferry and the crowd itself filled it with apprehension. The creature decided, as unruly as the man behaved, it had better join him. The man shoved off and became a shadow as the mist swallowed him and the boat. The creature flew into the mist and alighted upon the far end of the makeshift raft so as to face the man.

Once it lost sight of the shore, melancholy overcame the creature, striking deep within its abdomen. It had fond memories of the place it had just left, and it wondered if it was making the right decision by venturing on. Since abandoning the old man and the pit, the creature’s mind had been fixed upon exploring new areas, seeing foreign horizons, mingling with different people, and imparting the knowledge it had gained, but as it scurried onwards into the mist, doubt enshrouded the little creature, and it began to question its course of action. Perhaps the eerie feeling was a consequence of its current surroundings. For it was true the mist seemed to create an unreal atmosphere, accentuating and exacerbating the ghastly features of the man captaining the tiny raft. The thought of returning to the shore entered the creature’s mind, but the fear of losing its way in the thick mist impeded it from turning this into an action. The creature consigned itself to its fate. It would have to endure the remainder of the crossing with the unkempt man.

The creature looked across at the man and noticed a drastic change occurring within or upon him. The man’s features, already distorted due to impairments, waxed stronger in their ghastliness, and what had once appeared human to the creature now took on a demonic countenance in the impervious mist. This phenomenon was caused by nothing more than the sun disappearing behind a cloud, but the creature did not know this, and gullible to the fantastic as the innocent sometimes are, it believed the masked vagabond a ruse, a cover for this demon now appearing before its eyes. His ploy seemed simple enough: get the creature to tag along with it until no one could see the demon transform and devoured it. Precisely at this point, the demon released a nefarious laugh from deep within its gut, sending shivers down the very abdomen of the creature. “You grow scared, creature. I perceive it.”

The man’s gory eye flashed at the little creature. He lifted the long pole he had been using as an oar and switched sides with it, then dipped it back into the murky water.

The sun reappeared from behind the cloud, and the shadows distorting the man’s features fled, marking the reappearance of the plain vagabond. The creature began to relax again, realizing its blunder, but the man still fixed his stare upon the creature. The creature shifted around to avoid the seeing eye, but the man would not relinquish. Finally, with his good eye still fixed upon the creature, the man pointed to himself with his index finger, and lightly tapping upon his breast he said, “Do not fear me little one, nor let my outward aspect frighten you. I understand you, do I not? I speak to you, and when you speak to me, I hear what you say, do I not? It is those you will meet on the other side whom you should fear, creature. Sure, they may look normal, but they will not be able to understand you. They lack the capacity to discern the susurrations of your imperceptible heart.”

The man’s voice remained even keel except for the slight inflection each time he said, “I” or “me” or “they,” which words he accompanied by a heftier pound of his index finger to his breast. The unkempt man, beginning to reveal his dualistic nature, a nature which once revealed, rarely floundered back to acquiescence, but rather ran its course then fizzled out, began semi-pleading with the creature.

“You should turn back before it is too late. You embark upon a hopeless journey; I fear it will end badly for you.” Then the man’s mood shifted and he spoke happily. “But why all this negative talk, huh? You should have a good omen, not a bad omen from me.”

The man’s mood shifted again. With ferocious strokes from his open palm, the man began hitting himself on the forehead and kept repeating the words, “What is a good omen? What is a good omen?” The creature watched all this hem and haw of behavior and speech not knowing quite what to do or make out of this strange vagabond. He seemed to be possessed by archfiends both offensive and inoffensive.

With abruptness, the unkempt man ceased hitting himself and raised his head towards the creature with a new and sinister sparkle in his bloodshot eye. The unkempt man beseeched the creature to leave the stern and advance toward him. “Come closer fly. There is something I must give you.”

The creature did not dare budge. It was alarmed by the erratic behavior the man exhibited. And the disarming quality in the man’s voice seemed baiting. It sounded the way a little boy might sugar coat his pleading when he holds out a piece of meat to a dog he wishes to ensnare the second the dog comes near enough.

“Come closer, creature. I wish to bless you before you embark.”

The creature still did not budge. It sensed something off kilter behind the voice’s pleading, and the mist debilitated the creature’s ability to discern light. Light or no light, it wanted to trust him, and up unto this point, besides being moody, the man had done nothing to dissuade the creature from believing he would not behave according to his word. Rather than fly into some sort of trap, the creature questioned the man from where it perched. “What might you bless me with?”

“That I will not tell you. I only assure you, it might save you from the myriad sufferings you will face upon your journey. If you come closer—simpleton that I am—I assure you, I will impart upon you an invaluable gift. A gift any traveler, commencing their journey into the unknown, would be jealous and in need of. Even my brother, your friend, would approve of this gift.”

The honeysuckled words had the desired effect the unkempt man hoped for. The too-trusting creature suffered itself to be ensnared by the man’s offer. “Okay, I will accept your gift, but promise me this is not some sort of trap.”

The man told the creature what it wanted to hear. The creature flew towards the man and landed in front of him. “What is it you have to offer?”

The man scratched his stomach and then looked down at the creature. “Ah yes, my offering.” The man turned around and pretended to grab something from inside his tattered jacket. Truth be told, the unkempt man turned so he could dredge up as much phlegm and spittle as he could muster from his lungs and throat. He turned to the creature, fully loaded, and extended his cupped hand as if offering the gift. “Here is the gift I impart you with,” gurgled the man with his mouth closed and full.

As the unsuspecting creature drew near, the vagabond waited for the perfect moment, and when it came, he expectorated the entire mouthful of spit toward the creature. The spittle flew at the creature, ominous and dark as it approached, momentarily blocking out the sun. The viscous glob’s gravity forced it to stretch out thin in the middle with two discuses hurling at each end like a twirling baton. As the descent of a carnivorous raven circling above inert carrion, the slow-moving glob, spinning end over end, made its way to and hit the awed creature. The initial blow inundated the creature and sent it sprawling backwards along the deck. It landed sideways, completely drenched in a mucilaginous film. Stunned by both the velocity of the strike and the audacity of the man’s action, the creature could not move. The man’s nefarious laughter returned with vigor, and in a sacrilegious gesture, the unkempt man crossed himself then began spouting off, “I baptize you! By the authority of this Earth, I baptize you!”

The unkempt man remained hunched over the creature laughing, with spit still drizzling from the corners of his mouth, his offensive archfiend nature in total control by now. The fit of hysterics passed, and the man raised himself to full length, scratched his belly, and then started some cabalistic, pagan-looking dance, accompanied by a chant he kept repeating:

“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Best start out filthy. For in God we rust.”

The unkempt man shuffled his feet from side to side, and each time he said “rust,” he would lower his whole body near the planks of timber and point at a carving of two sheaves of wheat tied together with coiled grapevines. The intertwined wheat and grapevine, towards the base, transformed into two snakes. The natural inclination of the eye drifted to the two snakes’ jaws, dislocated and gaping at each other, revealing the venomous teeth—like each was about to attempt to swallow the other. The curvature of the snakes’ bodies formed a disconnected heart which almost touched at the point of the two gaping mouths. Impressed upon the dazed creature and pirouetting through its mind turned the peculiar thought the carving was not there when the two embarked upon the journey. The man must have been standing upon it, hiding it, thought the creature.

After reveling in his vulgar behavior, the man turned to the creature, stopped dancing, stood upon the carving to hide it once more and with the sternest of looks upon his face, stated: “I have baptized you with the foul water of this earth, little creature. Now—now—you are ready to embark upon your journey into this world. I have christened you with the filth of a world run amok with filthiness. Only now creature, will you be able to face the angry, crude, and miserable world and not dry heave, not vomit back in its face. This christening is a gift of inestimable value, creature. I hope you recognize its worth. ”

The man ended his words and then bowed his head in affected reverence.

The creature did not move. Its wings were sticky and the dust that kept them dry remained coated with the viscous spit. The creature kept trying to flap its wings to flip off the spit, but the process was slow going. It did not straightway ascend out of the waters of its baptism, so to speak. It took time and the monotonous effort of flinging the spit off the wings before the creature dried enough to fly. And as quickly as it could fly, it did. It landed on the outermost edge of the tiny raft’s stern. The creature sat with its wings extended, revealing two dark patterned eyes, and let the sun finish off the drying process. The unkempt man disgusted the creature. It felt the dirty spit clinging to its body, and even where it was dry, it still could feel a film. From the bow of the ship, the man, still in a hypnotic, almost Dionysian state, began hollering at the creature, cupping his hands near his mouth as if he were speaking to a large audience or over a great divide and needed his voice to carry: “Speechless, I see. They say spiritual experiences are hard to convey, and I expect such is the case with you. Well rest assured, creature, I won’t ask you to share your sacred experience with me. Keep it all to yourself and ponder its significance. That is the only way to understand such things.”

Scratching his belly then returning his hands to a cupped position, the man prattled on: “One final word of advice. As your spiritual advisor, I feel it necessary to counsel you not to take forty days to ponder the significance of your baptism into this world—you won’t live that long.”

This final comment sent the unkempt man into another fit of hysterics which started off slowly with one isolated “ha” but ended in a steady stream of “hahahas.” Watching the man convulse in guffawed spasms, the creature wished, once more, not a nostalgic aching but an honest desire, to be in the company of the old man whose side it had left. These two men, polar opposites, could not be kin, thought the creature.

Keeping his gaze upon the creature, which creature, shifted and shuddered under such a glowering look, the man fell silent as the offensive archfiend began its retreat to the dark recesses of his mind. Then the unkempt man sat down and began contemplating or reminiscing about something. His gored eye grew distant, his mood somber; a new, an inoffensive archfiend, commenced its arrival. As quickly as he had gone into a trance, he snapped out of it and looked at the creature, enthralled by some new thought. “You know …” he began with exhilaration in his voice. “You know, creature, a heart is a curious thing. Those who come into the world with it shattered can do one thing. They can reconstruct it. They can fill the void. And they can mend the broken heart with the binding glue of experience and brotherhood. They can do this because they are young and do not have anything to compare their broken heart to. I have always felt sorrier for the man who loses his sight in an accident rather than the one born into blindness. The one who loses sight later in life remembers what vision impinged upon his memory, upon his psyche, or he remembers the bliss of just seeing a green hillside, but the one born with the handicap has nothing to compare blindness to, and therefore, cannot wallow in self-pity nor note the discrepancies between vision and blindness. And the same can be said about the heart. Those who come into the world with a heart full of love, a heart taught to strain and reach for some unobtainable ideal, inevitably see it shattered, and with the fractured pieces goes the ideal.”

The man did not just mutter these words with icy indifference. His voice was imploring and full of animation. His body motions were eccentric and wrought with contortions, and his hands, like a painter trying to paint the canvassed sky with a rainbow, flew up and over his body.

He continued. “On the one hand, the heartbroken at birth construct something positive from the realism they are confronted with because, at an early age, realism is all they know. In opposition, those whose hopes are dashed after the ideals are firmly set in their minds have the hardest time dealing with harsh reality. They try to keep their heads in the lofty clouds of their ideals, but with every step, they feel the rug of failed hope being yanked out from under their feet. They are so enamored with the ideal and with the perfection that cannot be obtained, that they refuse to let it go. At the same time, they become so disgusted with cruel reality which is so far below, and oftentimes the destroyer of, the ideal they have imagined. Because of the incongruous nature of real life versus ideal life, they refuse to use reality as a stepping stone to obtain their ideals, and so, they, of all people, remain the furthest from their ideals and become a nuisance to those who function in the real world.”

The man’s abnormal motions slowed down. His hands became more solemn; they were no longer painting rainbows in the canvassed sky. He interlocked his fingers like four pairs of motionless wings while his thumbs, two wriggling worms, essed in place upon his sternum.

He kept excoriating the poor creature—albeit the creature hadn’t the slightest clue of the man’s purpose, that it was anything other than babble. “They are hopeless dreamers, chanting to themselves: ‘Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.’ It’s always the shadow with this type. For them, life is a drawn-out affair lived beneath an imperfect sun whose rays of light bluff at the truth they withhold, all the while casting impregnable shadows upon the entire scene. I’d be willing to wager, creature, if you could probe the heart of history—more specifically, if you could probe the hearts of the believers in the ideal world to come and the hearts of those who disbelieve in such nonsense, I bet you would find out the firmest of believers began as the gravest of doubters, and the gravest of doubters began as the firmest of believers. Would you take me up on such a wager?” The creature remained silent, refusing to answer the unkempt man. “Of course you wouldn’t, you neophyte. You still cling to your own distorted ideals,” the man said, pestering the creature before carrying on.

“If one could skip through time and walk alongside the most infamous of all traitors, my guess is they would find one who early on in life was, if not completely converted, at least one of the first disciples, and probably one of the first to embrace whole-heartedly and adhere to the ideals taught him. He would had to have been an idealist at first, and only over time, when the flesh did not measure up to his ideal would he have turned so bitter. Bitter enough to complete the dastardly deed of betrayal with a kiss. With a kiss—the most intimate of symbols for the flesh. The poet has penned “it is heaven’s hammer in hallowed hands which strikes a hole in the heart of man deeper than hell could ever hollow.” But we can never know now what specific gall wormed its way into this traitor’s heart. Only this do we know about human nature; it was and still is and always will be true—the heart loves to oppose everything we hold dear at first. The heart is the first to grow disillusioned with the ideals it has so strongly accepted. You see creature, it would have been better for this traitor to have lived like the obstinate disbeliever of the book of Acts. Set out on the wrong path and then your opposing heart will lead you to the right one. But if you start on the right path—trust me, the heart will lead you amiss.”

The man remained entranced by what he was saying. Even his thumbs had turned solemn and stopped their wriggling. Never before had he had an audience listen to his ramblings and this emboldened him.

“It is the same with love, creature. If you want a woman to love you, hate her dearly, and over time you will come to love the object of your loathing, and she will come to love you, but if you start out in love, trust me, she will sense helpless love and her heart will react with opposing, brutal force—it will love to hate you; it will loathe your love; it will spitefully use you and ultimately destroy you, and overtime, your heart will come to hate her as well. Ah, the workings of the tragic heart of man. There is nothing quite like it.”

The man said no more on the subject at hand. Even a gracious audience of one could not prolong the inevitable ending—he was spent. So too, was his inoffensive archfiend. It disappeared into the same dark recesses of his mind as the first had.

The creature disregarded what the man said to it, although it could not help but sympathize with him. The creature could discern something had wilted the verdant life within the man’s breast, and the shell the creature now gazed upon was the simple result of a life no longer able to struggle through the vicissitudes. When the light of life leaves the body it once possessed, thought the errant creature, darkness fills the cavity that has been carved out, and it would have been better for that body to have never known such light. Unfortunately, life does not, like the last line of a fable, offer itself up to such didactic summaries, and more often than not, light and darkness, though they cannot conjoin, co-exist and grow together like the wheat with the tares, and only with the reaping of the harvest can it be known what truly has been sown in one’s own heart.

The raft drifted onwards. The unkempt man no longer steered the boat. The creature hoped the current would not lead the raft astray. The man sat with his knees up and his head fallow between his legs. The creature felt a strange compassion for its offender but was reluctant to turn it into action. The man’s grief went beyond its scope of sympathy. The man continued to wallow in his misery. It was the only semblance of a life he had to cling to. Sometimes in life there are those macabre souls who seem destined to cling to their misery because it is the last emotion to remind them they were once alive. Sometimes in life there are even those who seek out such misery, but this man was not one of them—misery sought him out. The creature could sense this about him. More like misery chose him as a vessel to carry, and when needs be, disseminate its virile seed. The creature could also sense that whatever the man suffered, it was a tailored type of suffering whose affliction was designed specifically for him because it was the only thing the man could not handle. Almost as if misery catered itself to each body differently. As if, being a parasite, it has learned to present itself in a manner fitting to enter a door that would otherwise remain slammed shut. With its subtle knock and beguiling countenance it manages to persuade the occupant to open the door. Once inside, then the true destruction begins, a destruction specific upon a host lacking immunity.

The man raised his head and began mumbling inaudibly. As the creature grew accustomed to the soft mutterings, it began to decipher the words. In a voice rife with melancholy, the unkempt man regurgitated the same two verses over and over:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Now each time I pass a meadow, grove, or stream,
The earth and every common blight,
To me doth seem
Apparell’d in devilish fright,
The horror and the madness of a scream.

After numerous recitations, the man reiterated a portion of his last line for good measure. “The madness of a scream, I say!”

And then he was done repeating himself. The creature stiffened up and refused to even let the wind impel a wing to stir. The man’s gory eye burned red, and his blind eye glistened like a silver coin. He presented a frightening picture of sincere bestiality. Then the eye softened and his posture relaxed somewhat. He moved as if he prepared to enact something sententious, and he did.

He started hitting his breast once again, this time with solid thwacks from his closed fist, and in dulcet tones, which were incongruous to the subject at hand, the man raved on poetically insane: “What good is a heart? The amaranthine pendulant caged within the matrix of bone. Beat on, you glorified pump. Drum your toxic plasma through this tenement of flesh. Pump on, you hemoglobin. Animate this tabernacle of napping clay. Ah, the human heart, the anathema of the mortal experience. If I could sunder the breastbone, bury my hands into the chasm, and wrench the heart out still beating, I would—I would. I would toss it to the terra firma, trample it underfoot and feed it to the salivating dogs. But all would be for naught. The cursed thing will not die. Locked inside, it continues its aching beat; over and over I feel its incessant drumming. Would some merciful god strike it down, nullify its existence, erase its pain, fill it with blank darkness, pure absence of light, then and only then will I live. Why, oh why, did you ever teach me to love, cursèd heart?”

By the time the unkempt man had finished his diatribe on the human heart, and lay splayed out on the raft, extremities groping towards the poles, his face and bloated belly heavenward, the raft continued to drift on toward its unknown destination. The intermittent growling of the man’s stomach ruptured the ensuing silence. At first, both creature and human chose to ignore the grumblings. But when the growling stomach grew too loud, the man sat up, petted his belly, and explained to the creature how, like clockwork, the stomach was telling the unkempt man it was time for lunch. “Hush, now,” said the man while petting his belly.

“All we have to eat is this vermin with wings, and I know how you detest the taste of vermin.”

The creature stayed resolute in its refusal to say another word to the man after he had maliciously spit upon it, and so, even in danger of being eaten, it remained silent. “Lighten up, would you? I wouldn’t really eat you. Your wings would just get caught in my gullet.”

The unkempt man remained too tired to guffaw, as earlier. He chuckled once, and another silence ensued. The raft continued to drift on.

Then the man sat up, grabbed his pole of an oar, and looked back toward the creature. “I know creature, you must be thinking: ‘this is not a river; this is an ocean.’ Well, we have reached the other side, and our time has come to part.”

And as the man said these last words, the raft slithered into the muddy bank. The creature was glad the time had come to part company with such a tragic, disagreeable man. The man jumped off the raft and grabbing the rope tied to the front, wrapped it around a lone, dead tree. The creature fluttered upwards upon the verge of leaving the calloused man without saying a word, but the man spoke before it could fly off. “Creature,” he said, not parting his teeth to speak. The wind of words came out like jetted venom, and the creature knew it did not want to hear the next thing the man would say, but it felt trapped out of a skewed sense of propriety of all things. It felt it must listen to the man because he had shuttled it across the river. “Creature,” the man continued in the same manner, “one more thing before you leave.”

The man stepped up the undercut bank so as to be level with the fluttering creature. Reaching its level, his eyes still one gory and one gray blot, the man looked directly at the creature and continued: “If you go, you will not cross this river alive again. Mark my words.” The perturbed voice grew in fury. “So before your short life is spent, weigh the costs. You will long for the place you have left like never before, and yet, you will not make it back alive.” The man had reached the angry apogee of his harangue, and when his voice should have been loudest, it of a sudden grew calm and admonishing, and the man’s bleared eye looked strained and tired, like his next words were tearing him up just to get them out. He whispered in earnest supplication, “Why not turn back now? Why not turn back before it is too late, creature?”

The creature was touched by the man’s importuning and wondered if his point was not valid, but the innate longing to speak to the world had run amok in the creature too long, and to turn back before being able to tell people what the old man was accomplishing with his digging or to relate how close the man was to finding light at the end of that dank and dark pit would be like trying to stop a wheel, hurling downhill, from spinning. Also the desire to do exactly the opposite of what the vagabond told it, burned within—in a sense, by doing so, the creature felt it repudiated its strange baptism. The creature did not respond to the man’s importuning but began fluttering away. Frustrated and angry at the irresponsive creature, the man ended his calm speech and reverted to his vituperative tone. “Your journey is pointless, creature, and will only end in failure.” He yelled at the top of his lungs, fists raised in the air. “You do the bidding of a raving lunatic. The gravedigger’s son, my older brother, is deranged and will not find anything worthwhile in all his digging.” The man started spitting out his barbed words with rapaciousness. “I’ll tell you what he will find at the bottom of all that dirt, creature—more dirt. More cold, hard, crusted, indifferent dirt. Nothing else. And I will tell you what you will find on this side of the river, creature—more people. More cold, hardened, crusted, indifferent people.”

The man kept on prattling, but the creature had had enough, and it flew even higher as quickly as possible, its wings beating like the thumbing of pages in a large book, and away it went. But the final words of the unkempt man were carried on the more speedy wings of the wind, and the spear-like shaft of such venom-drenched words spitted the very soul of the poor creature. And like a mortally wounded animal pays special attention to the voracious howl of a pack of wolves fast approaching, knowing each drop of its leaking blood has carried the scent of vulnerability towards them, so too, in this case, the creature had its ears perked to know what rapidly closed in on it. And the last words of the man, “You will die alone! You will die brokenhearted!” wounded the creature beyond description. It knew dark truth existed behind his mad howl.

II

The creature cleared a line of trees adjacent to the river, averting the further cries of the man from piercing its ears. It could see a small city in the distance. The city was interspersed with rustic buildings, dilapidated tenements and dappled with all kinds of shops. Resounding through the air burst the usual cacophony of city sounds—the whistling of trains, screeching of cars. The creature had to rest. It had grown tired and the poignancy of the unkempt man’s remarks and actions still weighed upon its dreary soul. Near the edge of the city, the creature came upon a small clearing covered with wilted yellow-brown grass. On the far side of the park sat a lone woman on a lone bench. The creature at once encountered amazement at the innate pathos such a picturesque, crestfallen, dejected-looking woman could stir within it. On the other side of the river it had never stumbled upon such queenly grace in a woman, let alone one with the visage of a cracked crown. No sooner had it spotted the woman than all thought of its own pain and the horrible sting from the vagabond’s final words vanished like the morning dew before the scorching sun.

What a sight of tragic beauty the creature beheld. The contrast of the woman’s vibrant red hair next to the lifeless, pale white skin was like hearing the shrill cry of a newborn baby during a funeral procession. The creature left the periphery, headed toward the woman and realized its mistake. The pale skin was not dead, just transparent, and underneath its transparency, the blue veins of translucent life flowed so near the surface that the creature watched life’s pulse gushing by like a river. The brittleness of a butterfly wing, a thin layer of ice, a cracking leaf underneath a foot, was evinced by a single glance at the thin covering of skin, and at the nucleus of all her genteel fragility sat two eyes which bespoke some ancient hurt.

The eyes penetrated not with pure force or malice, but rather like an eddy that throughout a river’s existence has gathered every piece of debris fallen into the river, and once the eddy has spun it around for a time, sends it on its way. Her eyes too, had gathered a lifetime’s detritus of human suffering. The eyes were now calm and serene, but underneath their surface serenity, a sunken and silent pain still twirled.

Hypnotized by the gravitational pull of such stubborn beauty, the creature scarcely noticed the woman before it realized it reeled in a direct path towards her face, caught in the current of beauty’s fustian pulse. Time’s grip loosened on the creature and magnificent beauty reeled it in: head first.

The creature watched the woman’s grief spread out and adulterate the dim surrounding light. The creature flew into the sullied stream of light in an attempt to ascertain the woman’s story. For all her obliviousness, the woman noticed the creature hovering, and in an effortless and graceful swoop of the arm, grabbed the creature the way a hen gathers its chicks under its wings at the first sign of imminent danger and cradled it in the cavern of her fist. She then placed it out of harm’s way upon her lap. The creature knew by the gentle movement of her arm, and by the feathered softness of her hand’s doting and infallible grip, no present danger prevailed. It looked up at the woman and reveled in the entrancement of her overpowering eyes.

Staring into those eyes, the creature heard a voice as soft as velvet ask in susurrations, “What are you doing disturbing my time of quiet reflection?”

The voice sounded so soft and supple the creature believed it had not been uttered but felt. The creature attempted to deliver its usual acquiescent words in reply, but instead of the effable tones, it heard the rattle of some foreign sound when it opened its mouth. Perplexed, it attempted to speak again. And although the vowels and consonants formed syllables inside its head, and although the picture of what it would say appeared tangible, when it put those words like hot coals upon its tongue and sought to spew them out into the air, they came out sounding altogether like the gut-wrenching metallic noise of grinding gears. So harsh spewed forth the sound from the creature’s mouth that it fell silent immediately.

The woman continued to cast her entrancing stare upon the creature and then, of a sudden, she let her gaze widen to take in the entire panoramic scene. Her eyes grew distant as she stared at a copse of trees at the far end of the park. “Well,” said the voice as soft as velvet, “since you won’t speak to me, I will tell you my story. It will be nice to tell my story to a creature lacking the capacity to retell it.”

The creature heard the words of the woman, but it never saw her mouth move, and for the first time it realized the woman spoke not at all, but in the soft-lighted essence clinging to her, the light gathering around her slowly un-spooled itself to the creature, telling the story of her sad life. Constant coils of amber light spoke of early recollections on the theme of love:

What a day. What a lovely day. Him, here by my side, and each time my hand touches his, it sends myriad sparks dashing through the endless highways of membranous tubes which all converge within the chamber of my systolic heart, then in diastoles knowing no bounds, the sparks, in metered rhythm spread outward to the nethermost reaches of a body: a body of both space and eternity: how does blood know what to feel? It is blood, not brain that speaks to the poets, gives them those phrases rife with meaning. I need a poet’s tongue now, or at least a poet’s hand. A poet could explain how time, space and eternity are encapsulated in two single pulses—could define it, give it a name, put it down in writing: could explain how each touch is a veritable lifeline of electricity flowing through the arteries and reaching the hub of my being; becoming more real, more dependable than any army of ants’ marching columns; becoming more instinctual, more on cue, more perfect than the hexagonal honey cells of the bee’s hive; becoming Nature’s greatest feat—the incarnation of love.

 The poet could explain how with each rush of ecstasy, caused by a single touch—a covering of flesh coming in contact with another piece of flesh—and each taut squeeze—flesh prickled and the vague sense of the warmth and bone underneath—raises the notes of love to a celestial chord, a chord already unimaginable. Is there no wall, no barrier to such love? Is the inside of man like a parcel of land and the flesh covering but a useless fence and the sempiternal sky our ever-growing emotions? Emotions we brush up against but never stop to fathom just how far they can reach. Is the body just holding us back, keeping us from exploring the heights of true affection? If so, the body is nothing, and emotion came first, rose up out of time immemorial and clothed itself with flesh. It must be love, clothed, so it can experience touch. Yes, the body was a means—a means to express love, but somehow the experiment has gone awry, forgotten in birth, or if not forgotten, then suppressed—or even more than suppressed—emotion itself is trapped inside this machine of sinew, cartilage, and matter. And trapped underneath the labyrinth of flesh, vein and bone, those emotions stay beyond expression and stay locked up and caged, forever struggling to get out. Nature’s greatest blunder—the incarnation of love.

 If I spoke with the poet’s tongue, I could bring those emotions back to the surface, could paint the fugacious face of love. Love is like those opera singers’ songs whose notes you think cannot possibly reach higher, but when they do, you think they have reached the utmost constraints of vocal capacity; they will not reach a higher note, but then they climb one note higher still, and the pitch verges on the unreal, and the process of climbing the scale and crescendo continues; each time you set a limit for what the timbre of the voice can reach, those singers defy that limit and on and on their voices rise, and then you wonder, when will that voice reach such celestial pitches that it surpasses the human ear’s ability to hear; when will that voice, so angelic now, begin breaking glass; when will it reveal its true purpose and turn destructive? And then you wonder, as he squeezes the hand again, when does the emotion surpass the body’s capability to hold it in? When does emotion become so powerful it destroys the flesh which confines it? Then you start to measure and weigh the consequences of touch, and you realize the danger of giving in to emotion. Then you think to yourself, I must chain my heart of fleshy glass, must not let it escape the bounds of the body; I must construct a wall around my heart; the pitch is verging on destruction—the heart, or rather the love within, is seeking escape. I must house my heart within the confines of human capacity—too much love, that is the sin that will kill quicker than all the hate the world could hurl at you. And yet, I fear I have reached an emotional tone, hit a note already incomprehensible to me. Why do I feel this way around him? When will such a note destroy either him or me?

 No wonder the romantic poets die young. They were meant to, before love evaporates or abscesses, or before the world stops rhyming, before love rings out of tune, so that all they know is the limitless note of love spanning the sidereal, and by their own dissolution they forfeit incarnate life but rejoin the love they had been torn from in mortality. Is this what I want for myself? No, I want a realist’s tongue, not a poet’s, and I want love to remain in the flesh. And after it has come to fruition in the flesh, only then does love limp on into the eternal, does it rear up after death, does it still light the way through galaxies of darkness—then and only then, after the incarnate thing has returned to spirit form, is it worthy of its name.

The discarded light revealed the woman’s innermost intimate thoughts, simple corollaries in the throes of love, but then the light skipped over the thin reels of time, and started unraveling a different thread of the woman’s story, revealing sadder moments locked within her brittle heart.

The dejected woman’s stare fixed upon a single blade of grass that lay in front of her:

It was here. This very spot. It was here Time’s incessant ticking stopped and eternity drooped her cosmic cape and caught me in the infinite sag. I cannot move forward or backwards. I am stuck replaying the same scene over and over again. We were walking right here. Hand in hand, the conjoined fingers functioning as the umbilicus—making us one and giving our love sustenance. What a day, creature. Life only affords us so much time with both the ferocity and immensity of feeling, and yet, within the overload of feeling a total ataraxia takes hold. During those days, a person becomes one with the universe, with the amoral substance upholding all life. And how could the person not know the moment is in transit, is dying at the very time it is burgeoning, is a life and death in and of itself—for all moments scraping against eternity and wishing not to be confined within the realm of time and space are ultimately quashed by the beckoning return to the inimical laws of this time-trapped earth. Such laws bring solace to the sufferer whose pain is but for a moment and then gone, but it brings sorrow to the infatuated, for try as they might, they cannot relive those first fleeting moments of love.

But what of those who are trapped in the sag of eternity, those who live out their extrinsic and mortal life in the field of time, but the intrinsic and eternal emotions in the field of repetitive everlastingness? For there are such souls. Must we try not to think of such things? Must we be content with our allotted avenues of release from such thought? For if some are more in tune with the eternity functioning within them, they lose sight of this world’s glamour, and this world loses its hold on them, and then that person wanders into a no-man’s land, caught between time and eternity, always longing for the thing this life cannot grant—like love unbound by flesh.

I should have known I was in trouble the first time his hand touched mine. Love was surreal, too good to be true and too true to be bound, and I knew it. I felt the premonition as tangibly as if it were whispered earlier: ‘Too much love will destroy you.’ I should have heeded the warning and built a wall around my heart, but I was stubborn. I floated upon the ethereal wings of love, but oh how the plunge from such heights racks the soul of me to the very foundations now. Flying too close to the sun—that was my mistake—burnt these butterfly wings! Over and over, I see myself plummet from the sidereal heights. Time and time again, I watch as those wings are consumed by the fire. How could I not have known? How could I have been brazen enough to think I could get away with a love unfit for this world? Never could an imperfect world permit a perfect love.

We are but wanderers, sojourners in a land unfit to call home, inhabitants of a body lent us by mortality, wandering through an infinite night on the invisible sun, knowing least of all ourselves, our motives.

But enough of this wallowing in the mire of self-pity. I must move on, must get over the shattered moments, must build a new me out of the ashes, yet my self-reproach is all I have left! To deny me of my self-reproach, to deny me the constant sorrow, the pity, would eradicate the validity of the moment that brought me here. I do wish to shed forth some different light, but how? I am stuck creating new versions of the same old story. It is the only story I know. It is the only story that matters. The old heartache will not leave me for one minute. It is there when I wake, like a boulder on my chest, and it is the final thought I have before I sleep. It even haunts my dreams most nights. Try as I might, there is no escaping this story. I cast new characters, create new backdrops, but the theme will never change. Over and over again the same thing happens:

We were walking in unison right here. Right here on this very spot of grass, even these very blades, our feet trod. We did not know where we were going, nor did we care—love is directionless. We only knew we were together, and if the world and all its inhabitants disappeared, what did that matter to us? We had each other. That is what I was thinking as we were walking in the park. Then, off in the distance, I heard a loud crack or bang and simultaneously I heard a whizzing sound like a lead wasp destroying the very air it usurped. Then I heard the unearthly shattering, cringing noise of lead smashing bone and flesh. What a ghastly sound! No ocean, swelling to colossal proportions and bashing its unruly fist upon any fissure or cleft of rock, no melon dropped from astronomical heights, smashing out its pulpous guts upon the earth’s hardened crust, not even a planet colliding with another planet, none of these sounds could match the unearthly peal of the rapid fired lead smashing into the skull; that ossified crack, that lead stinger entering the soft brain tissue, then metal exiting bone, and the trailing firebrand of the spewing essence of the man, giant red spurts mixed with shrapnel of skull, spackled the afternoon daylight with its surreal nebulous of blood.

Oh, creature, instantaneously his umbilical hand, the source of so much electricity, of so much life, went limp. Light went out; in broad daylight midnight’s rapture poured upon me. His body, with the weight of a millstone wrapped around the neck, became gravity’s latest victim, and pulled me down with it as I held on to his lifeless hand. We crashed upon this very spot. His ravaged head bled right here. I point at the spot in front of me, but I do not see the blood now. I look and look at the grass where he once lied, but the human stain does not even remain upon a single blade of this year’s resurrected and now re-dying grass. No, creature, the grass has moved on, has lived another life, died, and lived again. All things have moved on, but I cannot. I know he bled out his life right here. It was right here, in front of where I now sit, I was snubbed of the only thing that matters in life. How, tell me how, creature, could one move on? The shock of such moments leaves us numb, petrified, pallid shells of our former selves.

By the time our bodies crashed to the ground, I knew he was dead. I knew there was no resuscitating him, no bringing him back to this life. So I did the only thing I could do, creature. I took his head, placed it upon my lap, and cradled it as the blood continued to gurgle then spurt out and puddle in the dimpled part of my dress. Slowly the puddled blood saturated through the fabric and dripped back into the earth to rejoin the soil from which we humans long ago sprang. And I sat, cradling the head, rocking back and forth, and thought to myself: ‘Oh anemic man, whose life is in his nostrils. Is this all it takes to wipe out an entire being? A breathing, walking, thinking entity, can be annihilated in the matter of a moment? One measly piece of lead can destroy something thirty years in the making? Not thirty years in the making, thirty years in the flesh. Flesh that to come into being required the sun to shine, the globe to orbit at just the right distance, one-celled life to crawl out of the sea and evolve, and on and on it goes since time immemorial—an infinite number of circumstances to be just right in order for this one life to come into being, grow and progress to thirty years of age. And it was all for naught. Life, you falsifier of hopes! You raise us so high one moment only so we can crash harder with your invidious blows the next.’

And I sat there, creature, and I thought these things, and I cradled his head, and then I wailed. I looked up at the sky and I wailed a primal scream, a defeated moan coming from somewhere deeper than the gut. I raised my voice, and I thought at the time that this was possible, in an attempt to shatter the sun, blot it out with the fury coming from my depths. For I thought my hate and hurt, with the intensity of a thousand purple suns, could heat all humanity. Why would we need the yellow eye to taunt us each day? I looked up at the eye and wailed my primal scream, hoping it would turn into a spear and with its sharp point, smash the cruel eye and dash it across the cold universe. But it was all in vain; the sun still exists. And when I realized the sun would continue to iridesce and light the way for humanity, I sat there and continued to scream. And behind the pain and anguish of my new scream, if a scream could project words, it said without equivocation: life is a bullet with the deadliest of intentions from the moment it is fired. It cauterizes on entry so as to look harmless, but is so messy on exit that it demolishes any semblance of what we once were. When the bullet is through with us, we will not even recognize ourselves. My scream spoke all these words in one high piercing stab of anguish. I sat there screaming at the sun until finally I was carried, dragged away as dead as the man who lay lifeless on the ground.

I spent the next few years beyond the reach of human dimension. There is nothing else to say of those years. Oh sure, creature, after a period of time of what doctors termed ‘insanity,’ I did try to reemerge into the nightmare of life, but my convalescence was thwarted. Life was too repulsive, and I remained a shell of what I once was, and only my eyes, serving as anachronisms to my ghostlike body, retained some of life’s ancient vibrancy. I wish I could gouge them out. I have no need to see the world and my eyes betray me. Their subtle chicanery tricks people into thinking there is life left in me, the same way a shed snake skin still startles a person when they come upon it in the wild because it retains form, the same way an oasis forces a barren desert to teem with life—only it’s all mirage, a set scenery for a play never to be written, let alone play itself out. The creature noticed that although there was a numbness attached to those eyes, they retained a form of docile life, but the creature could not explain those eyes. They were un-molded clay, exiled potentates, seeds of a great oak, and they did invoke both pity and reverence.

The dim light hurried on, revealing the woman’s past, giving the creature little time to analyze or fathom exactly what the woman’s eyes portended. Then time passed; proceeded to hastily unwind weeks, seasons and years in a continuous blur, all seeming like one winter day. Then something happened. The place where the hurt resides started to harden, to scab over. The wound did not leave; it just stopped bleeding. One day I awoke, stretched out my arms, yawned, and realized the boulder which had been placed upon my chest had miraculously been lifted. I say lifted, but in truth it had been shifted, or even transformed into something else other than pure hurt. At any rate, the reprieve from such a bondage felt invigorating, and during my reprieve, creature, I did meet another man, and to a degree, this meeting aroused the faculties within me to, if not reawaken, at least rise to the surface of my lifeless body and make me feel like I had rejoined the ranks of the living.

The modicum of vigor I enjoyed was short lived. It did not take long before I realized the hurt I had suffered over the past years had transformed itself, had become active, and I sought to recreate the scene or act of love that had caused my body such transitory joy, all in an effort to rid my body of the hurt it now possessed. Is it possible? Can hurt become so powerful it tries to consume its own self in an attempt to not exist? Privy to my hurt’s intentions, I quickly realized I chose this new man because he appealed to an emotion akin to sentimentality or nostalgia. He reminded me of the man who had been ripped away from me; he reminded me of my dead ideal. I humored him for a time because he had similar qualities, and because even going through the actions of something that is only a simulacrum or a rehearsal to the real thing is better than staying locked up in a room. Eventually we even got married. I went into the marriage vowing to the pretext of semblance for a love once lived. I do not know what he saw in me. I was not much of a wife. Ghosts rarely make good wives. At the beginning, I envisioned him as my former lover, and that made the situation bearable, but then the emotional strain of pretending became too much, and the constant reminder of how beneath my ideal this man was, started to gnaw at me. Nor would it be fair of me to have had him meet such a pedestaled ideal. It would have cheapened the death of former love. We went on like this for a time. I was unhappy, but I felt like my life warranted such unhappiness. He was content to have things go on the way they were. Some men need so little to keep them happy.

If hurt can become so painful to bear it tries to expunge itself, the same can be said for artificial life. Pretending to live had become so daunting a task I sought ways to return to my former pain. At least, in my extremities I was not feigning emotion nor betraying myself and the love I once had. I wanted to be the sole proprietor of such destitution and loneliness—and by so returning to such a hurt, as an empty vessel, I would live out my days true to a love passed on. And I would use any excuse or means to get back to such an awful state of being. And so it should not shock you, creature, to find me, on a certain day, rummaging through some of my husband’s things. What I found, on the other hand, shocked me more than I had then anticipated. While ransacking his room, I stumbled (I say stumbled, but we do not really stumble upon things. Events, like stars, are aligned in their exact orbits long before they take place, and how long this event was kindled, waiting for me to enter its orbitary realm, only the maker of such salient stars could know) upon some pictures in the bottom drawer of his desk.

The pictures were of me and my dead love. Unbeknownst to us, they were taken when we were walking hand in hand in this very park. There were numerous pictures. Some captured us laughing together, others were of us talking. In some, we were silently staring at each other or ahead, or at some object obscured from the view of the picture. In each picture, the preeminent factor was the happiness on our faces and the contentment to be in each other’s presence. The drawer was full of such pictures.

Obviously the perpetrator who took the pictures hid from our view, otherwise he would not have captured such intimate moments. Just knowing this third set of voyeuristic eyes was there the whole time made those moments of greatest joy suddenly feel cheap. Then it dawned on me, and the hair on my neck stood erect, and my heart tried bursting out of my breast as I noticed the angle the pictures were taken from was the same angle the bullet was fired from. The thought arose that perhaps my husband was the very miscreant who had fired the bullet, or he knew and was in collusion with the cold-blooded murderer. Do you know what unbridled anger arises in the damned when they even think about such things? It is the gall spilling out from the incensed bowels, the bitterest dregs from the bitterest cup drunk when they think they have found from where springs the source of their hell and the destroyer of their blissful state of being.

I threw the pictures down in such a rage that they scattered up and out of the desk and one flipped over, and there on the back of the picture was a date, etched in large black marker against the white backdrop, and the date shone like a dark mole on a bright white face, drawing the eye toward it. I picked the picture up and looked at the date and then turned the picture around and looked at myself and my love walking hand in hand. The picture was taken exactly one month from the day my love died. My curiosity intensified to see if there were more dates on the back of other pictures, or more particularly, to see if the fateful day of death had been photographed. If the picture I held was one month from the day, then surely he must have that day as well. It is strange how the embittered gall residing in my stomach rapidly relaxed when a feeling of curiosity to see how much sicker and dehumanized I could get by continuing to search the pictures took over me.

What did I hope to see? Or did I already know what I would see? It was like witnessing an accident in the distance. You know as you approach, the smartest course of action would be to look away, but you can’t. Morbid curiosity binds the eyes to the scene, and no appeal to prudence can pull away those metallic fingers whose clasp forces the eyes to stay wide open. And then you are upon the scene of the accident and you see the horse with the broken neck and the bone protruding through the skin, and you feel queasy, and you wonder why you had to look upon it, but it is too late to try and understand your motives because the recoil from the vision of bone protruding through the neck has already altered your state of mind to something different than what it was before you saw the horse, and so you cannot come back to the insouciant view of the world after having seen what you have seen, and in a way you are glad you will never make it back to such frivolousness, regardless of how sick you now are.

And so, I grabbed the pictures and began throwing them aside to get to the bottom of the stack. I had to see what date the pictures would end on. My fingers could not work fast enough. How many pictures did he take? Finally I got to the bottom of the stack, and sure enough, the final pictures taken were of the execrable moment after the bullet entered the brain and after the body crashed to the ground, and when I cradled his head in my lap. How repulsive. How utterly repulsive to see myself through the eyes of the one who had killed my love. And how sickening, distorted and frail I looked sitting there on the ground with the bleeding head of my only true love cradled in my lap, with my solemn stare at an empty sky, and with my eyes frozen in the very act of asking why.

Oh what a sickening feeling. But the feeling was strange, not quite the insipient anger I had felt earlier; it was not the engulfing rage that makes me want to lash out at anything; instead, it was a pathetic disgust at the first moment that had caused this newer moment to even be a reality. It was disgust that the moment of death of love in my life had been captured on camera. That such a moment, unbearable and beyond mortal comprehension, was after all, cheapened to a few pictures of my total bereavement—a couple of still lifes someone could hang on a wall. Is this what the gods look at when they divine our fates? Do they see us in such frozen light? Are we just subjects for their art and nothing more? And do they take snapshots like these to trivialize even our most critical moments? If so, none of us could implore an ounce of pity from them. If they could watch such moments like this photographer (my husband I am sure), and not rend the very sky into pieces, but rather with total indifference freeze frame the wounded and hurt and cause them to look so distorted and sickly, who would want to have anything to do with them? They must get a kick out of our weaknesses, out of our hurts which seem so trivial to them.

With these thoughts coursing through my mind, and with the gall of bitterness surging up into my throat, my anger completed its cycle, and the acidic qualities of its bile began to consume itself and within minutes all my hurt, anguish, and grief turned into the only thing it could: total apathy. How else does one live with the very destroyer of your hope and love? My husband: the bullet.

I put the pictures back but left the drawer disorganized, and walked away feeling even more numb than I had felt when I walked into the room. Numbness comes in degrees—the totally numb can become even more numb. I heard a door creak open as I entered the hallway. I went downstairs to meet my husband. What would he do if he found out I had looked through the drawer, or did he want me to find those pictures? Why else would he leave them where he knew I would come upon them sooner or later?

I stumbled down the stairs and greeted him with the sardonic smile I had made mine lately. He noticed the rubicund cheeks and mistook my venting anger for excitement to see him—and simpleton that he is—thought the color imbued my pallid face with a touch of classical beauty. We talked about nothing in particular, but what struck me most about the conversation was how easy it was to envision him dying a gruesome death one moment, and yet, the next moment I could answer his questions with utter indifference and a smile. As a byproduct of my new numbness, my anger did not betray me. I could stay a lifeless outer shell and inside still wish a cruel death upon him. I wanted to kill him it is true. I thought how easy it would be to grab the knife on the kitchen counter when his back was turned and lunge at his vitals and puncture his chalky flesh with razor-sharp precision. The thought died in transit, letting me know such a course of action was never to come to fruition. And in a twist I thought impossible, my numbness was transforming the anger his face now invoked. Staring into the repugnant mass of flesh and features now filled my breast with a happiness I had not felt for years. I was beginning to love to hate him. I felt invigorated by the hate swelling to epoch proportions within my breast.

My husband went upstairs to change his clothes, and as I sat there alone in the kitchen, I wondered if he would see the disarrayed drawer, if he would find out I had rummaged through the pictures and knew his horrible secret. I did not care. My complete numbness, coupled with hatred, had become my power. What could he do if he found out I knew he murdered my love? Could he kill a woman who had already died a thousand lonesome deaths? Sure, he could stop my heart from beating, or halt the brain from receiving oxygen, but, for me, capricious life’s final leaf had fallen long ago and the torpid sap of nostalgia from days past had already dried up and hardened.

He came back down after awhile, and he did mention the drawer. As a matter fact, it was the first thing he asked me about upon re-entering the kitchen. He wanted to know what right I thought I had pilfering through his things. They did not belong to me. I did not answer. I did not care to answer. So many things I could say about violation, and who had what rights, but it all seemed so trite and so abstract to argue at a moment like this and with a man who had destroyed the very world I lived in. We sat in the incipient silence. His eyes the eyes of a cold-hearted killer—dark and intense—deadlocked across the table with my eyes—the trembling eyes of two dying stars. He then proceeded to murmur the following phrase: ‘You’re a wall. There is no beating heart within your body.’ To which I angrily replied, ‘I’m all heart. One giant, throbbing, broken heart.’ He laughed at me and said I have always been and always will be nothing more than a rose wall; beautiful on the outside, but so lifeless underneath all that beauty.

After a few more moments of deadlocked stares and incipient silence, he said he was going upstairs, that he was tired, that he had had a long day of work, that it is not easy to support the both of us, that he was going to bed, and I could join him if I wished. I watched him go upstairs, and as he ascended those stairs, I could not help but wish him dead. But then I thought death would be too easy and too pleasant of a thing to wish on him, and instead I wished him life. Yes, the only retribution I could afflict upon him was to keep him alive and miserable as only the living are. If anyone were to enjoy the coziness of death’s warm embrace, it would be me, not him.

He climbed the final stair and disappeared from my view. I sat there in the somber room and thought about what to do next. It would be so easy for me just to get up and leave, just walk out the door and never even look back, not even in memory, just try and erase the crushed heart and hope for the scar that would come in its place. Besides, how tiring and how hard a task it would be to climb those stairs and go near such a repulsive and atavistic being.

I sat there and watched as the daylight began to wane and listened as the crickets began to usher in night. The house began to fill with shadows. I gathered myself together and in my final heroic attempt at immolation, I decided to make my living death complete. I crawled up the stairs on all fours, like a dog; too weak in the soul to stand up straight. I reached the top stair in a cold sweat and collapsed for a moment from pure exhaustion. I regained my legs, and I stumbled through the never-ending hallway, and staggering, placed one hand on the doorpost to the room. I leaned against the frame, using it as a crutch. I stuck my head and shoulders across the threshold and looked in upon him. I cast a searing gaze his way and as it hit its mark, as I glared into those horrible eyes, I wished him life; with the dying embers of my only life, I wished him long, dreadful, painful life, and I knew right then and there, my living death and his long life would be the only revenge and retribution I could exact for the love I had lost and the love he had killed. And as he said to me, ‘I thought you might make it up here,’ I shut off the light and went into the room the way a cadaver gets slid back into the mortuary’s dank shelf. The words in my head, the thoughts floating in my brain as I walked deeper into the darkness the light explained to the creature, are the simple words of the defeated, not of hate, but the moan of gnawing and numbing sorrow:

What a coffin the universe must make.
A velvet backdrop draped over cosmic slate.
The planets as pallbearers shoulder the weight.

A solemn procession trudging, in unison, the solar system’s circle to deposit the lifeless
giant in the graveyard of light gone out—the brilliant black hole.

As if my entire life and all its agony could be summed up with quaint verse. When life loses meaning and becomes such a debased exercise in sorrow, even poetry fails to explain it. But what am I saying? No one would understand this.

The light finished unraveling the story of the crestfallen woman. The weary creature sat with solemnity upon the lap of the woman—the lap that had cradled the dying head of her ineffable love, the lap that had caught each spurt and rivulet of blood from a dying love. The creature recognized the similarities between the awful predicament of the woman and that of the old man, in that, sorrow had carved out a deep pit, a black hole within her heart, and at the bottom of all her digging, she had found nothing but the cold dirt of endless suffering. However, for the woman, unlike the old man, sorrow had rotted away any desire to look for further meaning or for knowledge or for a return to vibrant life. Sorrow pushed the woman beyond her breaking point, beyond her mental capacity, and she had naturally snapped and did not wish to be put together again.

The creature knew if it could tell her about the incorrigible old man, about the light, the fire he was bound to reach at the bottom of his pit; it knew if the man had found the end of such a hole, that kind of knowledge could lift up the hanging hands and support the feeble knees of this woman; it could help her abandon her reckless path and pick up the shovel of affliction once more and keep digging. But oh, what a fatal mistake the creature had made, it thought to itself. It had left the man’s side too early. Sure, when beside the man, it did not need to see the outcome of the digging to know the man would meet his desired end and strike fire or tunnel through and find light, but now that it had left the old man’s side and ventured into the world, the creature’s confidence weakened. As if the deeper the creature delved into this new world, and the further the distance from the old man, the more the creature’s conviction and purpose became impaired, and it began to wonder if it was worth the effort for the woman to continue her quest to find meaning. Perhaps she was right in succumbing to the total numbness that life afflicted her with. There is a certain serenity in falling apart.

Its shattered confidence, however, would not deter the creature from trying to bring hope to the woman. And as it thought about the old man and his digging, a resilient seed of hope sprung within its tiny breast, and a confidence in the old man, and in its own quest, returned. It wanted to tell the woman she could hold fast and keep looking for meaning in her life, and it would return. It wanted to let her know that perhaps her suffering would end, or serve a purpose beyond the callow comprehension of this life, but the woman would not listen, and if she had, it would not have mattered anyway because the entirety of the creature’s thoughts amounted to nothing more than the odd, incessant buzzing ejaculating from its tiny mouth.

The woman, with her eyes as brittle as the aspen’s fallen leaves, looked down upon the small creature and picked it up. She cusped it with assurance in her right hand, and as she did, she whispered upon her fingernails, and into the crevices of her fingers, “Fly away little creature; Fly away while you still can. Flee the city.” This being said, the woman lifted her hand into the oncoming breeze and gently released the creature into the stream of wind careening by.

The creature glided up and away from the woman, and as it did, it looked down at her slightly upraised alabaster hands, and her sad eyes, and her flowing red hair, and it thought how no image had ever looked so queenly, so beautiful, or stood so much like a sentinel for the ages to come as this woman did in her pleading attitude: she spoke of so much pain and suffering; her supine hands like a marble goddess, begging for life’s mercy; her eyes, the sad reminder of too much useless pain, and her hair, covered in the red drops of heaven’s spilt blood, gently dripped in the autumn breeze.

The woman had seen much, and had suffered much, and as the creature looked down upon her it felt racked by a stretching pang which started in its heart and spread through its entire being. It wanted to return to the woman, but it did not wish to further intrude upon such sad and austere beauty, besides it did not know if it could take the further unraveling of such light. Just then, the gentle breeze picked up in magnitude and shuttled the creature on and away at a rapid pace. But before it left the scene of the accident, the place where this woman’s love had died, it looked one last time at the sad lady who stood like a queen guarding a king’s tomb with her questioning hands and eyes raised toward an empty autumnal sky.

. . .

§”When Stars Die” is Part II of a four-part novel; Part I, “The Tugs and Pulls of Existence,” appeared in Prick of the Spindle Vol. 3.2. Read it here.

The Sound That’s Left by Alana Dakin

The Mouse by CL Bledsoe

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