by Rajiv Moté (Ekphrastic dark fantasy, 3,500 words)
The curious gathered in the courtyard to watch the pale, naked man shuffle towards the light spilling through the black arch. His limbs were bone, wasted muscle, and sagging skin, hanging like sticks from his bloated torso. He had no hair. Some of the watchers made to cover their own nakedness with their hands, or twist their bodies from the light in sympathetic shame, but none looked away. The light cut through the inky shadows, not angry and red like the distant volcanic fire, but brilliant and golden. Against it, the man’s skin looked translucent as fog. From beyond the gatehouse came sounds that could be heard nowhere else in Hell. Laughter. Song. To the watchers, the light and merriment on the other side of the arch felt nothing less than holy.
“Do you think they’ll let him pass, Jaan?”
Everyone lingered in the courtyard, despite the danger, wondering the same. The irresistible drama of redemption, if that was what this was, gave meaning to this world of suffering. They spoke in whispers and watched the man’s progress, their eyes flickering to the sky, ready to scatter if their loitering was noticed.
“We’ll see, Tessa.”
Repeating each other’s names was a ritual between them. It was also, in its own way, holy. They couldn’t remember if those were their true names, but they clung to them. The names stirred something just shy of a memory, a feeling of being together, enclosed, safe. From the corner of his eye, Jaan tried to memorize details of Tessa’s face—the red-gold hair, high forehead, blue eyes, lobeless ears, thin lips, sharply tapered chin—but as his eyes moved over each feature he forgot the previous. Memory was slippery, and fragile as thin glass. Once, he thought, that her face meant something to him. If he could just hold its parts together in his mind, he might remember what.
The man’s feet dragged on the gray stone of the courtyard, never lifting enough to break contact. It took him time.
“Ought he approach penitent or proud, Tessa?”
“I can’t remember, Jaan.”
Before the arch was the Gatekeeper, tall and sinister in his feathered cloak and tufted helm. He allowed some of those who approached to pass. Others, he punished horrifically, their remains strewn across the courtyard to crawl and knit themselves together. Jaan remembered that, but trying to discern a pattern was like grasping at smoke.
The man stopped his shuffling and stood in front of the Gatekeeper, his gaze downcast. The Gatekeeper regarded him with eyes that shone round and yellow beneath the helm. He circled the man slowly, occasionally grasping at a body part with a claw-like hand, as though judging the ripeness of fruit. Jaan felt a flush of shame, and nearly averted his eyes. Bodies were so shameful.
Tessa’s hand reached and clasped Jaan’s, and he looked down at the sudden, unexpected contact. Touch without pain unnerved him. His eyes crept up her arm to her shoulder, and rested on her breasts, hanging like fleshy pears above her ribs. Then his gaze sank lower to the red-gold thatch of hair where her pale legs met. They once meant something to him, those parts of her. Tessa’s hand withdrew, and she tried to cover herself.
“No, Jaan. Don’t look.”
He became aware of his own nakedness, and recoiled. He had a ghost of a memory of the sickly-sweet taste of fruit, a lifting veil, and the slow billowing of bone-deep shame. The shame was an unclean itch marbled deep into his flesh, and when it flared, he craved the deliverance of scouring punishment.
“I’m sorry, Tessa.”
They returned their eyes to the man, being prodded and inspected by the Gatekeeper. Jaan’s fists clenched and his nails drew blood. From the corner of his eye, he spied revulsion on Tessa’s face.
The Gatekeeper continued circling and groping the man who stood motionless before him. Jaan stepped back, anticipating a spray of blood. But the Gatekeeper stopped, and with a mocking bow, motioned the man under the arch. He shuffled forward, hastened by a hard smack across his buttocks, and disappeared into the golden light.
A commotion of talk exploded in the courtyard.
“He was accepted!”
“Did anybody know him?”
“He expiated all his sin!”
“How did he do it?”
“Should I try?”
Neither proud nor penitent, Jaan thought. The man came… empty. Motion caught Jaan’s eye. He looked up.
“Birds!” cried someone.
All eyes drew skyward. The black, jumbled shapes of wings, beaks, and talons burst through the sooty clouds in utter silence. There were birds and there were Birds, and these were the latter. Insufficiently tormented souls eventually drew Birds. They were living voids, bird-shaped holes in the universe, and they inspired primeval horror beyond all torture when they appeared. Suffering had purpose, the only purpose: atonement. So it was believed. But the Birds were nothing, an absence, a horror of meaninglessness, the annihilation of all possibility. Facing them was beyond anyone’s courage. The people in the courtyard scattered.
They ran. Flagstone became jagged rock that tore at the soles of their feet, but the pain was not enough. They ran faster. A hanging tree twisted up near the road, its branches already heavy with dangling figures kicking their legs and wheezing against the rope around their throats. Birds of a more ordinary sort pecked at their flesh, tearing off gobbets. It was good, honest torture. Irreproachable. But there were no unoccupied nooses. Tessa moaned. Jaan could not bring himself to glance at the sky. They ran on.
On the hills above their path, the citadel burned. It always burned. Figures fetched buckets from the lake and scrambled up ladders, trying to quench the blaze as more fires sprung up for each they put out. They, and the citadel’s defenders, plummeted from the walls, succumbing to flames, or the arrows and spears from the Fell Hordes below. The endless war was unwinnable, but the souls on the ramparts were grateful to fight it. From the time he spent there, Jaan knew it was an exquisite torture of perpetual despair and defeat. But he and Tessa could never make it to the walls before the Birds were upon them. So they kept running, towards the hopeful sounds of rushing water and screaming. A bridge emerged from the darkness, and soon Jaan saw the river. Pale, bloated bodies floated in the current, dying but not dead, never dead.
Jaan smiled. He seized Tessa’s red-brown hair and balled his fist. “Tessa,” he said.
“Jaan,” she answered.
He smashed his fist into her nose. She crumpled, her blue eyes filled with gratitude, and tumbled over the low railing. The hairs on his neck stiffened. He sensed silence descending on him like a crushing mass. He froze in panic, his mind screaming to throw himself into the river, and his body refusing to obey.
Suddenly, excruciating pain pierced his heart, and Jaan looked down to see the tip of a lance emerge from his chest. He twisted his neck to see the Horned King behind him, astride his rat. His Fell Hordes of clawed, fanged, spiked monsters bristled with weapons behind him, on their way to the citadel. With relief, Jaan submitted to the agony as the Horned King raised his lance and Jaan slid along its length. The King then lowered his lance with a twist, and Jaan slipped down the blood-slick wood and tumbled into the river of bodies.
Jaan floated. His body bobbed with the current and caromed off other bodies. The water, growing colder the further it swept him, flooded his nose and mouth as the swells filled the troughs. It bubbled up through the hole in his chest, injecting agony into his heart’s attempt to heal. He drowned and froze and bled and embraced the pain, knowing at last he was safe from the Birds.
“Tessa,” he said. But he lost grasp of what the word meant.
Having found a steady source of pain at last, Jaan could let go. Relieved of fear of Birds, and the anxiety of an existence without progress or purpose, he could devote himself to his atonement, to burning away the shame that infested him to his marrow. Securely in torment, he even amused himself with idle thoughts, like pondering the origin of shame. Once, a long while ago, or perhaps recently—time had no meaning—he’d asked the Owl, for the Owl was ancient and wise, and had gifted him with unimaginable pain.
“There was once a thing called sin,” the Owl said, before carefully slicing open the flesh at Jaan’s heel with a talon. “Sin is a bloody, sticky rawness in men that adheres to the world and separates them from their Maker. An abhorrent, repulsive condition. Shame is your awareness of sin. Your knowledge of its wrongness. Is it not terrible?”
Jaan frowned through the pain blossoming in his foot. Memory was slippery, but he knew there was a moment, something with a sickly-sweet taste, when he learned shame. If such a moment existed, there must have been moments before he knew shame. Before there was sin. He put this to the Owl.
The great bird hooted, an amused sound. “So, a philosopher!” The Owl delicately peeled the skin from Jaan’s heel in a single narrow strip around his foot, tracing between his toes and spiraling slowly up his leg. “Your Maker began you, but you are not yet complete. Finishing yourselves is your purpose.” Pain blazed through Jaan. Not just where the flesh was removed, but everywhere.
“You were meant to eat of the fruit. You were meant to open your eyes. Shame is a teacher. Heed it, and let it guide you.” Jaan remembered hearing the Owl’s calm words despite his screams. He was hung by his hands, bound to a great harp by its strings, and while the Owl peeled, his struggles strummed a gentle counterpoint to his raw-throated cries. In some walled-off corner of Jaan’s mind, he heard a tiny whisper: Tessa.
“Suffering roasts away the rawness and attachment. It makes you perfect. Pleasing to your Maker.”
His Maker. There was something forbidden by his Maker, something that brought him a sense of purpose and incomprehensible shame, all at once.
The Owl was a master craftsman. Before it regrew, Jaan’s entire rind, a glistening red ribbon looping on the ground, was uniform and unbroken, beautiful in its perfection.
“Tessa.” He spoke the name, and icy water filled his mouth, making him sputter. There once was a face that meant something. Blue eyes. Red hair. Or was it gold? The tiny part of him tucked away from the agony, the part he thought of as himself, grasped at the pieces, trying to fit them together as they sliced his fingers, a puzzle of shattered glass. He floated, froze, drowned, and collided with other bodies. He floated forever, or a short while. Time had no meaning.
“Tessa,” he said.
“Jaan,” he heard.
Jaan raised his head, upsetting the equilibrium that kept him afloat. His limbs thrashed, and razor shards of ice sliced his skin. And he saw her, a few bodies downstream, a rime of frost covering the parts of her above the water. Jaan crawled over the bodies, sending them into choking, gasping fits. His hand reached out, and found hers. They clasped. Again came that uneasy feeling of contact, with neither pain nor shame. A raised whip that never fell. So cold, and yet… Her. Tessa. The tiny oasis from the agony that was himself shyly touched the tucked-away part of her that whispered his name. And they adhered, merged, making a shared, hidden space, a crystalline bubble containing only themselves.
Jaan. The name flowed through their connection.
Tessa. The name flowed back. The names echoed in the bubble, sustaining themselves.
Time had no meaning.
Jaan learned that misery and its absence don’t exclude one another. They’re adjacent countries with artificial borders, and sometimes one can choose where to stand, where to live. Creatures under the water took bites of their flesh, shards of ice cut them, the water itself continued to freeze and drown them. Jaan suffered, he wept, and at times he screamed. As did Tessa. But that was the way of things, the rules. What one did. It was not what they were. Their hidden selves, Jaan and Tessa, lay entwined in their bubble, separate from what Hell demanded of them.
Hand in hand they floated, souls joined, straddling the boundary between agony and secret joy. Enough agony to avoid Birds, enough joy to nurture the space they shared. Arrows from the Fell Hordes on the banks struck them, the monsters that hid deep in the water rose and feasted on their flesh, and ice floes sliced them to ribbons. But they always found each other again. They drew each other in as surely as the arch and courtyard drew those hopeful for salvation. It could all be endured.
“Could we stay like this, Tessa? Forever balancing?”
“What is forever, Jaan? This is how we are. Until something changes.”
“Nothing ever changes, Tessa.”
“Then yes, Jaan. For now, we can be like this forever.”
Their bubble grew. By increments they shaped it into a garden of sunlight, blue skies, green trees, fruits, flowers, and life. It was memory, not fanciful invention. Memory could be rediscovered in this space. Here, memories stayed. They remembered a world before Hell, where joy was unadulterated and shame, absent. They remembered taking pleasure in their bodies, and each other’s. There was no sin there. They must have been taught their shame. They sported in sun-warmed pools, ate fruit and the flesh of fair beasts, and danced in the hills and forests. Jaan found the sweetness of the memory so intense, it was almost its own torture. He couldn’t remember feeling so keenly in the garden.
“We didn’t know anything else then, Jaan.”
“Is that why we suffer, Tessa? So we may go back to the garden appreciative?”
“Then do we harm ourselves, Jaan, by creating our own joy? Do we block our own return?”
“Maybe the Owl lied, Tessa.”
“Then what was the point of all this, Jaan?”
He had no answer. The light beyond the archway was beautiful. But was it more beautiful than this bubble he created with Tessa? Was it more real?
Time was meaningless, but change did come. Jaan and Tessa ran aground at the site where a great battle had taken place. Guttering fires burned where once there were buildings, and the corpses of the Fell Hordes were strewn across the field, gutted and dismembered, weapons sticking out of their bestial bodies. The stench of carnage was overpowering. None lived. None to deliver torments. Jaan shivered as he scanned the sky where black clouds began to gather. He and Tessa had lost their balance. Cracks ran through their perfect, crystalline bubble. Shapes circled among the clouds, darker than black, misshapen windows into an abyss.
Tessa bent down among the corpses and lifted out a barbed whip. “Jaan,” she said. “Take a weapon.”
Jaan found a long knife and brandished it, looking up at the clouds. “Tessa, I don’t think this will—” With the loud crack of rent air, the whip wrapped around his throat, and Tessa pulled. Jaan’s eyes bulged. The barbs were cruel, but the agony of betrayal was pain beyond anything he’d experienced. That alone should have driven off the Birds.
“Quickly, Jaan! Hurt me!”
At last he understood. Jaan rammed the knife into Tessa’s belly, haft deep, and twisted. She doubled over, but jerked the whip with her last strength, crushing his windpipe. The bubble shattered. In the garden of their mind they still held each other desperately, fighting for balance. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry…
Still the Birds circled.
They healed and struck. Tessa. Healed and struck. Jaan. Time was meaningless and the Birds circled, sometimes high, sometimes low. They rode raging rapids of pain and panic that crushed inwards on their ruined little garden. Its skies grew dark. Its trees blackened with rot. It was one thing to submit to torture, together. But to hurt each other… How much pain could he inflict on her, to save her? How long could he bear it? How long could she? The Birds were very low. Amidst the chaos, Jaan scrambled for a plan.
After gutting Tessa again, Jaan took her whip and bound her ravaged body, hand and foot. He stood over her, watching, drinking in the agony over what he must do to her, and hoping it would be enough, for both of them. The Birds circled. Tessa’s bowels slithered back inside her body, and the skin slowly closed the wound. Her eyelids fluttered.
He stared down hard, scrutinizing her naked body with as much disgust as he could pour through his eyes. In their bubble-garden they learned to delight in each other’s bodies, but back in Hell, the habits of shame were deep and strong. Betraying her this way would hurt her more than anything he could do with a knife. It would protect her.
“Jaan, don’t…” Tessa tried to cover herself, but was unable to move. Her eyes widened in horror. Didn’t she understand? No, she mustn’t understand. If she understood, he would lose her.
“This, Tessa? This… meat of yours… is what kept me from entering the arch?” The Owl had hinted as much. His Maker would welcome only perfection.
“Your lies weren’t enough for me, Tessa. You aren’t enough. How much will I have to suffer to clean the filth you’ve put into me? How far have you pulled me away from my redemption?”
Tears streamed from Tessa’s eyes. Jaan had considered everything he was telling her. But he had rejected it. Hadn’t he? The effort to convince her to feel his betrayal required him almost to believe his words. He had to hate her just a little if he was to save her. The look on her face tore him apart. She was saving him too.
Then his lower lip trembled.
And she saw.
What remained of their connection was tiny and dark, a clouded crystal shard, but he felt a whisper through it. Jaan? It broke his resolve. Tessa.
Her tears ceased. Her expression softened. She understood. I love you too, she whispered through the bond.
The Birds swooped. Silently they wheeled and dove, and where they struck, holes of nothingness riddled her body.
“Tessa!” Jaan screamed.
They swarmed her, thick as flies on meat, and all Jaan could see was a flapping, churning void where Tessa lay bound. When they broke off, she was gone.
In every corner of his mind, Jaan was alone. He was aware of himself still screaming, wordlessly, until something inside him broke. The Birds swooped and circled. Jaan watched them impassively, suddenly as silent as they.
“Come,” he whispered.
The Birds scattered in all directions, back to their clouds.
The man dragged his feet across the courtyard, towards the arch. Voices around him whispered. Eyes in pale faces watched, scrutinized his nakedness with revulsion. He ignored all of them. The Gatekeeper waited, black against the golden light spilling from within the arch. He shuffled towards him and stopped, his eyes downcast. He submitted to the groping claws on his body. He knew that yellow eyes examined every bit of his naked, emaciated flesh. It didn’t matter. All his shame had burned away. His suffering was complete. He knew even before the Gatekeeper’s bow that he could pass. He resumed his shuffle, into the blinding light.
The world beyond the arch was bathed in sunlight. The trees and sky were vivid shades of green and blue, and music and laughter were everywhere. Fountains splashed. A breeze carried the scents of flowers. Before him on the trim lawn was a long banquet table. Seated on both sides were huge birds of every sort, beaked and billed, crested and horned, chittering and honking merrily, their colored plumage ruffling in the breeze. In unison, their heads turned toward the man.
At the head of the table sat the Owl. He stood and bowed. His enormous eyes looked pleased. “At last,” the Owl said. “You are ready.” With a sweep of his wing, he gestured to a great, silver platter at the center of the table, garnished with a mixed assortment of human heads, limbs, and entrails. The man shuffled forward, noticing the cool softness of the grass under his feet, but caring nothing for it. He climbed onto the table and took his place, lying on his back. The sunlit sky filled his eyes, blue and perfect, and birdsong rang in his ears.
Author’s notes are here.