Copyright Jevgenijs Minins 2017.
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INTO THE GRAY HORIZON
Terror and tranquillity became whole. White and black merged into something that feels grey (colour has a significant part in this story – this ‘death-biography’ of mine).
It is not often you hear a story about life, which starts with the last chapter of it!
So, here we are: death!
It’s funny – saying this didn’t cause pain.
When going through the pleasures of life, seeing the freeze-frames of happy moments, interactive pictures of our friends, with their foolish customs – just like newspaper clippings in some fantasy movie – could I see all this coming: lying in agony with my guts coughed up next to me?
I recalled all the right memories at this moment, but went through them now as a dragonfly would: watching the changing landscape below it.
As I lay there, thoughts started to overwhelm my head; my heart pumped faster with each dying breath. I decided to make my last telephone call while I still could. I found my phone and dialled the number, then rejected the call.
Repeated… rejected it one more time.
Because, I was actually a little frightened I might survive! Ridiculous, I know, but how will people look at me in the future, should this turn out to be an embarrassing false alarm? If I stayed alive, and then we were to meet later today, or the day after – or even after a few months – what would I say?
‘Phew, remember when I thought I would die? That was close. So… how’s life? Weather shitty again, eh? Want to grab a cup of coffee?’
Not for me.
I could never make up my mind in life. Of course, I should have done more of what I wanted to – every motivational poster or life-coach will tell you this. And at least being an astronaut or a scuba-diver, you know there comes a point of no return – a point at which you know you have made your life-choice and it is too late to change your intended outcome – but for people like me, the only point of no return we will ever truly experience is our last breath, and not a moment before this.
The walls absorbed my thoughts as I stood there with the phone in my hands, screaming at myself to make the call – quarrelling with the very piece of plastic in my hand.
‘Where is it?’ There – I saw the cell-phone on the floor, but had no memory of the moment I dropped it.
‘Death is playing games with me, or perhaps my brain is… And why do I keep say everything I think out loud?’ The agony was driving me insane.
At that same moment, I began to notice that my room had lost all its colour – or maybe just I had. Was this another joke of death?
‘Why do I keep saying things I think?’ What was this? It was like I’d lost the filter between thought and speech.
And it was here that grammar transformed the entire story of my life into the past tense – from this moment and further on ‘am’ became ‘was’.
A new arc opened where I was once alive – now I am dead.
I looked around to understand my whereabouts, though I stayed in the room.
My room, though everything had turned grey – I could not spot one single dot of colour.
Some of my things had also changed in appearance – my cell-phone, television and lap-top were all still in the room, but now appeared different… as though in some sort of deep, dark glow. That same glow also emanated from the plants, and when I went to the kitchen, I saw it in the mirror, and even from the fridge.
Without any idea what this might be, for my own sanity, I chose not to hang onto it – I knew enough to know that things would be hard to understand for me… a newcomer.
Inspection of the kitchen revealed even further differences: the wallpaper had become monochrome; the pictures upon it still bore images, but devoid of any colour – grey had washed the room clean of all signs of living. I began to see the room very differently; new detail now compensated for the lack of colours: I noticed cracks on the floor; I noticed how tasteless the paintings looked, when layers of colour did not hide the preceding mistakes of the artist.
And not just to look at: to the touch, too. Everything – the furniture, my belongings on the shelves, my clothes here and there – became firmly fixed with the rest of the interior. I tried to pick up a T-shirt from the chair, but it became a part and didn’t move – even the creases of the shirt became absolute.
As a sculpture made of stone, I watched as my home became monolith, with strange, glowing portals which I was too scared to approach.
I could not bear to think what would come next with death, and I preferred not to force the next step.
It was these thoughts which brought me to one I couldn’t believe I hadn’t addressed earlier: my body!
I ran back into the living room and checked the flesh I had last existed in: nothing – it simply wasn’t visible to me.
I couldn’t understand any of this; I needed more time to accept it, and preferably someone to explain. We always need time in life – who said it would be any different in the afterlife?
In the corner, I noticed another dark, glowing source, from the place where my friend’s guitar rested. He forgot it a little while ago, and said he would get it back quite soon. What in common had all these items – those which glowed? So many questions, and no-one who could give me any answers.
Is this hell? I wondered.
No light from above, or any pit of fire below. No abyss or void did devour me, and I was still in my room, with no chance to get out, nor to touch a thing in this monolith. If I were to enter the Underworld now, I would do so wearing my underwear and slippers.
I had a strange thought: When my landlord comes to investigate, I might slip outside… and there I might meet others just like me, also in their underwear. It would be good to – somehow – dress before going outside.
Now strangely excited and nervous, though the feeling was very different to that when alive – I mean completely; I didn’t feel the pulse, the heart beating or my hard breathing. Yet, still, I continued to breathe, superficially: inhale… exhale…
Was blood still pumping through my veins? Were my lungs still delivering oxygen to my body? I had no pulse; no heartbeat.
To experiment, I pinched myself, and I felt the itch! I kicked the table, and felt a sudden pain in my delicate toes. Slightly limping, on my way from the table to the chair, I summarized my experience:
Sitting on the chair, I added another question to the thousands already standing in line – that of time; was it running faster or slower? Maybe not moving at all? Maybe everything had just stopped? That would explain the petrified surroundings. I suddenly recalled my wristwatch, left on the bedside table, and in less than a second, I was stood above it, staring, and laughing…
The watch had no hands – only a deep, dark whirlpool of a face. Laughing at me, as I laughed at it.
I decided I would count time myself, if I were to avoid getting lost in it – I had always been chronologically accurate whilst still alive, so I thought it shouldn’t be a problem for me.
I decided to have a cup of tea while waiting for… the unknown. But with each step to the kitchen, I slowed my pace, trying to put it off as long as possible, knowing in my heart I would not be able to pick up the cup or switch on the kettle. A greater shock, this, than death itself: no more tea or coffee! How am I supposed to exist in such a world!?
I covered my face with my palms, and slid down the wall. Sitting on the floor, I wanted desperately to see colours again when I opened my eyes. I wanted to die some other day – some other way.
So frightened, thinking about my whereabouts, about the thing that happened to me, and how my body and brain reacted to it. So scared, and yet, for reasons unknown, so calm.
Losing coffee or tea is everything, metaphorically; it is a ritual – even losing the littlest ritual makes one think of a dozen other sacred rituals one had, and would never have again.
‘I intend to live forever – so far, so good!’
Steven Wright (if I’m not mistaken)
Time (or maybe not) passed by.
Long or not, enough of it had passed for me to recall the main checkpoints of my life, and a couple of other occasions.
I looked up as I heard the apartment’s entrance door open. I guessed I had probably been here a while – perhaps the landlord or police had come by to check the source of the smell, guided by my neighbours’ complaints.
I rushed to the door in four big steps; then, in front of the door, I froze.
What happens next?
The door opened, and a girl was standing in front of me.
‘Hey! Sorry I’m late.’
Her height was approximately the same as mine, which made her higher than the average girl, and me shorter than the average man; slim with short hair, which was also something that we had in common.
I would guess twenty-something years old, from a glance (though my guess was never something to be trusted when judging one’s age). Attractive, though with a rebel in her – one who will push you away if you step too close. She wore a suit over her blouse, and low heels, with a postman’s bag over her shoulder. A girl whose company you would surely enjoy, in a small cafe with three tables, a ‘smoking permitted’ rule and a cup of strong, black, bitter coffee.
In other words, not what one would expect when meeting ‘Lady Death’.
I was quite sure she could see me, yet for some reason, she remained silent. Then I remembered, I had forgotten to respond – she had said hi, and was now awaiting the same courtesy in return.
In my fear, I tried to spit in her face. Well, I wanted to spit, but I had no saliva. Still, the expression on my face, the shape of my lips and the sound I made gave her an unequivocal understanding of what was my intention to do.
‘Are you okay? What are you doing?’
‘I’m trying to spit in your face, I think.’
‘Why?’ A questioning look crossed her face.
‘I always said that when confronted by Death, I would spit in the face of it. Sorry.’
Imagine two hunters walking through the woods, who come across a bear; they kneel down, then, as the bear approaches, all of a sudden one of them stands tall and growls at the beast, to show the second hunter who is the strongest animal in the forest – the second would probably look at him the way she was looking at me now.
‘Well, you can’t spit, and I’m not Death. But thanks for the compliment.’
She smiled, and I suddenly thought she was pretty good-looking… for a dead girl, that is.
‘And thanks again,’ she told me.
‘Did I say that out loud?’
‘Don’t worry about it. It’s just your inner voice – you can’t hide it from me.’
‘Who are you? How did you get in?’
‘I’m here to meet you – I will be your curator; call me Dizz. And I walked in through that door.’ She pointed at the door with a thumb, over her shoulder.
‘‘Curator’?’ I realized at this point that I had probably started with the wrong questions; ‘I am dead, right?’
‘Yep. And you are doing pretty well if you ask me.’ Frosty and with fortitude too – how fortunate for me.
‘I doubt that. Is there a body on the floor?’
I pointed into the room – the last place I ever saw colour.
‘Yep, that’s you.’
I had spent so much time thinking about my condition, it felt strange to now hear it from someone else. After Dizz spoke them, the words thrust like a spear under my rib.
I knelt down, and my tutor knelt with me. She looked at me – right into my eyes – biting her lip, and she nodded. I knew she wanted to cheer me up.
‘I don’t know if it will help, but I know how newbies usually act and I must say you’re doing better than the average.’
‘I guess I’m just tired of being worried. Could you tell me what time it is? I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting here.’
‘It’s not that long. In the dyed hours it would be around an hour.’
‘In time – let’s not overload curator with questions. I’ll answer everything, but not just now. Let’s continue outside – this place is dull.’
‘It looked much better when I was alive.’
‘Yeah, and the world was much better when we were kids, but let’s not waste moments talking about a perfect past.’ She looked around again; ‘Still not sure if this place ever looked better. Let’s get going.’
I stopped. ‘I can’t go.’
Dizz turned around; ‘What’s up?’
‘I can’t go out – I don’t feel comfortable, even now, standing before you dressed like this – or should I say undressed?’
‘You’re dead! What awkward situation are you afraid of? Getting stiff?’
‘I don’t like the idea of walking around outside in my underwear and slippers, even if I am dead.’
Dizz laughed and grumbled at the same time. ‘What is your problem?’ she barked at me.
‘My problem is being a naked corpse on the street!’
‘You’re not a corpse, he is.’ She pointed at the spot where my dead body lay. ‘Cute panties, by the way. Nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘These are trunks, not panties.’
‘Sure they are.’ The filthy grin didn’t leave her face.
‘What am I? A ghost?’
‘Ghost, spirit, entity, supernatural being – pick one that sounds good to you. But you will still remain the same person you are – like it or not, you are still you; no wings and no six-pack. Live with it.’
‘I’m already done with that.’
‘You know what I mean.’
Our little quarrel seemed to outrun itself. I added: ‘You’re not helping.’
I closed my eyes again, in one last attempt to wake from this nightmare, or salvia trip – waiting for an alarm clock, or narcotic delirium, to end this absurd moment. If it was the ‘Seer’s Sage’ showing me the truth of existence, I promised myself that I would add it to the blacklist of psychotropic drugs I used from time to time.
‘Well, the answers suit your questions. You died, and things are different. What is it you want to hear? The whole history of the Monoland, or a manual on existing in it? You are on a new level now, and I congratulate you on this achievement. Now, let’s get out of here and get you a little more adapted to this place.’
Everything Dizz was saying only raised the anger inside me – if she were a man, I would have hit her already.
‘You do realize that you said that just now?’
I had to change the subject immediately – again my thoughts were coming out of my mouth!
So, the first step of my adaptation would be walking down the street, naked. Great.
I stood up straight on my feet and strutted to the door, as Dizz opened it. Then I thought, and she heard: How does she do it? I can’t even pick up a sock from the floor.
‘Doors are just doors – portals, and they work in all dimensions.’
‘That explains everything.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ I didn’t mean to say it in the first place, and even less wanted to repeat it.
Acting the gentleman, I gestured my curator to walk out first. Each door we passed, on our way through the hall toward the staircase, had that same slight glow. I hadn’t noticed my doors had been glowing, due to the light in the apartment.
Finally, we walked outside, and immediately my fear of being naked amongst others vanished – not a single passer-by was around, living or dead. No colours here, either.
Again, I thought out loud: ‘Why is everything black and white? And why do I keep saying what I don’t mean to say?’
‘Let’s start with the second one,’ she smirked; ‘You’ve already noticed that what you once called your ‘inner voice’ is now speaking aloud, right?’
‘That’s because your voice died with your body, and the same for your inner voice. Now both your consciousness, and your inner ‘I’ have equal access to the sound your consciousness has forfeited; no internal conflicts or disputes, unsaid or omitted – every thought has the right to sound. The inner voice is not your mind working – it is only the voice inside your head. If you want to keep thinking silently, you will need to separate these two processes; previously you had a filter – now you have lost it.’
‘The first proper answer so far. And what about the black and white, without colour?’
‘Wrong question! First, you need to understand that there are no colours, and you can’t separate what you see in black and white, because there is no black and white, either.’
My face showed that her words did not constitute a clear answer.
She said: ‘That’s okay – a common mistake for a ‘warmy’. You used to split everything in two: black and white, good and bad… Yin and Yang – you follow?’
‘Split into two or divide into many – that’s what ‘warmies’ do; because we are used to categories, we try to do it here, too. But this only causes the exasperation and contrast. Things are actually much easier than that here – this world is grey. It will take time, but you will start to realize that this is a whole, and that whole encompasses the infinity of diversity, without categorizing.
‘Grey stands out from the black and white outlook – it’s different, and always grey. Add circumstances and frames of mind, then dive into millions of shades and tones of the real universe, and it always fuses back into one. Get it?’
‘Why not dark blue or beige? They also have different shades and tones.’ I just wanted to understand Dizz’s theory, if only briefly, but answering questions was not my tutor’s strong point.
‘We’ve got a smartass, eh? The colour is a sensation… a circumstance… a condition. Colours are egoistic and have individuality, whereas grey gives you an opportunity to see, feel and understand much clearer.’
‘Do you actually believe what you just said?’
‘Ah, I should have practiced a bit more. Okay, I see it like this: we can call it ‘black and white’, but ‘white’ would be the top floor, and ‘black’ is the basement. What remains – everything in-between – is we. Everything else just disturbs the eye.’
‘Do you mean to say that colour is a lie, which fills the world we once lived in?’
‘No. Let’s end today’s lesson on grey with this: less colour – less mud – gives you a better understanding of the world you exist in today. Accept the world as it is: naked.’
‘What’s the point of removing colours, if you still need to use colour to explain it?’ I sighed.
I looked around, trying to understand how this perception differs from the living one… I supposed that might take more than a minute.
As my curator irritably waved for me to follow her, she barked: ‘Stop! Your breathing is pissing me off!’
‘What? I can’t breathe anymore?’
‘You can if you want, but it’s pointless and pesky. You don’t need oxygen – in fact, actually, you can’t get any, as there is none. Oxygen, food, water, sleep… these are nothing more than bad habits for you now – the faster you get rid of them, the better.’ Dizz smiled: ‘Some are hard to quit, as your consciousness hasn’t changed, and your psychological urge didn’t go anywhere.’
So damned tangled!
‘Before we move on, I want to ask one last question – after that I promise to keep quiet and make as little noise as possible. Where are we?’
You should never predict the answer when asking such a question. And it was no different for me now.
I repeated what Dizz had said, but it didn’t make a difference. I repeated it a few more times; the sound of this word made me imagine the feel of a paper cut – chills started running through my whole body.
‘Well, that’s a name which may be more familiar to you – it should explain things more than any other word, at least. Mostly you will hear this place called ‘Gray Horizon’. If you ask me, ‘Purgatory’ is too religious – too hackneyed – and ‘Gray Horizon’ is too prehistoric. Personally, I call it ‘Monoland’.’
‘It’s not getting any simpler.’
‘Relax. Look, how often do you think of your location?’
‘Now I do it every second – that is, if you have seconds here.’
‘Okay. You are in the Monoland – remember it.’
At least it was easy for one of us.
‘Is it… I mean, the Monoland… is it the same as in the bible?’
‘Never read it. But, as I understand it, no – it’s all different. However, the concept is similar – we’re here because we’re not good enough for the holy ones, or bad enough for the damned.’
‘We’re too grey to be on either side.’
‘Someone is finally beginning to see how the land lies here. You landed in Monoland because of the dummy life you lived. Humans take right or wrong turns during their life – they act as they wish, based on their empathy or cruelty, and so on. You, me and other Monoland citizens ended up here due to our abstention from any action, and our shallow pace through life.’
‘So, really, we are paying for our sins here.’
‘You missed again! Those in the bright place-’ she pointed upward, as though making it clear for an idiot ‘
relax and rest. Ones in the dark hole’ she looked down, checking to make sure that I had seen her do it ‘-have an appalling time there. That leaves the rest of us here the only available workforce, to take care of the warmies’ world.’
I nodded to show Dizz I had got it – it would also be good if she wouldn’t speak in such a slow, patronizing manner, leaving short pauses between words, and even longer ones between sentences; I felt a total trunk when she did that!
And, for better or worse, of course, these thoughts gained their sound.
After a short, uncomfortable moment, I changed the tone of the narration. We returned to the point in Dizz’s story, about the uselessness of our lives.
‘I’m not saying that we stayed idle seeing people in need, or averted our eyes from beggars – we just didn’t do enough work on ourselves. Each and every last one of us must complete his or her mission, and then work at becoming a part of someone else’s. When you are afraid to act – when you shelve your life – you end up in grey.’
She stepped back, like a magician after a show; a smirk appeared on her face, and Dizz bowed, with her hands spread; ‘And voila!’
Once again I started to hate her.
‘From this moment and to eternity ahead, you will spend your days seeing the sun go down over the Gray Horizon. I welcome you, newcomer.’
‘Who are you to act like this and rate my life?’ my psychic scream burst out.
‘Ha!’ The grin on Dizz’s face shone with a new glow; ‘gotcha!’ She didn’t take offence at my words, or construe them as rudeness. ‘No worries,’ she said, ‘I get it.’
‘A person needs a new level of self-control not to blab their thoughts out here,’ I said. The urgent need to learn silent thinking was growing inside me.
She laughed out loud, holding her belly and slapping her thigh. What a silly thing I had just said!
‘I’m flattered to know that what I’m thinking is such a joy to you.’
‘Sorry.’ She stopped laughing and stood up straight. ‘Don’t worry – we don’t hide our self-control here. It becomes dull when you only agree with yourself inside your own head, before any argument has taken place. And that’s all those thoughts are: a tight space conflict. Keeping thoughts inside this shell only makes them endlessly ricochet inside, giving you a headache – figuratively, of course.
‘Not everyone agrees with this, even here – even I have some objections, but that’s that.’
‘‘Shell’? So, is that what I am to you – a hermit-crab, or something?’
‘I never thought of that – that’s a good association; if you don’t mind, I will use it for my reports. I’ve heard that guys like you – ‘crabs’ – are hard to get in touch with. I suppose the good part is that you have great career potential, though.’ Suddenly her voice went silent to my ears, as what I perceived as absolute nonsense, seemed to be digested as a prominent notation for her.
A Purgatory which has a dozen names – names which are mostly a synonym of grey. Grey because truth has no colour, and it will take the whole of eternity for me to find that. Furthermore, I couldn’t keep any thoughts inside my head, I was bored with all of this, and the next thing on the agenda seemed to be career opportunities!
‘No great employment benefits, I suppose?’
My questions continued, until they were blocked and parried with silence, or by sounds that could be translated as: ‘stop it – I’m bored’.
Dizz then said that we had to go and get me ‘validated’, and so we dispatched.
Saturday night, yet here we were all alone on the empty streets. We saw nothing and nobody along the way which could be referred to as of the living world – either this or previous.
Everything inanimate remained the same: buildings stood in their usual spots, cars were parked close to doorways, ensuring that their owners didn’t have to walk that extra metre or two. Cigarette stubs, empty cans and broken bottles which had once bejewelled this street now seemed like little more than a surface defect; the trees had developed a weak glow – like a single piece of coal remaining alive, in a fading bonfire.
Finally, a sleepless pigeon on the road made me exhale with relief, as it walked around, pecking crumbs and jerking its head from side to side. How often is it that pigeons make you exhale with relief? This was enough proof for me that I could still see living creatures! I believed this enough to decide I would skip the next question – one which I knew would be annoying to my curator.
‘Why would a bird be sent to Purgatory? For a lack of personal growth within his lifetime, I guess, right?’ Of course, the thought came out loud. Dizz ignored it.
A block later, I saw something which made me forget about the bird immediately: two figures emerged from the darkness of the street, and before even thinking of how to act, I rushed toward them.
Dizz shouted something to me, but her words whistled by my ear. Like a castaway on a desert island, I screamed and waved, running toward my saviours. As I got closer, I saw they were two men.
But they didn’t hear me or see me, and I immediately knew that they were living.
The flow of my thoughts split into an incoherent babble. I screamed out that I was dead, that they were alive, that I wanted them to notice me, and even something about the pigeon. I’ve no idea what induced me, but I jumped like a rugby player onto one of the men – I think I thought that, even if he couldn’t see me, he must feel my presence.
From the side, I probably looked like a ping-pong ball hitting a truck – I was thrown backwards, repelled with a force I had never previously come across, and hoped never to experience again.
As I got back onto my feet, I found myself several metres away from the two men, walking unfazed; they hadn’t even noticed me.
‘You are now two feckless feats ahead of me, and this is only our first day,’ Dizz commented, as she caught me up. ‘We can’t come into direct contact with warmies – we are on two different levels in the same space. You have to consider us like two of the same poles of a magnet: the closer we try to get, the further we are thrown. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.’
‘Are you serious?’ I didn’t mean to say.
‘Yes. Now, let’s get going – we’re almost there.’
Dizz took my arm, and together we ran towards the smoke-like mist, which hung perfectly still at the entrance to a small forest, which was not far from my rented apartment. For the first time in my life, I ran without gasping for breath. This was the very first moment that I was able to actually let go of the feeling that I was still a part of the coloured world.
As we walked into the mist, I completely lost any connection with the world outside. The thick cloud squeezed the space around us, making me feel vacuum-packed in a bag with no air – an endless void surrounding me.
It was the sound of footsteps which displaced the feeling of this tight vacuum – the sound of grass, earth and dry pine-needles underfoot. Voices and distant silhouettes began to emerge before my eyes, growing louder and clearer with each step. Finally, we came out of the mist.
When I was ten or so, my father brought me to a carnival, and it was a place of magic and absolute happiness for me.
When Dizz and I emerged from the mist, I had partly the same feeling – the magical part, that is; the happiness had probably remained outside the forest.
Set on a cliff edge, I found us to be in a fayre, guarded by a strong wall formed of two buildings – each on both sides of the fayre’s marketplace. The setting was a field of trampled rye – around the edges, the grain was high and unharmed.
The fayre was filled with traders, each trying to be louder than the vendor standing beside him. They were selling all kinds of wares, from clothes to pets, and some items as of yet unknown to me.
Before I’d even considered it myself, Dizz said: ‘We should dress you. Let’s go to Belinda – she has the best things, and the best prices.’
Dizz was right about Belinda’s prices, but only about that part – never before had shopping felt so desperate. Only one out of every hundred things in this shop didn’t make me want to cry, and that was just good enough. This was the case every time I tried something new, that I thought was at least better than underwear.
I ended up wearing a T-shirt, bearing an immortalized portrait of Kurt Cobain, shorts which barely reached my knees, and the slippers I myself had saved from the coloured world. The T-shirt had a patch on it, reading: ‘You either reign or serve’.
‘How do I look?’ The question was actually a test, to see how well Dizz could lie.
‘I liked your panties,’ Dizz smiled, and turned her back to me. She was browsing through the endless line of shirts, trying to find something for herself.
The suit she wore had probably been produced by some couturier, whose work had not good enough when alive – hence why he had ended up here, where he had improved his skill in grey tailoring. Still, I try to persuade her that she is dressed fine, and has no need to be spending time searching in this hole. Surprisingly, she found something for herself – another absurdity to me. Dizz paid the shopkeeper for my clothes and her new shirt.
We continued looking, and although I meant to ask her about Purgatory currency, I ended up voicing the other question: ‘Why did you buy this shirt?’
‘I liked the picture.’
‘A rainbow? You purchased a shirt with a picture of a rainbow on it – here, where we can see none of the colours?’
Suddenly, she changed, and at that moment I realized Dizz, as well as being irritated by the question, was saddened by it – I felt this immediately and stopped talking. I still wanted to hear the answer, but it didn’t feel right to ask.
‘Let’s make a deal,’ she offered: ‘as soon as you get to my level in any path you choose, I will answer this question.’
Despite my not having the slightest idea of what level or path she was talking about, we slapped hands to close the wager. From that day on, I often found myself recalling that rainbow, and the secret Dizz hid behind a simple shirt with an image on it.
We left before the shopkeeper could sell us another piece of tailored crap.
Right at the entrance, I bumped into a very short man – he was walking fast, and had a cigar butt in his mouth. He wore an old bowler hat, pants with suspenders and an insolent grin.
‘Watch where you’re going!’ said that peevish, short man.
‘I’m sorry, I…’ It was only then that I saw this was a boy, no more than six years old. ‘Why the hell are you smoking, kid?’
‘Kid?’ he laughed. ‘I think I’m older than you, boy. Now, keep out of my sight – the next time might end up painful.’
My wide, surprised eyes watched the back of this dwarf, disappearing into the density of the bazaar.
‘We are running late,’ Dizz called to me.
Now dressed – at least more so than before – I was ready to meet the authority and bureaucracy of the Underworld.
We walked through the busy bazaar, its crowd flowing in all directions, almost making movement impossible within this human blender.
‘They see me, but don’t notice.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Dizz.
I hadn’t meant to say this.
‘Still, what do you mean?’ There was a spark of interest in her eyes, which I noticed, and couldn’t resist indulging.
‘They just continue as if nothing has changed – as they did when they were still in the coloured world. Dead or alive, we are always alone.’
‘How poetic.’ She stopped walking, as her mind took her somewhere else.
‘When you are alive you think: If there is another world where we all go to, something must be different there – people must have learnt something. Having eternity before them, they are no longer too time-hungry to spend it on anybody else. But, looking at this, those fantasies have shattered.’
‘We rush too much, of course. There are many here that are sick of being dead – not everyone enjoys their stay in the Monoland. But it has much more compassion and tenderness than life. My own curator had previously once said: ‘I started feeling only after my heart stopped beating’ – this simple phrase became a part of me the very same moment I heard it; I wanted to meet the man who had said that. There are pieces I left behind, regarding my own outlook, that is undoubted.’
From the bazaar, our path laid straight toward one of the large walls surrounding us.
Ah, what a place! These areas are called ‘harbours’.
Harbours existed only in the Monoland, but were entered through the fog from many different locations in the normal world. In Dizz’s words: ‘Both the grey and coloured world share the same space, but at different levels – harbours exist in different space and time, but at same location as other things in the warmies’ lands.’ However unexpected, coming from Dizz, that explanation actually made it clear to me.
Harbours are like pockets in space, and different portals in the fog get us to various harbours; simultaneously, fog portals around the world are interconnected and can all lead to any single harbour, making it possible to cross harbours like an inter-dimensional Metro, which can take you to the opposite side of the globe in an instant. Imagining a harbour-lines map would give one the chills.
The authority building was more of a wall than a building, five storeys high, with no windows on the inner side of the harbour. The offices of the mayor and his trustees were on the fifth floor, and had the few windows in the building. Other employees were to be satisfied with no more a view than their desks.
Our path brought us to the third floor – the ‘Validation Department’. And there was a queue.
Whilst still alive, I occasionally wondered if queues would exist in Heaven or Hell. When I’d think of how frequently humans die, I’d wonder how they sorted and formalized the incoming flow. Here I was now, at the Purgatory registration point, and I could see only seven newcomers, each with their curators, standing before us in the line. I guess I expected some world-sized, ‘Black Friday’-type queue.
‘Dizz, how long will it take me to get used to the thought-voice thing?’
‘Depends. I would say it would be some five years for you.’
‘Five!? For five years I will be saying things I don’t want to?’
‘It will occur less with time, but if you’re asking me when you will get rid of it forever, my bet is five years; maybe less – I’m not an expert.’
‘That’s-’ I paused; ‘I will probably just get used to it before I ever get rid of it.’
Dizz smiled and looked right at me – I assumed she was about to say something which might be support.
‘Did you stare at my butt while we were going up the stairs?’
Don’t say ‘Yes.’ Shit!
Dizz started laughing so loud she was attracting the attention of others, which annoyed me.
‘Are you are going to mock me now?’
‘Sorry, I’m just trying to release a little of the pressure.’
One of the curators noticed us and approached. He was tall, handsome, and had a great Wall Street haircut; when you see these guys in a movie or on TV, they all have great hair, and you hate them because they harm your self-esteem. As he approached Dizz, a grin appeared on his face.
It was immediately evident that they knew each other; Dizz’s face changed, in the same way that of a devout Christian may change upon opening the door to sees Mormons on the doorstep, and she turned her back to him.
‘Dizzy!’ said the Mormon.
She prepared herself for friendly talk and turned back to the now-unavoidable interlocutor; ‘Dorian, how unexpected.’ She clearly had no allusion to absorb anything pleasurable or positive from this encounter. ‘What brings you here?’
‘Paying debt to our beloved Monoland – sharing the knowledge. I see you’ve finally decided to plant the seed.’
‘Sorry, I don’t always get your agricultural metaphors. What do you mean?’
‘Of course, I merely emphasize the generous act of being a curator.’
Standing in line is one of those moments when thoughts are running through your head, but you cannot concentrate on any of them, because all you want to do is get out of the queue and enter that freaking door! At this moment my curator decided she was not going to follow the rules – the moment the lamp above the entrance lit up, she opened the door and told me to go inside. ‘I will catch you up in a moment.’
She closed the door behind me, and I left her out there in the hall with this Dorian guy. For the first time in my life, I wished I were staying in line a little longer; ‘I want to listen,’ my mouth blabbed.
‘Good,’ came a voice.
The voice belonged to a skinny, old man, sat before me behind a large desk; man-sized stacks of documents stood alongside his bureau. ‘I hate it when you come here to talk,’ he said.
He was one of those grumpy old men, who would win the lottery and bemoan the three losing tickets, rather than celebrate the lucky one. The world is bad enough, and it is people like this who continuously make us aware of its areas for improvement.
While he searched for a validation document on his desk, I listened to try and make out the words coming from the other side the door, where Dizz and Dorian were still talking.
‘Don’t stand there – take a seat,’ the old man said, clearly uncomfortable with my snooping. ‘Name?’
‘Just pick a name for your passport and be quick – I have a lot of work to finish.’
‘For your passport – for everything. Name.’ The old man’s impatience rendered him unable to hide the anger in him, and meant everything he said and did was piecemeal and brief.
The unexpected question placed me into the middle of a metaphorical field, where I could theoretically pick any direction, but realistically could only stand still, looking at him; the horizon is the same in any direction, yet I couldn’t make a move.
If you want to make someone shut up, just ask him to tell you something interesting – this is a proverb of an unknown wise man. Requesting an immediate answer has muted many in the world of colour, but here in the Monoland, where the chaos of thought is not silenced by the normal speech filters, the demand ‘say something’ actually works.
‘Can’t understand. Just standing here, thinking – what am I supposed to say? ‘Something’ could mean anything! Name? Mine? Dizz and that guy! Copacabana, Luke, Malcolm, Daniel… Why these names? Copacabana? The hottest spot north of Havana. Stop it! Silence! Inhale… exhale. I know – I can’t breathe, but I need to clean my head-’
‘They’re not available. Alternatives?’ The old man stayed calm, despite his anger, clearly used to that kind of verbal diarrhoea.
‘Rick, Natalie, maybe Richard. Why Rick?’
‘Why am I picking women’s names? Mortimer. Where did this one come from?’
‘Not available.’ He started knocking on the desk with his pen.
‘Why can’t it be Owen?’
‘Available. Pick that one or find an alternative.
‘Owen? Really? It is available?’
‘Just released. Do you take it?’
‘Sure – yes.’
‘‘Owen’.’ He wrote the name on his list, and onto a card, which he put into a stack with others. He wedged the stack into a plastic capsule, and inserted this into a pneumatic tube behind him, closing the terminal behind it. The capsule disappeared with a ‘whoosh’ sound.
My interest in this encounter disappeared along with the capsule, and returned to Dizz and Dorian’s conversation – she was saying something about his ego, and he was laughing.
‘Owen, do you hear me?’
I realized that I was ignoring everything the old man had been saying to me.
The wrath of ages suddenly concentrated across the old man’s eyebrows, and he looked at me with a frown.
Salvation came in the form of Dizz, as the door opened and she entered. ‘My apologies – I was having a chit-chat with another curator in the hall.’
‘Dizz, you’re just in time. I was explaining…’ the man’s eyebrows attacked me again; ‘you explain: what was I saying, young man?’
I didn’t know what to say. Telling the truth, floating atop my thoughts, seemed the best option: ‘I was trying to listen to the conversation outside, and your mumbling was just passing me over… Sorry.’
From her look, I could see Dizz was not in a good mood; the question was: Is it Dorian or I who is responsible for that?
‘Did you say something?’ Dizz said, rescuing me from the eyebrows.
‘The passport – why we need it and what we do next-’ the old man started, before he was interrupted; my wingless angel didn’t let the old man finish his sentence – she grabbed the passport from the desk and me from the chair.
‘It looks like you’re done here, so we can move on.’
Wrath-in-the-flesh didn’t say a word, as he followed us with his eyes, silently out of this room and into the next one. One by one, we would have to pass through all the rooms, moving in a circle.
Dizz handed me my passport as we stepped into the next – a simple, two-page, palm-sized book, lined in every section, with my name at the front.
‘So, it’s Owen,’ Dizz confirmed.
‘At least I won’t have to get used to it.’
The second room was the easiest one to get through, as it contained nothing but a silent photographer, who in less than a moment had added my portrait photograph to an important section next to my name – the document had a personality the moment he had finished.
Room number three: two ladies showed a keen interest in the locations and relocations relevant to my coloured life. After a lengthy discussion, descriptions and my feelings of places I’ve lived in and visited, they let us go into the next room without any updates to my passport.
Room number four: my human interaction experience was a topic within these particular four walls, including racism, nationalism and tolerance to minorities – neutral affliction is typical of those who end up in Purgatory. I tried to make a few jokes, which were met by cold eyes and straight-line lips; I guessed they had probably had enough of jokes, funny stories and flippant comments from the chair which I now sat in – everything aside from their topic of interest was consigned immediately to the vacuum.
When we had finished, another section in the passport had been populated, with the number ‘+2’.
‘It’s your mateyness ratio,’ Dizz explained: ‘zero is an average neutral – from there it either goes up to plus-ten or down to minus-10.’
I wasn’t satisfied with my ratio. But Dizz explained that it could change over time, and I would have to go through the same test at occasional moments throughout my existence in Monoland. That didn’t necessarily mean that it would only go up: some paths would change my mateyness to below zero. She also told me that plus-two was high enough for a newcomer.
Room number five: a consciousness test of humour. I endured a range of jokes and funny stories – childish, rude, dark and absurd – all the time noting my reactions. After a while I felt comfortable enough to fool around, and my listeners laughed mechanically, starting and stopping as though there were a switch on their back to turn it on or off. I heard Dizz occasionally struggling to hold in a laugh, but that just made her create noises which were even funnier.
It was nice to find out that my sense of humour hadn’t died with me, and wasn’t affected by the washed-out colours.
Room number six: compassion and sympathy.
Room number seven: psychological tests.
Room number eight: history.
Room number nine: mythology.
Room number zero: briefing. Finally, a room where I didn’t have to speak – I could just sit and listen.
The first monologue I heard was about zones, and how my passport would work within them. Being a first-level citizen, there were certain zones I could visit. These were those of my home town, and additional international access to zones where my relatives were.
The saddest thing was that I was only allocated access to two areas – my home town was the same place that all my relatives lived in. But I was a little lucky that this happened to lie on a border between two zones, otherwise I would have had to be satisfied with just the one. The list of available zones would increase as I gained ‘level’.
Passports were examined every time one would leave a harbour. We could freely enter any harbour we wished, but at the other end, we were only free to leave should the mist lead to a particular zone we were allowed access to.
The second part of the briefing imposed my first ‘assignment’. This assignment was to release the coloured world, my life and my body, and make all of my living relatives release me. This was the entrance test – the proof of my readiness for a new existence in the Monoland. All the details, and everything I needed to help me complete this assignment, would be provided by my curator.
Before we left, I had only one question – one which was burning the brightest amongst the thousand others inside my head; it was the I’d had since the start of the passport creation process: ‘What are levels?’
‘Everything,’ the head of the Validation Board laughed. ‘That is your status – your verse. You cannot buy it, or achieve it in any other way than completing your assignments and dedicating yourself to our great cause. The higher your level, the better it is for you. Now, go.’
As we left through the ‘EXIT’ door, I briefly saw another mentor-pupil couple enter the room behind us.
We found ourselves back in the main queue hall.
Dizz made out as though to spit on the floor; of course, she wasn’t able to, but it was obvious she wanted to.
‘You told me spitting is useless. Why keep doing it yourself?’
‘I didn’t say I am perfect – it’s the bad habit I couldn’t let go of yet.’
‘In ten years!?’
‘Yes. What about it?’
I laughed the unstoppable laugh of the absurd, of despair and also of arrogance. Everything I had kept bottled up in my subconscious now exploded in this verbal avalanche.
And the more I laughed, the more it irritated Dizz.
‘Our union indeed is promising,’ I said, barely able to stop laughing as I moved towards the exit.
Bewildered, Dizz stood there watching my back, then followed as I left the building.
Back in my apartment, we were standing in the room where I last remember colours, and, according to Dizz, my body was still lying on the floor. Personally I could only see blowflies, and did not want to think about the future which awaited my body if no one else were to find it.
How long would it take someone to find me, bearing in mind that I sometimes wouldn’t get a phone call for days? I’m not trying to smear anyone, but my neighbours would certainly notice something was wrong much earlier than the people who actually know me.
‘Do you want me to say anything?’ Dizz offered. ‘Or just listen?’
‘If my neighbours are out of town, or even if they have a simple cold, they won’t notice the smell of death coming from the apartment next door to them.’
‘Or, they might notice it, but wait for others to make a call to police or the ambulance. That may drag on for days.’
‘You don’t need to tell me about how people behave in the warmies’ world – I was stabbed in a city park, midday, for a pair of earrings…’ Anger was rising in Dizz.
‘Yes,’ I added, ‘things like that happen. You know your example is not isolated’.
She looked at me – right into my eyes, accusingly, as if to say I couldn’t know what I was talking about. She was right: I died in my slippers after an evening watching adult movies.
‘People just turned onto the other path when they saw me lying there…’ Dizz was muttering, as I’d never seen her; ‘..crawling and leaving a crimson trail behind me. I was begging for help, but their indifference had made them all blind and deaf.’
‘What are the chances…?’ I thought back; ‘..Grethel lost her way.’
‘Is that supposed to mean something?’
‘I remember reading an article about a junkies’ feud, which ended in a slaughter. What made me remember this one was the manner of the girl’s death – a daytime attack in the park; they found the girl stabbed a dozen times, some hundred metres from where the incident took place. I remember thinking back then that this was impossible – how could no one have seen? And now I know that they did see… they were just not looking.’
‘I was the one stabbed.’
‘But that was in Italy, some ten or so years back.’
‘So just think about this: what are the chances? This all must mean something.’
‘It just means that while you were alive you read the newspapers.’ She paused for a second; ‘And anticipating your next question: it doesn’t matter what language we were speaking back then – now we all talk Monolandish.’
Once again I looked at the empty spot, where lay my body that I couldn’t see – still without an explanation of why.
‘What do we do next?’ I addressed her.
‘What do you mean?’
What a cold, grey and unflinching world. Living in it felt like going on a school excursion when a child: we wanted to touch and feel, but any attempt to cross the rope-barrier, or to step off of the standard route, was suppressed by a cruel teacher. The only difference here is that there were no wooden boards explaining the rules – there seemed only one single way to get answers: step off of the route. I didn’t think my current ‘cruel teacher’ would mind – it seemed to me that she could do with learning something new as well.
This place was the ‘Gorgon Garden World’, as was each and every item in it – a colourless painting, finished and discarded. I must have been a fly, fussing about the picture, yet unable to affect the dried paint.
‘It’s been days since we came back to work on my assignment.’
‘So what? It’s your body creating the foul smell.’
‘Let it smell. That is my body and I’ll do what I want! What’s that to you anyway – you don’t even notice the stink?’
Her body in the park suggested an absence of family members, friends and a lover – or perhaps some Romeo who loved his Juliet, then forgot about her two doses after her death. In my opinion this made Dizz useless for the assignment.
I blamed her for taking on such a responsibility as me, without preparing for or thinking further about it. To be honest, I couldn’t understand why she was allowed to curate.
‘Maybe we should go to my family?’
‘Want to bring them here?’
‘I just wanted to see Mom. But, actually, good job mentor-‘ I stood by the door, waiting for Dizz to stand up ‘-I can try to reach my Mom through the glow and she will come here – she has the second key to the apartment.’
I had discovered what ‘glow’ is: the aura which transmits a connection between the coloured world and the grey world.
Any item which implies a symbolic connection can assist communication between two consciousnesses, and is called a connector – television sets, telephones, computers, any pieces of visual art, music and also nature itself make great connectors. Glow communication provides the only possible means by which to speak to the world on the other side, send signals, or just keep track of the living.
But (leaping ahead a little now), all my attempts to use the glow later on that day shattered in vain.
I was starting to grow sick of acting the offended boy – I realized I wanted to talk; even more, I wanted to listen.
‘What glow sources do you usually use?’ I asked Dizz.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean: how you prefer to contact the coloured land? What sources do you use?’
‘All, I guess…’
‘Why is it so hard to talk to you?’
‘Maybe you are asking the wrong questions.’
‘Maybe my curator should stop acting like a beyond-the-grave bitch, and correct her pupil.’
Dizz stopped and laughed, as once again my nervous outbreak was met with ridicule. I wanted to continue my rudeness, but I could also feel the pressure which had been following us lately vanish. I smiled too.
‘What’s so funny?’ I asked. ‘I was trying to be serious. I’m like a three-year-old boy trying to find out what, how and why, and all the while my curator is expecting me to formulate the ‘correct question’.’
‘So sweet, Owen,’ she just smiled.
‘Am I taking my assignment too seriously? What is so sweet about my confusion?’
‘You almost called me ‘Mom’.’ Barely finished speaking, she burst out laughing, and I did the same.
So, there we stood, together on the grey street, in our grey caps, under a grey tree, among other grey passers-by, hysterically laughing, and we didn’t care.
Out of habit and instinct, I reached into my pocket for the key as we were approaching the door – of course, it wasn’t there. Fortunately, for the dead, all doors are open.
The apartment was empty.
‘She must be at work.’ I realized what time of day it was, and that of course Mom wouldn’t be home. ‘We’ll have to wait.’
‘Show me around, then.’ Dizz was already walking around, familiarizing herself with the place.
As we walked through the apartment, I proved myself to be a bad guide, with my ‘this is a chair, and this is a picture’ kind of tour.
Then we stopped by the table, and I saw Mom’s favourite photos on it; that was when I disappeared. Not physically, of course, but in a way that refers to my consciousness. That’s how I describe it now, but back then I didn’t know who I was, what I was doing or why; I just disappeared.
I returned after Dizz had called me for a third time.
‘Where were you?’
‘See this one?’ I pointed at a picture in which I was eleven, if I’m not mistaken. In it, I was sitting on a white chaise-longue in a lotus pose – my favourite way to sit when I want to relax – with a straw hat on my head, which hid me from the sun; I was screwing up my eyes and smiling slightly into the camera. ‘Mom’s favourite picture.’
‘You are cute.’
‘I was, back then.’ I exhaled and sat down, recreating myself in the picture; I stared right into my own eyes in the photograph. ‘That’s why she likes it so much – because she associated with that child, which I no longer am. I pulled back and separated myself from the family, into my imaginary vault.’
There are moments when you don’t know what to say, or how to react – sometimes, no words are best; Dizz said exactly what I needed to hear: nothing.
The photo emitted light, as did every other on the shelf.
‘Let’s get going,’ she finally said. ‘I think this will be the best connector – when your Mom gets back, you should try to reach her through this photo.’
‘No. We’re leaving.’
‘Why? You found what we came for, Owen – it’s only a matter of chance to use it.’
‘I don’t want her to be the one who finds me – it would be cruel and selfish. Let’s go – we’ll find some other way.’
‘A third party?’
‘When you draw in a person from outside to influence the situation – a third party.’
‘Okay – third party it is.’
The sound of the key entering the lock took our attention. It turned once, then once more, then the door opened wide.
As wide as my eyes when I saw my father standing in the doorway.
‘What is he doing here?’
‘My mother and father didn’t live together for many years, even before the divorce. Mother didn’t want to leave him, even when he had issues, yet, since the divorce, he always told me she initiated it, and he had just had to live with it. He used to put himself in the seat of the victim.’
The sad thing is that I, too, took on this side of his character: always the victim and never the bad guy – it had felt comfortable. I didn’t tell Dizz this part – it didn’t feel comfortable now.
‘Then why is he walking in like a burglar?’ It was a fair question after my explanation.
We stood and watched him; I caught myself on, trying to be quiet. Father walked over and stopped right next to us, staring at the photographs. His face was different to the one I was used to seeing: there was no anger or disgust – he just stood there, moving his eyes over the photos to mine.
‘Do it!’ Dizz pushed me towards him.
‘If you don’t want your Mom to find you, use your Dad. He is a man, and will be stronger than she is.’
‘I doubt that. Even if so, he doesn’t care.’
‘And that’s exactly why he’s standing here, looking at your photograph?’
‘Common sense! Do it! He loves you, despite what you both think; he is your father, and he will get your message.’
Father picked up the same photo I was telling Dizz about a moment earlier, and I was standing right behind him. I, too, looked at the picture, then at him, and once again at the picture. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘Make it clear! Think of a situation when your friend may have asked you to look at a lamp and turn it off with the power of your mind. Then imagine what the first thing in your mind would be.’
‘How am I supposed to do that?’ I was drilling the picture with my eyes.
‘Just believe that you are talking with him, looking at him, and that he sees or hears you. Think of something in common between the two of you.’
I can’t remember what I was thinking of, but Dizz went into a different room, so as not to listen or distract me. I remember standing there, uttering every memory of the past, which was meaningful to my father and I.
He picked up the photo of me in a straw hat. He looked at it, I looked at it, and for one brief moment I could see my reflection in the glass of the frame. And he looked right at me.
He dropped the frame, and it broke. Taking a step back, I watched as his face changed – I have no idea what he must have been feeling or thinking; I myself was shocked, and we were both swearing out loud.
Dizz ran into the room, and from first sight, she understood immediately that we had made contact. My father picked up the phone, and was now checking the phone book.
‘He’s going to call you now.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Let’s get back to the apartment – we need to wait for him there.’
‘Why do you think he’ll go there?’
‘Your phone is dead and he won’t be able to call you, so he’ll come to see you.’
‘You don’t know him,’ I laughed; ‘he could wait for weeks before trying to call me again.’
‘Look,’ she pointed at my father, who was now a step behind me: ‘he has already tried twice. He’s a better man than you think – don’t hate him after death, otherwise it is that hate that will keep you connected, and that is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do here.’
‘If you say so. How are we going to get him into the apartment?’
‘We will think of that when we get there.’
We left my Mom’s apartment and left Father alone there.
Now, when I think of this moment, it makes me slightly ashamed, that there may have been moments that I might not have been alone – that somebody from the Monoland might have been watching me. Even worse, it might have been relatives of mine, coming to say goodbye at the very moment I was doing something inappropriate, and shameful.
We ran out of the house, and set foot to my smelly apartment.
Back home, nothing had changed. Invisible to my sight, my body lay in the middle of the room (according to my curator), as we sat and waited for my father to raid the place.
I still had no idea how he was supposed to get in – but ‘curator says, pupil does’. That’s how we were taught back at school, and I hear the same system works for paroled prisoners. So, here we were.
‘What are we waiting for?’
‘Your father will come and realize that something is wrong – that’s quite enough for a family member to lose control and common sense. Then we will do whatever it takes to open the door.’
‘And what is that: ‘whatever it takes’? Clap and jump?’
‘You couldn’t predict his feelings and you cannot predict the obstacles in this case. ‘Whatever it takes’ means we will improvise.’
‘How is he going to understand something is wrong in the first place?’
‘Don’t be a blockhead! The decay odour – they say it’s very specific, and difficult to mistake for any other.’
‘But we don’t even know if there is any smell inside. What should it smell like?’
An hour or so passed before Father appeared (I can’t actually be sure it was an hour, but I had a good sense of time back in colour). We were waiting by the entrance door when he came, and, for the second time in one day, he surprised me – he stopped a few steps from the door and started doing what I usually did in any similar situation: thinking. That is the moment that I already knew how this would end – same genes, same behaviour; we turn our backs to possibilities and choices, burning bridges behind us, and losing chances of seeing what lies beyond them.
Dizz saw this too – she watched him taking uncertain steps backward, and didn’t waste a second; one short-circuit later, and the neighbour’s doorbell was going crazy.
I stood petrified; what had happened was a magic trick to me – I had no idea we could affect the glow in that way. I didn’t even see the glow on it.
The man next door came out and saw my father, realizing that it was not some childish prank. ‘Did you want something?’
‘No. I came to see your neighbour, but it seems like there’s no-one home.’
‘He probably left to go somewhere – I haven’t seen him for some time now.’ It was still unknown to me when he had last seen me.
‘This conversation is going nowhere,’ I said.
Dizz silently agreed, and opening the grey door into my apartment. ‘Follow me,’ she threw at me, as she ran into the room. I followed her, leaving the two men on the staircase.
‘Now, be decisive and act fast.’ She looked me in the eyes; ‘How do we stop them talking? How do we make them break in?’
I had no idea – the ones that I had had were now disappearing like leaves in late autumn.
‘Burn the whole place!’ I finally blazed. ‘Just burn it and forget about it.’
‘Do it! What are you waiting for?’
I was waiting for a logical rejection of my anger-filled thought, but Dizz was actually seeing some sense in it.
I recalled there was a wall outlet with exposed wires, which sparked every time it was touched. Two big steps later I was in the other corner of the room, lying on the floor and trying to reach the socket; but the coverlet that was always too big for the bed didn’t let me get to it – ‘Gorgon’s Garden’ once again showed its unwillingness to cooperate. But, at least my head had started working, and I ran into the kitchen to find another fire hazard in the apartment.
What I saw attached a smile to my face: a blanket on the gas stove. But as quickly, the smile detached: there was no way I could affect the gas stove.
I ran back into the bedroom and tried to get the magic working, touching the wall at the spot where I thought the wires were running. I stared with crazy eyes at the wall outlet under the bed, willing it to spark.
Suddenly, what happened next was accompanied by silence. In fact, what happened was silence itself – silence created due to the two men behind the door having stopped talking: Father was leaving.
And at that moment, one other thing took place, beside the silence: a pulse of energy; a ray of glow… something which simply couldn’t be imagined without further explanation.
My hand was still on the wall, and I believe that my own energy field intervened with that of the socket – the ensuing electrical indignation created a short circuit, which threw out sparks from under my bed. The old, dry carpet was too weak to defend itself against even the fewest of them, and the thin thread of smoke quickly grew – into a small fire.
To think of it now, I had slept on this bed for half a year, all the time that close to being burnt alive by a single short-circuit.
Together with Dizz, I ran out into the staircase, to see if the smoke or fire had drawn the attention of the two men outside. My neighbour was standing at his door, already in the process of closing it behind him. My father was already walking back to the stairs – no sign of smoke there.
‘Excuse me, Sir,’ a familiar voice stopped my father in his tracks.
Another door near the staircase opened, and an old lady came out. ‘That’s him, right there,’ she said, pointing at my father.
The familiar voice was coming from another figure, a few steps toward the stairs – my landlord. The old lady seemed to have called him when she saw the two men standing outside my door; thankfully, the mind of an old person often gives birth to conspiracies, probably due to a lack of events in their own life – she had found their behaviour fishy. One phone call from her, and my suspicious landlord had arrived faster than on rent collection day.
A ‘who’ and ‘why’ dialogue began – my father and neighbour apparently on trial for ‘trying to break in’ to my apartment.
I jumped back into the room to check on the fire – I found it was maturing, and had already taken half of the bed-chamber! But, still no smoke in the staircase.
Still, the quarrel on the stairs was stepping up a level; they decided to check the apartment. I don’t know how they came to this decision, but thank God they did.
They stopped at the door, and the discussion continued – my father, landlord, neighbour and the old lady were now fighting over who had the right to enter my private property. The old woman, even though it was she who had called the owner to check in the first place, was now the loudest to speak when the issue of privacy became the subject – she told them she would call the police if any of them opened my door.
Luckily, the fact is that adults often ignore the opinions of old people; the smell of smoke had finally reached them, and fire was now being perceived as a real danger. It was my neighbour who reacted first, and within a second they were all attacking the door, before the landlord recalled that he had the key.
The door opened, and the whole team entered my cosy apartment as it became a blazing inferno.
Surrounded by those tongues of fire, they saw my body.
‘Owen!’ screamed my father.
I was there when she came home.
It was late, and when the sun hides behind the horizon, the coloured world and Monoland almost share the same shades – dark and grim.
Almost midnight; almost a new day, when the clock finishes its cycle and starts a new one – its never-ending race to catch the last second.
My death is in the past – I was alive, and I have died; found and identified already. My father took the body out, and wouldn’t let firefighters or medics touch me. He held me in his hands, all the way out of the fire, downstairs and into the ambulance. He would let nobody else pack up the body, and I couldn’t really understand that; didn’t understand why you would want to look at the corpse of your son after days on the apartment floor, with only the company of flies, and burnt from the fire.
As the coroner closed the door, my father called Mom. Since that moment I have been her shadow. After the longest day of her life, we finally went home.
She walked in, forgetting to take her shoes off. Realizing this only on reaching the kitchen, she returned to the corridor and undressed. Walking back into the room, she found the broken frame containing her favourite picture.
Tears and noise now came from her, and she fell to her knees, slowly slipping down to her side. The cupboard she leant on stopped her from sliding onto the floor.
Seeing her crying was the worst part in this, my ‘goodbye’ story – my mother spent countless time there, with that picture; when she finally stood up, she moved only two steps forward, to take another album, and sat back down to cry all the more, over every picture she saw in that collection. A book intended to capture such happy memories becomes a book of tears when you lose someone from within it, just as does a photo album for couples, separated and leafing through the past; first with tears, then, much later, with a smile.
If I recall collectively, we call this the seven stages of grief – seven ways to drop tears: tears of unawareness, tears of the martyr, tears of wrath, tears of solitude, tears of ascending, tears of recreation and, finally, tears of joy; when you can finally cry, and say; ‘Life was great then, and it will be even better in the future’.
My only thought was that my Mom had moved directly to the tears of solitude, bypassing the first three stages, as she leafed through that album.
The universe is like a capricious child, which will do everything to contradict our plans, but you can’t just spank the world! (I could sell stickers reading this – they might go well on the trunk of your car, bicycle, or backpack.)
Later on, at my burial, I saw relatives and friends I didn’t even know I had, and didn’t see many I would have expected to show up. Relatives are egoists, and they never listen to each other.
For many years, whenever talk here or there had come to the subject of the Underworld, I had always said: ‘No freaking ground! Burn me.’ I wanted cremation – for me there was no other option. Of course, there is the old-fashioned way, but no longer an option in my lifetime; the funeral of my dream is the Viking one: burnt on a sailing boat, and everyone having a good party afterward. Not for me, though – I’m not warrior enough for such treatment. My friends who knew about my wishes stayed silent, and my Mom did as she pleased. So, here we are.
Even though I’d spent a few days rotting, there were grim faces around the coffin which looked worse than I did!
Dizz was standing next to me, and she took my arm when three guys started throwing dirt onto my coffin. I thought at that moment: Why is she doing this? I’m okay.
I realized that that was when I started to release the bonds of my body – my shell.
The worst came next: to make my relatives and friends release me from the coloured world, and leave no ties or bonds.
Friends are easier to break bonds with – that I knew. By the time I had finished the work with my parents, my friends would already have released me and moved on, simply because they are young; without all the drinking and chatting, friends do forget each other – that is normal. Life goes on, and none of the dead I have met would want that to be any different – whether my view or not, that’s what I’ve heard, here in the Monoland.
I spent days with my mother, and from time to time visited my father. I tried to reach them through the phone or TV set, mirrors, music and computers. But for more than a month or so, I didn’t even come close.
I was surprised to see that some of my friends visited Mom, just to check on her. But after a while there were fewer calls, and then no more visits. I didn’t blame anybody – it was for the best.
Spring was already warm, and you know how it is – spring days like these made me hope that the rest of the summer could be as warm and beautiful as it was back in those days.
Mother was walking home, as she had started to do after my death – it calmed her, and helped take her mind off of her sorrow. She didn’t cry much now, but when she did, they were the tears of ascending – though I was still on a thin, firm thread; my assignment was already taking too long.
I’d started spending more time in the harbour – the very same one I’d visited on my first day in grey. It had good pubs, which supplied fierce ethers. ‘Ether’ is what they call the liquor here – it is a drink, but not a liquid; you can drink it, but you cannot spill it on your shirt. Ethers made one feel frisky and giggly – more than enough to cool down; I needed it more and more often. I became the dead-land tippler.
I was still wearing the T-shirt (‘You either reign or serve’), shorts and my slippers from the painted land. Dizz was no longer babysitting me, as she had her own assignments to do, but she always knew where to find me.
On one of those occasions Dizz was already in a bad mood, and I was the last drop which made her cup overflow.
‘Freaking bastard!’ she started, in a voice far from friendly.
‘What brings you to our cafe of vanity and despair, my dear curator?’
‘Stop the poetry, Owen!’ She hit (and not a mere slap!) me across my cheek. ‘How much more of eternity are you going to waste on ethers?’
‘As you yourself just mentioned, this is eternity, and as we both know, it is infinite.’ This made me laugh, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the ethers made me laugh. I took another hit on my other cheek – a review for my bad joke.
‘Let’s get going. You will stay in the warmies’ world until you finish your assignment – I will not let you step ten metres away from your Mom,’ she screamed at me; ‘so, you waste not only your own time, but your mother’s too. Do you want to become one of these?’ She pointed at those around us, who hadn’t left the pub or the harbour for now-immeasurable time – those who had never completed the first assignment, or who skipped Federal Purgatory Employment (which I’ll talk more about later).
Dizz finally used her hands to simply move me, rather than harm me; she brought me outside. ‘What’s the problem, Owen?’
‘No problem. Except I can’t make contact, and my curator is always somewhere else when I need her.’
‘If you want help, you ask for it, don’t wait for it. Don’t you get that?’
‘Well, yeah. Though no-one explained the rules, features and traditions of essential communication to me here.’
‘It works the same on both sides of the palette, you idiot! You either do it yourself or you ask for help – waiting for it only brings you here,’ she pointed to the pub.
‘Where were your words a month or two back, when I started?’
‘You didn’t ask and you didn’t listen.’ She stopped talking for a second, then uttered to herself: ‘Four months.’
‘Say hello to the ethers!’ she counterattacked, using my own shock.
‘I was drinking while my parents were mourning…’ I was disgusted with myself.
Ethers are good in one respect: they vanish from your head at the very moment you decide to concentrate.
So, now sober, and back with my companion, I walked through the mist to finish my assignment – to get my family to release me – so I could live free; to give me this freedom.
Three days passed without any result reaching my relatives through the glow, and even Dizz was losing patience. We were following my Mom home from work, through the grove, when she proposed something new.
‘Come on, Owen. What else did you try without me – what methods worked better than others? Find your glow technique.’
‘Like a mage choosing his element?’
‘You have too much fantasy stuff in your head – clean it up for useful ideas.’
‘So, what have you tried?’
‘Everything. I’ve tried using all kinds of electrical machinery: television, computer, phone, and even the heavy evaporating machine she uses at work – but all pointless. I tried art… like music, sculpture, pictures and books. I tried to appear in the mirror, just like the first time with my father-’
‘That’s it!’ she interrupted me; ‘Glass and mirrors may just seem like mystical junk, but they are part of nature.’
I didn’t agree with her on this point.
‘Glass comes from nature,’ she insisted; ‘it is just a deformed piece of a planet’s resource.’
‘So, what do we do? Keep trying with mirrors and reflective surfaces?’
‘No. With nature.’
‘Everything you see around you right now.’
‘What am I – a druid, now?’
‘I said to forget these elvish things.’
She looked around her, and up ahead in the direction that my Mom was walking. ‘Come on – get to that tree!’
‘That’ tree was one which was growing right in the middle of the road, with a brick pathway built around it. I ran over to it, and stood with one hand against it, and the other outstretched to contact Mom’s energy field when she passed by.
But this didn’t work – I couldn’t touch her, because her magnetic force was repelling my hand; she couldn’t feel a thing. She was now walking away, and I was calling her, but she didn’t hear me.
Dizz told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I felt rage rising in me.
I kicked the tree; ‘Stop!’
‘Owen?’ my mother stopped and turned around. My rage, the tree, the glow… combined it had all created an energy boom – she heard it.
‘Owen, is that you?’ Mom’s eyes moistened, as she looked all around her. She stepped off of the brick path, onto the grass.
‘Mom! Can you hear me – can you feel me?’
‘Owen, please – if that’s you, give me a sign.’
I couldn’t find one.
Then I understood: I didn’t need a sign – what I was doing was the opposite of what I needed to do. The bond between us was stronger than this, and as soon as I realized, it grew stronger still. As she cried and leant against the tree – I took the chance to prove it. I leant against the same tree, on the other side – back to back with my Mom. The magnetism wasn’t repelling from this distance, and I could stand comfortably still.
‘Mom, please hear me – feel my presence. I want you to release me – you need to live on. Please hear me.’
She was standing, silently looking into the limbs of trees around her.
‘You cannot live like this any longer – I am dead, and there is no wrong or bad to take from it. I want you to be happy for me, not worried. You need to find a life and go on with it – it’s all still there in front of you: a future. Please turn to face it, and stop searching for me in the past. Please, Mom – I want you to be happy.’
‘Why did this happen to you?’ she whispered into the air.
‘Stop it! Just let it go! I won’t come back!’
‘Why..?’ A tear dropped down her cheek.
‘I don’t know!’ I screamed in anger. ‘Just let it go… please…’
She stayed where she was a little bit longer. Then, Dizz and I followed her home. When the night came, we left.
That was the day she shed tears of recreation; we were both freed from that burdening bond.
We took a few days off-duty, and spent them on the shore of the once-picturesque seaside. A place where warmies go to wash off their bad memories, or calm burning scars from their hearts.
Here, you could be surrounded by hundreds of happy couples, kids, old people, and still your attention would be drawn to the sight of the one lonely person, sitting on the shore in tears, with a face reflecting echoes of the broken heart. The pain and sorrow of loss are hard to ignore – happiness is simple, whereas loneliness is a mystery.
When I had finished my philosophising, we went to my father’s house, not far from the sea.
As I stepped into the living-room, I saw him the way I had done for years: on the sofa, watching TV.
It may take some time to catch him outside in the garden, but if the plan has worked once, then you repeat it, right? His garden was full of trees, and my plan was to catch him at the moment he sat under the plum tree. This tree was fighting for light, and its trunk featured a natural step, which I could use as a seat. Father always sat there for a cigarette, while working in the garden.
Before the contact, when trying to reach him, I had felt one thing: our bond was gone. I could feel it even then, but I had been concentrating on making contact with him.
It was good on the one hand – I didn’t have to go through the glow communication process all over again, and wait for it to work. But it was bad on the other hand: despite all our arguments, I selfishly wished he was sad, and would be unable to let go so quickly. Yet, despite all the egocentric thoughts in my mind, I didn’t want him to grieve.
It was strange: I could feel that something – or more accurately, someone – was keeping me chained to this world, and I had no idea who it was.
I spent some time as Father’s shadow. I hadn’t seen him for a long while, and I just wanted to spend time with him.
I’ve forgotten to mention that we are not allowed to come into contact or proximity with our relatives and loved ones after the first assignment has been completed – we are not to mix work with our personal lives, nor are we to interfere in any way with theirs. After my bond-breaking assignment was complete, I knew I would lose the privilege of ever seeing my family.
So, we spent the day watching TV.
Without colour, TV cannot conceal its brain-blocking function. I always assumed that modern television - especially our 3D sets at home - create ‘happy-blinkers’ - those who sit with smiles as wide as their 42”- 60” screens, greedily blinking as if their eyes were chewing up the pictures, colours and sounds. The number of ‘happy-blinkers’ increases every day, as parents discover television to be the best nanny and teacher for their kids; in the race of addictions, smoking and alcohol don’t stand a chance against ‘happy-blinking’ - TV is a bacteria, housing a virus which we proudly bring into our homes; it represents status for some.
These thoughts kept me busy while my father watched infectious TV. Questions rushed through my head: could I get addicted to TV in Monoland; do we have our own channels there?
After the sun went down behind the fence, Father decided to go for a walk, which was good for both of us: I was sick of sitting, and he needed some fresh air.
We were in the woods, and I felt that I wanted to say something to my father. There was no other choice but to try the trees and the flora around us. I knelt, and acted in a way which would make those who saw me call me an idiot, were there anyone around to see me: I was screaming at the earth, the pine roots and the plants all around me.
‘Hear me! Listen to me! For once in your life, hear me!’
But Father was still walking further, and I had to stop my shamanic ritual to catch up with him, keeping a close distance.
Dizz had work to do; she hadn’t wanted to go as my behaviour was amusing her. But I wouldn’t have been so open and tried so hard, had her eyes still been on me. Now I wouldn’t be able to blame Dizz for my failure, as she wasn’t there – I just had to accept that I wasn’t doing any good making contact. Of course, realizing this is one thing – finding a way to fix it is another.
The solution came from within again. The anger and rage inside me emerged in a burst of energy, as, on my knees, I hit the ground. The words I sent into the air with this energy finally reached Father, and I knew he felt them.
‘Freaking glow!’ is the message I delivered from the other side.
Father stopped and sank into thought. At that moment I realized I had delivered not only my message, but more: my presence, my inner state and my thoughts changed the message I had wanted to pass on, to one of frustration.
Immediately I thought of everything I wanted to tell him, in as few words as possible; I tried to think of some good moments we had had.
After another hit to the ground, with all the rage I could drain from myself, I could see how I was getting to him. My father recoiled and whispered my name.
As he went on home, I think I saw him smiling.
‘Owen, you bastard!’ Dizz entered the pub, screaming.
I had no choice but to leave my ethers unfinished and leave with my curator.
We stepped out of the pub into Miley Harbour – as one of the bar regulars said: an excellent place for guys like us. Indeed – the place was filled with tipplers, whores, thieves and beggars.
Miley Harbour – a good place to decay! Too bad they don’t pay for slogans in Purgatory.
The place resembled the nightlife quarters we were never shown, and as I always imagined them, in one of those fantasy books for children, filled with horny elves, orcs, trolls and filthy gnomes. But still, that was a good fantasy book, and Miley Harbour is not that good. It is not a good place to be at all if you are sober.
Dizz’s mood changed from bad to dreadful when the bartender stopped us at the door, and demanded payment for all the ethers I had ordered. I can’t say if he was telling the truth about the number – I don’t remember much of it – but we had no choice, and Dizz had to pay for my carelessness.
‘How much?’ she muttered between her teeth.
‘Twenty mocks.’ He folded his arms officiously.
Dizz didn’t say a word to him or me about the bill – she simply paid my debt and we proceeded to the Miley’s exit.
‘Your passport’ is a standard phrase we hear on the exit from any harbour, and this time was no different. Except that this time I didn’t have one to show!
‘How could you lose your passport, you idiot!?’ A standard phrase you would expect to hear from your curator, when she has come to pick you up and redeem you from the dump you were in, only to find that the two of you can’t leave.
‘Find it here or go somewhere else – just don’t hold up the line,’ said the guards on the mist control.
We had to move away, and I once again checked every pocket of the three that I had. When we were a hundred per-cent sure I had indeed lost my passport, we returned to the pub, where I had spent most of my time in Miley Harbour.
‘Never seen this man,’ said the bartender, when Dizz asked if he had come across it whilst cleaning the table.
‘We left this place a moment ago! I gave you twenty mocks.’
‘Really? There are so many of you freebie lovers; you get your ethers, leave before you get caught, then come back with complaints.’ He had an angry face, as he stood before us, cleaning empty glasses.
‘Anyway,’ Dizz just ignored what he’d said; ‘have you seen his passport or not?’
‘Ask Marcelora,’ he nodded accusingly toward me.
‘Who’s Marcelora?’ Dizz continued the interrogation.
‘His girl! Well, she was his, while he was still in a condition to pay and order, then she left. She should be in the Razors – she’s always there, when she’s not in my place.’
I didn’t ask questions, because I was too afraid to hear harsh answers. The only thing I wanted to know was: ‘What is ‘Razors’?’
‘It’s a quarter, here in Miley. A whores’ block, so to speak.’
Dizz looked at me accusingly; ‘Good job, Owen. Working hard on your skills and your assignment? Sure you don’t need a break?’
I was embarrassed, and my guilt was in the red. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, and just walked ahead, until Dizz caught up with me and took over leading the path.
She guided us into the Razors. The block looked no different to any other.
‘Why ‘the Razors’? What’s the analogy?’ I questioned aloud, not looking at Dizz directly – I felt a little bitter at how she was looking at me, and I didn’t want to meet her eyes.
‘Whores used razors, hidden in their mouths, to defend themselves. Later, when the threat had passed, they moved from defence to offence, and used the technique to pinch customers.’
‘How was that?’
‘They still hid razors in their mouths, and they robbed customers, who had no choice but to pay.’
‘Oh… Oh!’ It took a moment for what she had meant to sink in. Then, I suddenly felt the need to check I was unharmed, after my time with Marcelora.
Dizz wouldn’t let me talk to anyone here, and asked a few of the girls about the whereabouts of the person we sought. Somehow it didn’t even look that she was having to pay for the information; not a single mock was spent – according to the statistics, that was almost impossible in Razors.
Marcelora was living in a small house here. When we stepped inside, without knocking, we found it appeared to be even smaller on the inside. More than that, this house (which could be better described as a small ‘flat’ for one), was actually home sweet home to three people.
One of those people was our Marcelora.
I know it didn’t matter now, and probably didn’t really matter back then, but I had hoped to see a not-bad-looking girl. When the three room-mates appeared before us, complaining about our intrusion onto their property, I actually couldn’t say which would have been the better choice – all three were gorgeous!
Their habits seemed worse than those of any lazy, beer-loving work-hater, who spends years in a dirty armchair, wearing dirty clothes and shouting nasty comments at the TV… I think you get the cliché. One was perched on the sofa, one in the chair, and the third was sitting at the window; I am not sure, but I thought she was planning to pee, without bothering to leave the room.
Still, they were beautiful, and a happy smile crossed my face; with a single look, Dizz removed it.
‘Who’s Marcelora?’ she threw into the three prom-queens.
‘What about her?’ responded the girl on the sofa, looking in any other direction but ours.
‘I understand this guy is cute, but you understand that without his photo, he can’t get out of this fantastic place that you call home. Do you have the passport?’
‘What about it?’ she kept her eyes averted from us.
‘We want it back?’ Dizz looked at her with a ‘what-the-f-’ expression; ‘What else?’
‘What can you offer?’ one of them said.
That’s when Dizz asked me to wait outside.
A few moments later she came out, with my passport and twenty mocks.
Ever since the ‘Razor Incident’ of that day, I have paid a lot more attention to Dizz’s mood, and have tried to keep it better than average, in any possible way.
With my passport back, we could finally leave the Miley. Once again, my curator had taken me out of the ether-bottle, and into the world I loved so much – hiding from behind the harbour’s mist.
‘LET IT GO, LET IT GO’
World of warmies: planes of colours and painted land.
When you come out of the mist, after spending a good share of moments in a harbour, it almost feels like coming back into the world of the living. Only it’s grey.
We spent quite some time searching for the remaining hook – an elusive anchor which was holding me here, and stopping me from being free to travel the vast oceans of Monoland, with its deep shades and tones of existence. I’d seen all my friends and enemies, but the one I was looking for seemed to be laying at the bottom of the bag. Some people say that ‘the truth is always at the top’ – I would agree with that, if one starts searching from the bottom!
In my case, we had searched through all levels of my life, until I eventually realized we had forgotten one person who had been present on all of them – someone who was a good friend, despite her tendency to disappear for years, from time to time. A person I both hate and love at times. Her name is Christy.
There are some people in your life, which you can’t put in one pile with the other seven billion. These are the people who, when you’re asked about them, you always start with: ‘I’ll tell you the story’, or ‘That’s a long story,’ (respectively, whether you wish to share that story or skip it).
Christy and I – we had a story; I started telling it to Dizz when she asked me:
‘It started a long time ago, and many times I thought that this is one of those encounters which affect your life to its very last breath – that you have reached a crossroads, where you take a decision about whether to change your path. Now I understand I was thinking of her during my scene of agony – in my last moment. We met many years ago, yet I can say I’ve known her my whole life.’
‘I get it: romance and despair,’ Dizz sighed.
‘No – it was always something in-between. Romance and despair are sides of a blade, but we walked on the edge of it.’
‘Yeah, yeah… Scratches and no satisfaction. I understand that you like the story, but could you please skip the metaphors and go straight to highlights?’
This was a distressing thing to hear, but I can understand Dizz. Maybe not back then, but now, for sure – what is a special moment for one person, may be nothing but yawn-inducing for another.
‘We had an affair which turned into a friendship, with much more emotion than friendship between a man and woman should have. But this friendship left a lot of words hanging and gestures unexplained – there is more order in chaos than in the relationship that we had.
‘A turn of events brought us to a point at which we wouldn’t see each other for another period of years – maybe forever. So, I decided to remove her from my heart, my thoughts and my memories. And it worked: I was living a happy life for almost two years.
‘Then I died, and only now I understand what happened. For egotistical reasons, I made ‘goodbye’ video-letters for friends and family; but the one addressed to Christy had all the unspoken words. When I died, I took the responsibility off of me, and I made her guilty, because of our… happily ever after chapter.’
‘Stop right there! You’re about to spare yourself,’ Dizz predicted, and she was right.
‘Sorry. I just see now how egotistical this was.’
‘You shouldn’t care about that now – you are dead and she is not. All that matters now is to make her forget you, and relieve her of the guilt.’
‘Cutting chains with the warmies makes both sides feel better. Remember this, and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Deal?’
Dizz then left, saying she had work to do; she would be waiting for me at the Slippy Harbour – the one which we had visited first. I told her that she might be waiting for some time, and she just laughed.
She left me to deal one on one with Christy.
Being dead doesn’t stop one feeling uncomfortable around a girl one has, or had, feelings for.
The more I thought about getting Christy to release me, the less I wanted it; the feeling of being loved – or even liked – and of being needed, feeds one’s self-confidence… one’s self-affirmation. No wants to be alone forever. My ego wants to be in control of the proportion of alone/together in my own existence, and create the perfect cocktail.
Christy was beautiful – I always thought so.
She had left her last job, and was now working from home again, as she’d done before. I could never understand how, but she managed to live financially, and much better than I did! I sat by her, just watching her work – it was charming.
It seemed that, as well as her job, she had also left her boyfriend.
Preoccupied with all the use of nature and plants for communication, I had overlooked other sources of glow, which were surrounding us right here in her room. She was looking at photographs on her PC, which featured a big collection of ours. I tried to send her my message through them.
I told her there was no point in suffering – no point in flogging herself; I wanted to let her live a free and happy life. This message was probably the reason my message went through, and with my growing experience, she heard it.
I still didn’t want her to forget me, and it was hard for me to let her go – it had been much easier to ignore her when we had both lived.
She heard everything I told her, and I continued the visits until she got the message. I used everything I could inside the room, and in nature, when she went outside to meet friends. I was better with nature – Dizz was right: it was my specialty; the easiest glow for me to tame and use.
After a few days, while Christy was asleep, I suddenly knew I felt different; it didn’t take me long to acknowledge that I was finally free of the coloured world’s chains.
I waited for her to wake up, then, while she was brushing her teeth before the mirror, I caught her eyes in the reflection, to say goodbye.
Christy, Father, Mom and all my friends had finally let me go – I was ready to complete my assignment.
Getting to the Slippy Harbour didn’t take much effort, especially when one has the whole of eternity ahead.
Dizz wasn’t there, so I decided to wait for her at the local pub.
‘Owen!’ Dizz said, loud enough to wake me up. ‘How many times do we have to go through this?’
‘Dizz?’ I wasn’t sure if I was awake, or if this was just a nightmare.
‘Who else would be looking for you?’
‘Sorry. I was here waiting for you, and just got a little nervous about what happens next.’
‘What do you mean, ‘next’? You finished the assignment, right?’
‘Sure. Why else would I be here waiting for you?’
‘So you went to the third floor and reported your assignment to become an apprentice, right?’
I hung for a moment.
‘Am I right, Owen?’
‘You said nothing about reporting my assignment.’
She grabbed the first thing she could find and threw it at me. Gladly, the cup flew past my side and shattered to pieces over the bar.
‘Do some thinking, idiot – why did you do your assignment?’
‘To complete it,’ I said, ashamed of myself again. Dizz had the ability to make me feel guilty in two sentences.
‘To get a new one?’ I assumed.
‘So, you can act rationally when I ask you to. Why can you not think like that on your own?’
From one moment to the next I felt Dizz was overreacting (maybe not at that exact moment, but she could still have gone easier on me).
‘Stand up. I’ll go with you,’ she said, and again we came out of the pub.
I was still a little drunk, but by the time I caught up with Dizz, I was sober and ready to move up to the next rank.
Back at the wall – the building on the side of the harbour, where I got my I.D. – on the fourth floor, we once again ended up in line.
That was not the only similarity to my first visit here: once again we met Dizz’s friend Dorian here. He was wearing a perfect suit, sitting on a chair with a cane next to him. Flipping the cane in his hand as he stood, Dorian approached Dizz. Even though I was standing before her, she just pushed me aside.
‘Dizz, my precious flower.’ His falsely-smiling face lessened the value of these words, for me.
‘Get lost Dorian!’ Dizz clearly wasn’t wasting good words on a bad conversation.
‘I see you finally brought your pupil here. I didn’t expect it would so long to complete his first assignment.’
‘Don’t forget that you’re still standing in the same place, so I don’t think you’re here just to criticize others – that would be too much, even for a guy like you.’
‘You’re talking about my past pupil, Liza? She’s completed her training already – now I’m here with Gabriel; he is completing the probation period and is about to get his third level. They are both remarkably swift to learn. Liza was such a buttercup.’
‘I’m getting sick of your floral compliments.’
‘Don’t you like flowers?’
‘They lose their beauty for me when you mention them.’
Even conversations need a break, especially when they have more aggression and hate in them than a boxing match. They looked at each other silently for a few seconds, before Dorian noticed me, and decided to use me as a weapon for the next round; ‘Isn’t that your first pupil?’
‘Yes. What about him?’
‘Couldn’t get a good look at him in our first encounter. I want to remember his face, so when I see him on the streets with one of my pupils, I can say: ‘I know his curator – I hope one day you will be as good as he is.’’
‘What an idiot!’ – another thought of mine found its exit through my mouth. Dorian didn’t even notice.
Dizz was silently searching for words insulting enough to reply with.
‘How was your probation?’ Dorian continued.
‘We’re not done yet,’ Dizz said, clenching her teeth.
‘Ah, I see – a thorough and proportionate approach! To my regret, I lack these skills.’ He whispered the last words, and theatrically lowered his eyes; ‘Respect and exalt your curator. Tout le meilleur.’
Dorian and Gabriel then walked out of the room and left.
I was starting to share Dizz’s feelings for Dorian. ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’
‘We were together once. Not recently, but in the past.’
‘Who would willingly date such a bad guy?’ I paused; ‘I didn’t mean to say that, so don’t answer.’
‘He was not that bad.’ She went silent for a moment.
‘Yeah, right!’ I covered my mouth with both hands, but the words continued, dripping through my fingers: ‘Someone was hard-up.’
‘Bullseye! No other explanation – now, I look at him and hate myself; there is nothing good to remember about it. If there was anything nice about our coupling, it is now covered with a thick layer of disgust.’
‘I’m glad you left him.’ For some reason, this conversation touched me.
We didn’t talk any more while standing in line. Well, Dizz didn’t. But I couldn’t hold my thoughts in. So, we decided to stand in different corners of the waiting room – I didn’t want her to hear what was in my head any more.
Finally, it was my turn to enter the room. Dizz followed me in, and stood silently throughout the whole process – she clearly wanted to witness if I could handle this myself.
With a beard, a scowl and a stern look, the man in the room looked like a wizard from an old movie. He opened a large notebook before him when I entered – I thought it strange that he would only do this on my entrance, assuming that I was not his first visitor today. I decided that he probably closes it every time somebody leaves, just to unfold it again when the next person enters, creating some theatrical image of himself.
‘Hah! A poseur!’
‘I certainly am.’ I desperately tried to keep it all inside – to cover my actual thoughts with pointless mumbling, but I still needed more practice. ‘I’m Owen and I’m ready to take the next step in my career. Is the beard real, or is it just a prop for the show?’
I heard Dizz laughing, and that gave me more confidence. Feeling the Earth under my feet, I wasn’t nervous anymore.
‘Passport.’ So, he was still pushing his image, not that that had any effect on me now.
He spent an age looking at my passport. There wasn’t much in it for him to read or analyze, but I supposed it was just part of his work.
‘Six coloured months,’ the old wizard mumbled from under his nose.
‘That means what, exactly?’ I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
‘Your assignment: it took you six months to accomplish your task,’ he munched. ‘Do you have a report on what you were doing all this time?’
First of all, I was shocked to hear that six months had passed – the blink of an eye for me, and no more. When I started thinking about it, I realized that I had spent the best part of this period with a cup of ether, in the dark pubs of the harbours. That’s just how it was. You think you’ve worked hard on the assignment, but as soon as someone asks you ‘Why so long?’, your certainty and confidence vanishes.
‘The result is what matters,’ I said, before I immediately started to repent.
‘Of course it does,’ he grinned, ‘otherwise you wouldn’t be here, lad.’
That was the moment I started to actually see the picture: I wasn’t working hard all the time at all – for sure, I wasn’t giving my whole self to the mission.
‘Not everyone finds this easy,’ my harmed persona attacked.
‘I can see that.’
A counter-attack is much more painful when you are fencing with an experienced opponent.
I tried to cool down and clear my thoughts – to accept it and feel no need in fighting. ‘I spent too much time with ethers,’ with a note of humbleness, I gave up.
‘Young men find it relieving,’ he smiled. The old wizard then took up his pen and started to write notes in his journal.
My expression of enlightenment had put me in a state of identity catharsis – I was now an opened book; there was now nothing that could stain me, and no words that could harm me further.
‘During your assignment, did you at any step resort to enlisting the help of another entity?’
‘Of course not. My curator did one thing for me, but that was it.’ I suffered enlightenment blackout, speaking as the normal me again, as well as emotional outburst and the inability to keep my mouth shut.
‘I’ll make a note of this.’ He wrote down what I had just said.
‘Maybe twice,’ I mumbled; ‘I can’t remember.’
He made another note in that big book – he seemed proud of his enormous journal.
‘Are you ready to move on the next step, apprentice Owen?’
These words inspired me. Knowing you have passed any test always pushes one up the ladder of mood, even when you felt naked and humiliated just moments earlier.
‘What will it be, then?’ He stroked his beard and looked at me.
‘What can it be?’ I questioned myself aloud.
I could see by the happy look on his face that this was the wizard’s favourite part. He moved to the edge of his chair, and, with enthusiasm, started describing the opportunities open to me, in my future in the Monoland.
‘Monochrome planes are controlled and maintained by three main factions – career ladders, you might say. Engineers – creating matter through mist and glow – sustain the existence and stability of harbours; they search and analyze glow, and the physics of both worlds, and everything between them. These scientists of the Gray Horizon build great perspectives for us in the future, whilst maintaining our present. That is, of course, if you believe in time, boy.’ He laughed like crazy saying this.
‘Harbinger is the second faction – their interest is the communication between worlds. Have you ever heard of guardian-angels or premonition?’
‘In that case, you can understand what harbingers do. Their job is to push the living forward – to make them concentrate on life, whilst not forgetting about death; their primary mission is to increase the quality of the consciousness, during life. We don’t want to waste human potential – we only want to make people happy and prosperous; to instruct from behind the curtain, and see people prosper.’
‘So, Dizz, you are one of these guys?’ I asked, interrupting the old wizard.
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘Our dear Dizz – your curator – is a ‘reaper’.
‘Reapers are artists of the act of death. When people need help with dying – primarily those who are trying to avoid it – they prepare accidents and event-chains, for humans to step into the next chapter – to move from life to the afterlife. They don’t just collect, but generally that’s their main routine. Their mission is to increase or decrease the flow of newcomers to the garden, the pit, or the horizon.’
Wizard took a break in the story to light his smouldering pipe (smoking is widespread amongst the dead, because the ‘DEAD DON’T DIE’ – this slogan suddenly popped up in my head).
‘Each faction is an enclosed structure, and the information each possesses is confidential.’
‘That’s why my curator is so silent about her work,’ I said, looking at Dizz – I wanted her to clearly see my discontent; we’d spent half a year together, and she hadn’t said a word about what it is she does.
‘She’ll get her chance to fix this omission. You will have a familiarization period, during which time you will have the opportunity to get to know each faction, and the specification of their work. You can choose your guides for this, or we will provide you with guides from the volunteers.’
I looked back at Dizz, trying to read advice in her eyes. ‘I will select guides myself,’ was the cue I seemed to have read from her.
‘Then we are done with you, lad. Have a good time there.’
I had already stood up to leave, when the wizard stopped me: ‘Wait – I almost forgot to update your passport.’ He had also forgotten to give it back. ‘I congratulate you on achieving the second-level, young apprentice.’
The old man opened my passport to a page featuring the Roman numeral one in a cell, and changed it into the number two, by adding a single straight line. He then looked at it with approval, before handing it back to me.
Long ago, in the coloured land, I played computer games which featured levels, but they never really mattered. The important question now was: how many levels are there in this competition?
We left the wall and went to the bazaar.
This time it was my idea, in the hope to find some new clothes – my T-shirt, shorts and slippers were so bad, I’d rather be naked!
The bazaar was loud, and it was very difficult just to walk through the place. Every merchant desperately wanted to sell us his goods, and he was adamant that we needed each and every piece he was offering. Every stall (or more accurately every table or pile) was covered in the most random of items – it was not uncommon to find a screwdriver beside a dog’s muzzle, both lying on top of a pile of kids’ books. The real question was not why they were selling it, but why others were buying it.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you are a reaper?’
‘You never asked me what I did – I thought you weren’t interested.’
‘That’s not true – I asked you about your work.’
‘When was that, exactly?’
‘I don’t remember, but I’m sure I… that it happened…’ I stopped – I couldn’t actually remember. ‘Didn’t I ever ask about your work?’
‘No, you did not.’
I suddenly felt guilty for the look I had given her, back in the office at the wall. Still, she could have mentioned it herself.
‘I could have brought this up in our conversations, but most of the time we were too busy with your assignment, and your ether addiction. There’s not much to say, actually – I knew I would have to tell you sooner or later, so I didn’t bother bringing it up.’
‘In case I decided to pick you as my guide,’ I laughed.
Dizz didn’t laugh, and my smile melted. ‘Can you suggest a candidate to be my first guide? I think I’d like to start with the engineers.’
‘Of course you would.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
‘From what I can tell about you, you seem to be one of those people who is interested in all that science stuff, and everything.’
‘Well, that sounds like a compliment – these people are intelligent, and have a broad spectrum of knowledge.’
‘I didn’t say you are one of them,’ she laughed.
‘Maybe I’m not smart,’ I exclaimed, ‘but at least I respect those people and their ideas.’
‘Yeah – maybe you bow before bug-lovers, too.’
‘Biologists are honoured and admired in the world of science.’
‘Oh, come on! All white coats hate each other! And it is the same here – start a quarrel between glow and mist engineers, and they’ll happily spend eternity arguing about whose experiments are the most complicated, and the most immeasurably important over all the four planes. And when it comes to matter creation, they’ll be even worse.’
The ‘planes’ she spoke of were the world of the living and the three worlds of the dead: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory – or, as Dizz would call them: ‘coloured’, ‘light’, ‘dark’ and ‘grey’. In these four words lay her entire personality, but back then I couldn’t see that yet.
‘You can say that about any industry,’ I tried to oppose her.
‘Exactly,’ she said, catching me now in some debate trap. ‘So, there is no such thing as solidarity in industry – every worker thinks only of himself, and only imagines his own work to be the hardest, the most important and the best to feed his self-admiration.’
‘Remember when I asked you to suggest a guide?’
‘Let’s get back to that, shall we?’
The debate now over, Dizz dived straight in, suggesting all the engineers she knew – it appeared the list was not all that big.
‘Three!? You know three engineers? Just a moment ago you were preaching words of wisdom about them! Three engineers?’ My tone brimmed with astonishment.
‘Remember when you said something about a guide I might suggest?’
‘Let’s get back to it.’
Dizz had an emergency at work and had to leave. We had already gone through her ‘list’ of engineers, and I picked the one who seemed… sane.
One of them was a sociopath, who had tried to destroy the university he was studying in, but had only managed to kill himself and a dozen poor lab rats. Still, as an almost-scientist, he was brought to Purgatory, where he continued his studies, though in a different branch.
The second one had been a successful scientist in life, but had ended up in the monochrome, because while the warmies had thought him an inventor, he was actually just a rich liar – he bought patents and presented inventions as his own, but, even though his brain was capable of much, he was in reality too lazy to use it himself. In Purgatory now, only ethers were able to distract him from his work in engineering faction.
Candidate number three was an obsessive alchemist from the sixteenth-century. His pride and long tongue had made his life shorter than one would have expected it to be; when one spoke of magic back in those days, one should either be able to prove it, or else had better be fire-proof! Lodrick’s execution had been an example, and served a good lesson to many other alchemists: in a way, I suppose he had helped them to find their way, by concentrating more on the results, and presenting their inventions credibly, rather than trying to shock and frighten the masses!
So, he wasn’t a tippler, and had no mental health problems. Because of this, and the fact that Lodrick was working with glow, I considered him to be the best of the three to show me the world of Purgatory engineering.
After achieving the apprentice rank and second level, my I.D. had been given new marks in the access section – now I had more locations added, but my home was still excluded, to ensure I wouldn’t be tempted to keep in touch with my past.
But new maps present new problems. Well, two, to be precise: where am I, and where will I go?
Each harbour features a map at every exit, showing which locations can be accessed that way, and where to change on the route to one’s final destination; for example, to get from Budapest to Melbourne, take Silky Harbour to Budapest, then take the Athens exit, where one will find Malore Harbour, in the western part of the city – from there take the exit marked ‘Melbourne’, right in the middle of City Hall. On the other hand, to get from one part of the city to another – for example, to cross San Francisco – one would need to travel through four harbours; it’s probably faster to run, and just ignore the harbours! The system is complex, and, by my experience, impossible to get used to – most just stick to their own neighbourhood zones. But, sometimes this is not possible; it is at times like this that one might wish they had followed the engineering path – these guys leave their harbour maybe once every twenty-five coloured years; some have never left it at all.
Lodrick was living and working in the Rhino-Rift Harbour. It took me a while to get there, bearing in mind that it was my first free walk, and I had no idea where I was going; I felt like a tourist in an unfriendly environment. People didn’t feel like helping me, and some even appeared as trying to point me as far from my destination as they could – simply because I had asked them and wasted their time.
But, somehow I got to the Rhino-Rift, and found the engineers’ laboratory.
‘I.D.,’ the guard at the entrance said, harshly.
He looked tough, and tight in the head; he blinked twice every time he spoke – his lip movements appearing to count every blink; maybe he was only allowed a limited number of them on duty!
I gave him my passport. ‘I am here to see engineer Lodrick.’
‘You are not an engineer,’ said the guard, still counting his blinks.
‘Yes. I am an apprentice – I want Lodrick to be my guide in the art of engineering.’
‘You can’t come in without access, or temporary access.’ Another two blinks from the guard.
‘Where can I get temporary access?’
‘Inside,’ he said. He skipped explaining the logic of this answer. Double-blink.
I spent a long moment, just standing there, trying to understand the situation. I wanted to explain that there must be some mistake in these regulations.
‘How can I get access inside, if you won’t let me in without it?’
‘That means you are not an engineer, or an authorized person.’ There was no doubt in his eyes.
‘Why would one of them need access? They have it already!’
‘As you said: they don’t need it – they have it.’
‘I give up.’
‘Don’t try to fool me – I’m too smart for you.’
‘You certainly are! When does Mr. Lodrick usually finish?’
‘He doesn’t what? You mean he always works?’
‘Yes – he is an engineer. They mostly stay inside, and only come out for field experiments or data collection.’
A couple came out of the science-centre, and the guard greeted them. They responded, then noticed me next to him; ‘Who are you looking for, boy?’
‘He’s at the pub.’
I silently nodded to them, then I glared at the guard, waiting for an explanation. He looked back at me, an angry question-mark appearing on his face;
‘What do you want?’
‘You said Lodrick is working inside.’
‘No – I said he leaves the laboratory only for field experiments and data collection.’
‘He’s at the pub!’
‘That means he’s there doing field-’
‘-experiments and data collection,’ I interrupted. ‘Thank you.’
When I found Lodrick, he was in fact collecting data – from a young girl. She looked half his age, but in the Purgatory, she could actually be ten times older than him – another thing I couldn’t get used to.
Lodrick was unshaven, somewhere around his fifties, and grey all over. He was smoking, and, judging by the pile of cigarette butts next to him, quite a lot. He wore a robe with many pockets – three pencils and three erasers were in his breast pocket, and three screwdrivers in the side pocket. Were they items of obsession or need?
‘You must be Lodrick.’
Lodrick noticed me, and that was good, but from the way he looked at me, I wasn’t sure he could actually see me – so much for him not being a tippler.
‘You must be somebody too, right?’ He was struggling hard to keep me in the middle of his focus.
‘I am Owen – a friend of Dizz.’
‘A-ha!’ He raised his hand, to show everyone that his guess had been right: ‘I said you are somebody!’
He took a moment to celebrate his correct guess, by finishing his cup of ether. ‘What brings you here?’
‘I am Dizzy’s apprentice. I am looking for an engineer guide.’
‘Not the best time, boy,’ he said: ‘I’m on some serious exsi… expemire… I’m onto something, boy.’
‘Such a long journey, to find a proud-of-nothing drunkard.’ This was not aimed to be said, but thought aloud, nonetheless.
‘What did you say?’
‘Forget about it. I’ll go see the suicidal maniac, instead – he’s only two harbours from here.’
He became sober, all of a sudden, lit a new cigarette, and pushed the girl aside; ‘Flocker is not the engineer you want, if you are to form any opinion about engineering. Let me take a break from my routine, and I’ll introduce you the magic world of monochrome engineering.’
‘What about your experiment?’
‘Ah, you’re a taunting man,’ he laughed; ‘I like character in a pupil. You question even the obvious, and that’s what makes real scientists and engineers. Take this honour and be my apprentice.’
‘I’m Dizzy’s apprentice. Where’s the honour?’
‘Ha – see!’ He nudged the girl sitting next to him: ‘Just as I said – and loyal. Dizzy needs someone like you around her.’
At that I thought: There is no such word as ‘normal’ in Monoland. It just doesn’t apply to anything or anyone.
We celebrated the expansion of our circle of friends. He asked me to call him Lode, and, as Lode said: ‘It is important to get a cup of ether every time you make a new friend, so that the invisible material which is friendship can be greased. Otherwise, it might just crack – and then you will lose your friends.’
Dizz had sent me to this man, so she must have known how it would go with him. So, with this thought, I got my circle greased. And after the short introduction of myself to my first guide, we moved out, trying not to concentrate too much, so as to stay tipsy.
‘The whole thing about engineering is curiosity – you don’t just want to live in a world where all things work, and take existence for granted. We are the answer to the question ‘Who cares?’. I could speak for ages about the role that we, the engineers, play in the Monochrome World, but that wouldn’t make you understand it any better; so let’s get to something real.’
‘I notice that not many people call this place ‘Monochromeland’.’
‘‘World,’’ he corrected me, with all tipsy seriousness: ‘It’s ‘Monochrome World’.’
‘Exactly. Not many call it that.’
‘Well, that’s not right. We must call things what they were named – the system of naming was designed to unite, not to start the ‘Who-can-think-of-a-better-one?’ game.’
‘Back in the coloured land, there are dozens of alter-names, for almost everything.’
‘Slang – the killer of language!’
‘Ah…’ I didn’t know what else to say.
‘WORLD OF COGS’
We went back to the laboratory. This time the guard didn’t say a word – his eyes stayed concentrated on the horizon.
‘Eight hundred and fifteen… Eight hundred and sixteen…’ he whispered, counting his blinks as we passed him.
The laboratory, which looked small from the outside, turned out to be an unexpectedly large building, once inside. It was based on the edge of the rift, and, I found out later, was actually built downwards into it.
Each level had its own experiments taking place; the one which held the biggest interest for me lay in the Rhino-Rift laboratory, where engineers were experimenting with mist.
The rift itself was filled with shimmering mist, within which were dozens of portals, to different parts of the world.
‘Shimmering mist’ is a type of mist yet to be studied at that point – its structure is in continuous stages of change, and Lode suggested ‘it is connected to the gathering of resources for the Monochrome World’. Here, the engineers’ responsibility was to analyze new portals and test them; as Lode said: ‘You never know where your ass will land when you jump in.’ Wall were erected by engineers, to protect travellers from straying into mist portals with landing points no ass should visit. As well as the dozens of different mists and walls, hundreds of guardians stood proudly on guard, protecting mist entrances from unauthorized personnel, most of whom were as smart as the one at the lab’s entrance.
Unfortunately for me, the Red-Rift engineers don’t work in ‘matter creating’, so, to me, their area of expertise remained a knowledge of black holes. Lode offered a short summary: ‘It’s like the mint in the living world: the process is securely controlled and not to be discussed.’ He did mention that groups of smugglers in the black market worked alongside the law, to gather materials and certain special requests from the coloured world. His unwillingness to talk about it further was disappointing, but I couldn’t get him to.
We descended two or maybe three levels to get to Lode’s lab. Dizz had told me that he worked with glow, but that was back at a time when she had first met him – since then he had transferred to the mist group. Although I am used to things not going to plan here, I still felt a little disappointed.
‘Why the long face, Owen?’ asked Lode, his voice dry.
‘I came to you because Dizz told me you work with glow.’
‘Huh – I came here because I was interested in alchemy, but that was a long time ago.’
‘Is that supposed to mean something?’
‘No more than I said.’
‘You’re difficult to talk to.’
‘That’s mostly because of the ethers,’ he said, and headed into his small lab.
That was when I decided I was done with ethers. Well, at least the first time I thought that.
Instead of one of the walls, in the room there was just mist. Beside the mist stood a table, containing papers and pencils.
‘Why do you have everything in quantities of three?’
‘That requires some explanation, Lode.’
‘Break, lose, use – the golden rule of ‘three’: if I break one pencil, then, with catastrophically increasing probability, I will lose the second – but I will still have the third one as back-up.’ His face always remained calm when explaining things like this.
‘What about having five fingers?’ I asked, intending it as a joke.
‘If I break one, then lose the second, I still have three, which is the minimum required for completing any work,’ he smiled; ‘the golden rule.’
Besides further examples of the golden rule, there were also many books in his small lab, including research books and ones on the essential physics of Monoland – some were written by Lode himself.
‘What are these about?’
‘My written works are mainly about glow.’
‘Really? I have a predisposition toward nature glow – at least I have been told so.’
‘Say you have a ‘talent’ for the glow of nature, not a ‘predisposition’: it’s not a sickness,’ he corrected me, again with a harsh voice.
‘I’m sorry.’ I caught his eyes, and I could see that my words had bothered him.
‘No worries.’ His smile returned; ‘Take a look at this.’
We stood a yard from the mist, which moved as if it were alive. Devices were pointed at the mist, some with lines disappearing into it.
‘What are these?’ I asked, referring to the poles.
‘Why?’ I asked, after pondering his answer a little.
‘There is a lake in Canada beyond this mist. I think I can catch a salmon, so I’ve made a bet with the guys from the bottom level labs.’
‘But fish are alive, and your poles are dead.’
‘The poles can’t be dead – they are simply on our side of the palette, but your thinking is right. There is a lake on the other side, but the mist is effectively a one-way portal – it’s on top of a cliff, and there is no way to get back through it. The area is stormy, and has a high-rate of lightning flash; I wanted to check if we can transfer the energy of the lightning before the flashes come, and block it by a wall.’
I looked around, and saw other labs, just like this one – each had a similar mist in it. Some stood empty, some had engineers in them, working at desks; no-one interacted with the mist. ‘This place is dull.’
‘Agreed. But it always starts off interesting – when you start with a new mist, that is – until you discover that there is nothing interesting about it.’
‘This doesn’t sound inspiring.’
‘Kid, you don’t know anything about inspiration. Let’s go.’
We went down a level, where Lode brought me to the ‘Raw Mist’ sector; being a ‘high-class engineer’ he had access to this place, while others could only gossip about the ‘cold mist’ here.
We walked through mist which was separated by thin walls, and I saw borders between them. I stopped next to one of the mists; already in a dark part of the rift, we stood gazing at this deep, alluring mist.
‘It’s calling for us,’ my thoughts told me.
‘Then go to it,’ said Lode, pushing me into it.
Lode’s joke had plunged me into the blinding mist, and I had no idea where to go – I was standing in the middle of nowhere. I knew one direction would take me back to Lode – I pictured his face, and then my fist in his face; any other would surprise me with some unknown arrival point.
I closed my eyes and jumped in no particular direction – it was the wrong choice…
…I found myself in freefall, plummeting toward a desert island, from a height a warmy would never survive.
Down on Earth, I looked up at the mist hovering a little above me – it was barely visible, due to the sun’s glare.
The dark ocean squeezed my sandy island in its mighty fist; I considered myself a small fly, still alive only because the fist is too big to erase this tiny piece – like sand stuck between its fingers.
With absolutely no idea of what to do, I chose panic as the best option. The worst thing about my situation was that there was nothing here which I could use to help myself.
I decided that this was either some kind of test, or that Lode was even crazier than the sociopathic Flocker. In any case, I didn’t know whether I should wait for help.
On the island there was just me, five palm-trees in its centre, and two turtles sleeping in their shadow, not far from where I had landed. For better or worse, I managed to come up with a plan – I would use the glow of palms to communicate with the turtles.
Warmies would be sent to a lunatic asylum for such thoughts, but, thanks to my death, I didn’t have to be care about such a thing.
I lured the turtles between two of the palms which grew directly below the mist, then, climbing to the top of one palm, I planned to jumped onto them – in my theory, the combined energy field of the turtles would repel my own energy field, catapulting me upward; with the combination of the palm’s height and my travel speed, the repellent force would be enough to ricochet me back into the mist, and into the lab.
It was a good theory, but the actual result wasn’t quite so – first time, the turtles simply walked away from their spot, and I crashed.
After another round of communication with the turtles, a promise they would come to no harm, and a long climb back up, I tried again.
When I saw Lode laughing, I hit him in the face as hard as I could – I decided it was important to keep the promises you make to yourself. The old bastard fell to the floor, yet carried on laughing.
The guards rushed into the room, to find us both tumbling with each other on the floor. They glanced toward the more ‘responsible’ engineer, and Lode’s face turned serious;
‘Please leave. We are in the middle of something.’ He waited for them to close the door behind them, before bursting into laughter again, louder this time. This time I couldn’t contain myself, and I joined in.
‘I never thought that recreating a computer game from the eighties would save me one day from a desert island.’
‘How did you get out?’ Lode asked me through tears of laughter.
‘I jumped onto a turtle from the top of a palm tree, and was repelled high enough to reach the mist. The first turtle ran away after a while, and I lost him, but the second one wasn’t fast enough.’
‘Bet that wasn’t the second, boy: it was the third,’ his eyes drilled into me accusingly; ‘the second turtle is probably broken somewhere.’
He had hardly finished the line, before I realized what he meant, and another burst of laughter hit us like a wave.
‘The golden rule, boy – believe me.’
As time passed, Lode began to appear before me in a different light, and I started to see him as a talented engineer.
He told me things about the inside of mist, and about glow, that I would never have been able to find out myself.
Mists form as a natural phenomenon, releasing a higher level of energy on one side than the other – the purpose of this imbalance is to form a membrane, which prevents one space devouring the other, or the whole mist imploding.
Harbours are born between the planes; when their time is up, they disappear. Even though the existence of harbours is limited, their expansion and eventual disappearance don’t just happen in the blink of an eye, so the harbours become homes for us, just as the other side of them is home for the warmies. Due to their scale, the harbours alone deserve to be called a plane, and to have place names.
That said, the coloured world is bigger than all of the harbours put together, and is the working ground for the Gray Horizon.
It is impossible to talk about one side, without taking the other into account, and Lode wouldn’t allow me to call them different worlds. When I suggested that harbours are just long-term rental accommodation, he looked at me with eyes of fire, but he replied in a calm voice: ‘No.
‘It is said that harbours have existed as long as the world has existed, but there was long period when the grey didn’t even know about them – until the first harbour was discovered.
‘The founders had to stride through a competitive and unassailable world. It was the wish of the Almighty that the first settlers should think and search for themselves – He wanted them to learn, and they didn’t let Him down. One settler after another made those territories habitable, and the first cities were built. They created a world we could exist in, and comfortably.
‘The settlers investigated the nature of mist, and they found new territories, creating new cities as their numbers grew. The Almighty never interfered, and allowed them to create the world, the way they wished it to be.
‘There were incidents, when harbours would disappear, but there was no harm to us on these occasions – everything and everyone inside the harbour is expelled as it shrinks. These incidents are why we have bells on top of the highest buildings in each harbour: when the shrinking time comes, space knocks on the roof.
‘But, as smaller harbours shrink, the big harbours usually expand, creating new portals to the coloured land, as the energy concentration grows and breaks into the warmies’ world.’
His story took a break when the bartender brought us ethers. Now the stories interested me more than the ethers, so I passed. Lode, on the other hand, gave himself to the ether completely.
‘There was one story, about me and another guy,’ he mumbled, after a few more cups. The story was about him and another engineer, examining new mist, which brought them to the bath-house in a convent. They later had to close this path, because a mist connection between the two locations already existed, but until the wall’s construction was completed, they had a good time drinking ethers until they could hardly walk, and sneaking into the nuns’ bath-house.
‘That was fun, boy!’ he recalled, with a weak smile.
Lode was full of these stories, and the more he drank, the more he told; I sat and listened.
‘There are still fogs that are too wide for guards to secure, or for walls to close, even here.
Lode’s speech, tangled and impossible to understand, slowly led him to sleep.
Whenever I heard Lode start to slur his speech, I would leave him at the pub for a while. There was no danger to him: the respect of citizens toward engineers protected him.
Besides, Lode was, and remains, a loyal customer.
When we met again, Lode was sober and serious.
‘You wanted to know more about the glow, boy? Let’s get going.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Outside – there is no glow in this harbour.’
I followed the old alchemist; a few jumps between different harbours, and into another mist, and we ended up in Paris, at the Louvre, a place filled with glow, with warmies, and with Monoland citizens. A malignant place, due to crowds of warmies, and our need to avoid any physical contact with them. Monolanders – mostly on assignments – used this place as a powerful tool of artistic glow, to reach warmies.
‘Take a look at this, boy,’ Lode proudly said, spreading his arms wide. ‘I started searching for a mist that could bring me right inside this place, right from the moment I heard about the plan to reconstruct the Louvre as a museum; I had no interest in the place previously, but on hearing that five-hundred paintings were brought in, I started searching for it. My friendly fellow from the reapers found it, and now we have a portal into a connection Mecca, for those who choose art as their tool of contact.’
So many entities and so many warmies – one large coupling club, with the dead and the living, walking around, trying to make some sort of contact; for the living, it is an enlightenment they seek, to think; for the dead, it is a way to achieve the goal of their assignments: deliver a message or implant a thought. They all come here with the same purpose – they just understand it in different ways… No, maybe they understand it the same way – it is just the explanation which is different.’
Later, when night covered the coloured world, Gray Horizon shone brightly at the Louvre – brighter than during the day. When everyone had left for the night, there was nothing to stop the glow of paintings, sculptures, tapestry and stucco work, on walls and ceilings – the whole place was shining. I felt it resonate when a guard walked into the hall – I could feel him; his every thought emitted a wave that I could feel.
‘Why would you rush from one room to another, when there is so much magnificence on every step?’ Lode said to the security guard.
The guard stopped and looked around. One of the pictures caught his eye: tigers – one guarding another, sleeping. Maybe the guard felt it somehow similar to himself, and his own life.
‘Your family is the treasure you should be guarding,’ Lode continued.
The guard moved closer to the picture, to read its name, and that of its artist.
‘Whenever you come across this picture, think about the ones you love and how to make them happier,’ I said, joining the game.
The guard seemed to sense a change, and twitched a little – my voice, presence, and the energy of my message distracted him, and seemed to touch him immediately. Never before, I thought, had I ever found contact so easy.
Finally, the security-guard left, and Lode immediately turned to me, drilling me with his dark eyes, as though waiting for some response or reaction.
‘Do you want me to say something?’ The words just came out of me.
‘Not really,’ Lode smiled.
‘You expect me to do something?’ This time I said it of my own free will.
‘Well, no…’ he started laughing.
‘Did I do something wrong?’ His lack of response was beginning to annoy me.
‘No. I was just thinking of something, from back when I was still alive: once, when looking into a painting of The Crucifixion, I had a bad feeling I shouldn’t be telling of my theories and experiments. Ever since then, from moment to moment I hang up my thoughts – I’m certain that back then someone was trying to warn me. It was true: I would have lived a little longer, if only I kept my pride behind a curtain.’
‘Do you want to talk about your life?’
‘Only if you, boy, will pay for the ethers.’
‘Sooner or later everything emerges: truth, knowledge, and the fear of facts.’
Lode had already said this, before the ethers took his consciousness and he couldn’t talk anymore. He told me things he probably shouldn’t have, yet they only became clear at the exact moment they should have, and no earlier. That’s how it works here – and everywhere, I suppose.
‘You can’t get an answer to a question you don’t ask… or can’t ask because you are an idiot, or because the right time never came’ – another tipsy spoken truth from Lode. This suggestion made me think differently about Dizz, and our future relationship.
I was glad I had chosen Lodrick as my guide in engineering – he gave me more than I could think of, and stories he actually dressed up as jokes, to get a laugh, often had a lot of truth in them.
When Lode was still warm, colourful and young, he told me he had invited a lady for a walk with him; back then they didn’t go on dates, he said. He didn’t name her, nor did the story have any need of names. The walk brought them to the city canal, where the lady accidently dropped her purse into the water. Without a second thought, young Lode jumped into the canal. After catching the drowning purse, and returning it back to the owner, the lady just sniffed in his direction, as though to express her distaste, and the rest of the walk passed in silence.
This silence gave Lode time to think of the world he lived in, and he decided he would change his path in life. That was when he became obsessed with alchemy. Sure, it didn’t end up well for him, but who’s to say it was a bad idea? He jumped out of the frame of society he lived in, and ultimately lost his life, but the skills and way of thinking he acquired would help him in Monoland.
After all – you break, you lose, you use.
When the sun rose in the valley of colours, we continued our journey, on to the next place Lode wanted to show me: New York.
People here are surrounded by technology 24/7, and, just as the Louvre, it creates a glow – after all, a city which, by its nature, glows for warmies, certainly has even more of glow for us, which look at it without coloured prisms. Every cell-phone, TV set, laptop in the bag of a passer-by, or electric cable has its own glow. Just as in one of the world’s greatest museums, one of the world’s biggest cities is an ant-hill of warmies and coldies – the former going about their business, the latter trying to catch up with their own.
We walked around, sightseeing, and searching for large spots of glow. We walked past a gaming arcade, and I saw a couple of grey parents visiting their still-colourful child, who was playing a racing game – I couldn’t tell whether they were trying to reach him, to let him release them, or if they just wanted to spend the day beside him.
I thought of my parents, then of Christy – I thought it might be useful if I had an opportunity to see them from time to time, just to make sure they were okay.
Suddenly, it hit me that these were illegal thoughts I was having, the consequences of which were losing my apprentice status, and a return to the first level, or whatever punishment comes with such disobedience.
‘I shouldn’t think like that – there is nothing wrong with these thoughts; I am not a lawbreaker.’ This flood of words just came out of me.
I leant against a nearby wall, and knelt down, trying to keep myself silent. ‘No – I am not going back! I will forget them and let them be. I can do this – everyone can.’
I awoke to see Lode kneeling before me, looking straight through me with his dark eyes – his face looked somehow… new to me, without its usual smile. To bring me back from hysteria, he said: ‘Don’t worry, Owen – no-one wants to punish you for your thoughts.’ His voice grew calmer; ‘We’re all open, and we’re welcome to express ourselves and release the bugs inside our head.’
I exhaled slowly and inhaled deeply. I listened to a few more stories of Lode’s unforgotten past, and finally I felt the ground beneath my feet again.
We continued on our route.
‘That’s the first time you called me by my name.’
‘You always call me ‘boy’, but just now you called me ‘Owen’, for the first time.’
‘‘First time’ events are only a checkpoint of changes and the progress of our existence. Right, boy?’ He winked at me, and the usual smile reappeared on his face.
‘And stop breathing,’ he added; ‘it’s disturbing and pointless.’
We went to the internet cafe, where I made contact with a man searching to meet a woman. He sat there, gazing into the monitor, scrolling through the dating services, and looking at all those fake girls, always updating their profiles for sponsorship.
I watched him, and he didn’t give the impression of a man who would do such a thing as this. I tried to draw his attention away from the internet, toward a woman in the same café, herself scrolling the same web-pages, looking for a man. Again, with so much glow concentrated in one place, it was easy for me to make contact with these people. The computers they used, the phones before them on the table or in their pockets, the force of glow around them… all fuelled my power to reach them – to deliver my message, and feel the response inside them.
Pity, but due, perhaps, to the amount of information around us, or the annoying noise about the place, I failed with these two.
‘Another example of technology killing the magic in this world,’ I sighed.
We left after my target warmies did.
There was no aim to us being here, other than practice. Lode was an excellent tutor – he mixed his lessons with humour and stories. Also, a lot of ethers – but never while on an assignment, or training.
On leaving the internet café, to celebrate my small success in glow contact, Lode took me to the Empire State Building. On our way there, Lode had a great laugh pushing me into passer-by warmies, to watch me ricocheting into others, until I finally hit a wall, tree or fence. It made him laugh, and me angry. Every time I tried to retaliate, pushing him into someone, he masterly evaded, and well… he that mischief hatches, mischief catches.
There, on top of that building – the original roof of this city, now only one of many – we spent the rest of the day, and saw the sun off. We climbed to the least crowded spot, on top of the tower, to avoid coming into contact with warmies.
‘Looks like some Hollywood classic movie scene,’ I said, looking into the horizon.
‘I died before cinema.’
‘You missed some good moments.’
‘So did you,’ he winked. ‘How many humans now live in the coloured world?’
‘Population passed seven-billion, a few years back.’
‘Heh – ‘population’. What about humans? You know – real ones?’
‘Don’t know, but it feels like the number is decreasing.’
‘Then Monochrome World is going to be tight soon.’
We didn’t talk any longer, but just stared at the sunset, each of us in his own mind. My thoughts were voiced from time to time, but what was deep inside stayed there, with me.
‘Thank you, Lode – I had a lot of good moments during our excursion into the ‘world of cogs’.’
‘‘World of cogs’, without a single cog in it, eh? You need to keep practicing with your metaphors, boy.’ Lode stood up; ‘And keep practicing your memory and attention, too – we’ve checked out only two of our glow sources, and still have one left, which you apparently seem so keen to forget. Let’s move on out now.’
He jumped off the tower, into the tourist section. I followed him, with a plan in my head and a grin on my face; ‘Lode!’
‘What?’ he turned around, just in time to see me shove him.
Lode hit one of the warmy tourists, and was thrown into another, and then another, bouncing around, until he was thrown out of the crowd and against the wall of the tower. Hilarious! I was laughing out loud, on my knees, slapping the ground with my fist – exactly what I needed to release the pressure. And Lode laughed with me – that man knows the value of a good joke.
Our next stop: Central Park. Lode didn’t want to leave New York – he told me he was charmed by this city and its contrasts. And we were about to prove one of them: after a day of technology, we stepped into the calmness – this isle of green nature, in the centre of a concrete, urban sea.
The evening was a busy time for this place – runners, lovers, junkies, readers and passers-by who simply broke to walk through the park, perhaps to relax and clear their heads, after a long work-day in some hive of stone and glass.
Nature has a gentle glow, different from any other source, and the whole park was shimmering with it. I heard musicians playing the violin, and I knew that magic still exists in this world.
Playing the melody of the rain, the man with the violin made contact between coloured and grey, without the need for glow or supernatural abilities. His music took hold of me, Lode and others we saw on the Monoland side, who stood still in the park, now back in the moment.
I noticed a girl, sitting on the grass beneath an old tree. I never could tell the difference between trees, other than the obvious ones: the pines and oaks; others, for me, were just green and woody. I chose this girl because of a look of annoyance on her face.
Annoyance is a sign of things going wrong. If something is not good, this means we have the opportunity to try and change its course back to good. Added to this, a person is more vulnerable to glow when their emotional state is shattered.
The girl had a drawing pad on her knees, and pencils lying next to her, along with a pile of drawings, crumpled up for their imperfection. As I approached, she ripped it out of the album and screwed it up.
‘Useless!’ she cried. ‘Why did I even try? I could have had a better time with my friends – at least that would have been fun.’
I sat next to her and examined her discarded drawings. Each piece of paper featured the same landscape, and a couple enjoying a picnic. I lifted my gaze to see the picture’s inspiration, closer to the pond. At that moment, the subject couple stood, picked up their belongings, and left. The girl realized she wouldn’t be finishing her picture today. But her anger wasn’t just coming from her drawing – it was coming from within herself.
I stretched beside her, my back against the tree.
‘You can be angry and act on your emotions, but don’t let your mood affect your decisions. It will all fall into place – just exhale and start drawing. Look-’ I pointed at a homeless man, who approached the area where the couple had rested, then dropped to his knees and grabbed the food the couple had dropped; ‘Your composition didn’t change, generally – maybe this slight change is all you needed to create the perfect image, for a perfect drawing.’
I didn’t know if she heard, or felt me; I hoped I could talk to her, could tell her my opinion, my vision, knowing she could not interrupt me; that is what I like about being dead.
Her depth of thought kept her seated for a long time, and I didn’t really mind if I was talking to her or myself.
‘Why should we throw away dreams in exchange for the life we get used to? What is the point of living, if we choose that path of so-so ‘happiness’?’ For a moment I forgot she was still there, next to me. ‘It’s about hope, love and belief, not consent, habit and dejection.’
By the time I was done talking, I saw the girl had started drawing again. With a serious look on her face, she seemed determined to make the perfect picture. And when she failed this one, she silently tore off the sheet and started again, from the beginning.
With a sense of achievement, I followed her pencil, as she recorded reality in her album. I caught sight of Lode, and, willing him to share in my happiness, I nodded his attention toward the drawing.
‘After all that talking, she could have changed her mind on her own, so don’t be too proud of yourself. Let’s go.’ Lode winked at me.
He headed into a park alley, in some unknown direction to me, though it was as if he walked this path every day. I glanced at the girl and her work one last time, wanting to believe she would continue along her path – hoping she wouldn’t simply quit drawing after another fail. Then, I caught up with Lode.
‘Don’t worry, boy – I’m sure she got the message.’
‘You just said-’ I started, but was interrupted:
‘I said that just to pick on you – you know how I like to see your crying face,’ he laughed.
‘You broke the ice inside that security guard’s heart with art, you lost the contact with those technology-obsessed people, and you used your talent for the glow of nature to inspire that girl – the golden rule of three, boy. I call this a success. Never forget it!’
And that was the end of Lodrick’s teachings. He had showed me mist, and how it can bring us to unexpected places. He showed me what the ‘golden rule’ is, and how it can be applied to anything, even if that thing has nothing to do with reality. He helped me train in different sources of glow, and achieve a result in each particular case. He showed, by his example, that an appropriate amount of ether could fill the wrap-up of a work-day with fun (though I probably shouldn’t mention this lesson to Dizz). Lodrick was by far the best choice for my engineering guide – I knew that having not even met the other candidates.
We stopped at the pub in the Red Rift Harbour – same table, same cups, new ethers.
‘Remember: once on your own, always keep in mind that every time we fail, we get a little bit better, just like the girl in the park. Never forget this, boy.’
‘Thanks, Lode,’ I smiled. ‘You would have been a good uncle, back in coloured days – children love uncles and gramps like you.’
‘I don’t like children, Owen.’ A smirk replaced the usual smile on his face.
‘That’s the second time, Lode,’ I laughed.
‘Stop counting, or it will be the last time, boy.’
We finished our cups, and I left. Lode chose to stay for more – he could finally return to his ‘data collection’, and I didn’t want to interrupt him any further. Our lesson ended, at the same table it had started.
‘See you, you old pervert,’ I waved to the old tippler.
‘Leave, and never come back,’ he winked at me – another joke from the sixteenth-century.
If I chose the path of a reaper or a harbinger, would our paths ever cross again? The question turned my smirk into a sad smile, for a moment.
Still, other thoughts kept me from growing fully grim – new guides and new factions. The taste of anticipation is stronger than sadness.
To describe any given time-frame, the citizens of Gray Horizon don’t use the common words that warmies do: ‘day’, ‘night’, ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’… there is no such thing when time is eternal – there are only moments; the moment you are in, or the moment you have had. Maybe it is a moment you wish for, but never expect to have, but you don’t wait for it; waiting equates to knowing what lies ahead, and no-one knows what awaits him in the next moment.
There is no ‘day’ or ‘night’ in the harbour, and no clocks to tell you the time. Because you don’t hurry, you don’t wait, and this means you have no need to count moments.
Dizz and Lode kept saying this, but for me, the concept of only having ‘the moment’ made no sense.
‘How is your day?’ I asked, approaching Dizz from behind.
We agreed to meet at the bazaar in Slippy Harbour. It’s not the same ‘Slippy Harbour’ as the one close to my old home, but it still has the same charm of despair in it. A bazaar is the same in every harbour, giving an impression that it is actually the same place, simply moving through space – even some of the merchants seem familiar!
Dizz, as always, balanced formal dressing with informal behaviour – dressed in a smart blouse, skirt and flat heels, she was fighting with a merchant. Of course she wasn’t physically beating him, but some of her words left bruises far worse than fists could do.
‘Show me where you have seen the night, and then I will tell you about my day!’ she threw roughly at me, before returning to her dialogue with the nervously shaking merchant; ‘And you, I said give me back my twenty mocks, and I won’t destroy this junk shop of yours!’
The man handed her a fistful of mocks, without even counting them, apologizing several times. Dizz threw a glance at the pile of coins, grabbed the twenty she claimed, and threw the rest down onto the counter. ‘I don’t need more than I paid.’
‘I apologize,’ another terrified excuse from the merchant.
‘What’s up, Owen?’ She turned to me, and her face had completely changed, as though what had just occurred was already forgotten.
‘I’m just back from engineering camp, and my first faction excursion is finished. Lode is a great teacher.’
‘Lode – Lodrick.’
‘Ah, the old man.’
‘He’s not that old when it comes to putting away ethers.’
‘Don’t tell me you were drinking again!’
Rage sparked in her eyes the moment she heard me speak of ethers.
‘Just a sip – nothing to worry about.’
We walked from the bazaar to the boardwalk, to talk. There was no beach, or even water, but one could always use their imagination. Personally, I prefer to pretend it’s an ocean, with seagulls flying overhead – noisy, yet relaxing. Lode always said: ‘If it makes you feel better, imagination is well worth the energy spent.’
As we walked along the boardwalk, I shared my experiences with Dizz – I told her in full the story of my journey into the engineering world. I told her of the brainless laboratory guard, the turtle island, Lode’s stories, and the three exercises which Lode walked me through, in order to work with different glow.
Dizz listened carefully, laughing at the jokes Lode and I shared, and I was pleased. It’s always nice to make someone laugh – it improves one’s self-esteem, and lowers barriers between people.
‘So, putting it all together, you had a good time,’ she summarized.
‘Yes. I broke mysteries, lost mental barriers and used new skills.’
‘You’re talking strangely.’
‘The golden rule,’ I laughed.
‘Are you sure you’re sober now?’
‘Forget about it. In two words: excellent time!’
Annoyance suddenly grew in Dizz; ‘Stop using that terminology – it messes with my mind. We’re not warmies moving through ‘time’ – we are something different, something more than time-obsessed mortals.’ She drilled me with her eyes, waiting for a suitable response.
It took me a while to think of one, but I think I finally managed it; ‘Sorry, Dizz. I will not mix time with the moment again.’
‘I sometimes feel like I’m your mother-’
‘Don’t.’ I don’t think I even thought of this answer – it just came out on its own, at the same moment my smile wore off.
‘It shouldn’t get to you when I say things like that, you know.’
‘I know, but just don’t.’
‘So, tell me then something more about mists, and I might find a new story for you.’
I silently thanked her for changing the subject.
We kept walking until we hit a dead end. Without paying any attention to it, we simply turned around to repeat the whole walk back. Enjoying many stories and many laughs; we were beginning to understand and feel each other better.
As dark as ink, the Mirror Lake of Flaring Harbour – a place where thousands take a break to enjoy a swim.
In my childhood years, water was one giant hocus-pocus for me – its liquidity is spellbinding, and swimming or simply floating in water changes your whole physical feeling. I remained under the impression of the magical substance of water, even once I had grown up. So many cults and civilizations have worshipped earth, sky and fire, yet so few have praised water; yet, this is the one with superiority over the other three – one can say this from the point of view of every element: only water prevails. It returns as rain, if dissipated with fire, as a wave, if blown out of tide by the wind, and if buried beneath the earth, it remains, and finds its way to the surface sooner or later. If I had to make a choice of the three, I’d worship water.
So, there we were, at one of few lakes on the grey side. The darkness of the water frightened me as if I were a child again; at first glance, seeing the swimmers’ heads, hands and feet popping out of the water gave the impression they were sinners, forced to suffer trapped in black treacle. The waters of Styx must have looked somehow similar.
Landing down to Earth after my fantasy flight, my fear was instantly gone, and I wanted to swim in it.
‘Come on, Owen. You’re going to like this.’ Dizz went to the shore and removed her heels.
‘I’m not sure I want to swim,’ I hesitated.
‘We didn’t come here for me to listen to this. Get into the water, now!’ Once again, her voice took control of my body, and I stepped closer to the water. Even once my feet were underneath, I couldn’t feel it.
‘What’s the point in swimming if you don’t feel cold, or hot, or even wet?’ I stepped back out.
‘Guess you’ll just have to find out,’ she smiled, and took off her blouse.
That’s when my consciousness and my mind conspired to play a joke on me – I couldn’t hold it in, as once again thoughts didn’t hesitate putting me to shame.
‘What a body! I can’t hold my words in!’ The more it happened, the more I came to accept its inevitably. ‘You’re doing it on purpose. What if I get a hard-on? I can’t even breathe.’
‘Good for you if you do. And you don’t have to breathe.’ She winked at me as she took off her skirt. ‘Are you joining me?’
I said many other words as I watched her walk into the water – she was smiling, and laughed occasionally. I considered myself lucky that she chose to react like this.
When her perfect, flexible body had hidden in the water, I came awake and quickly started to undress.
‘You either reign or serve’ the slogan on my T-shirt shouted at me, almost as a parting wish. I looked at Dizz, her head jutting out of the water, then I strolled into the liquid darkness.
Weightlessness must feel the same – swimming without significant feeling must make one as an astronaut, or at least close to it. Feelings come from the mind, and when they are not distracted by physical feelings, their perception is intensified. I closed my eyes and imagined myself in different places and scenarios, finally returning to the present, if only to try to make sense of the sensations. Dizz was right: there is much more to afterlife swimming than one would expect.
‘How do you feel?’ she asked me.
‘Incredible!’ Like a child playing in a bathtub for the first time.
‘Follow me,’ she invited, disappearing beneath the surface.
‘What kind of pupil would I be, if I didn’t?’ I noted, and followed.
It was even more fantastic now. The water’s darkness made it almost impossible to see anything; I caught movements of feet and hands through the darkness, as I searched for Dizz’s face. The sensation made me imagine the bursting of the birth of a supernova, inside me – it was just Dizz and me, nowhere, surrounded by nothing. There was an emptiness in the universe around us, and within each of us was a galaxy of stars, shining in our eyes, and our smiles, giving birth to new stars deep inside us.
After the swimming break, we returned to the progress of my apprenticeship, making way to the nearest harbour, aptly named ‘Wrecking Harbour’. It was a place of thieves, gang-feuds, and the worst and cheapest ethers. Beside this, it was home also to a first class musician, who just didn’t seem willing to abandon the place.
Heading into the dirty pub, we first saw the grand piano at the far corner. Despite the quality of the ethers, the venue lured all kinds of guests with its music.
The musician was named ‘Malone’. He was killed in a gangster skirmish, and was now playing in a monochrome world – how much more noir could his story get? On his fateful coloured day, Malone had decided to come to work early and tune the piano, as he was expecting the attendance of a Broadway producer that evening. It happened to be the same day his employer had invited his ‘associates’ for ‘talks’ – and the Tommy guns’ bursts rang out, thinning the market of competitors.
Fortunately for Monoland, the music died with the artist, and the maestro plays on in an adverse place, though without the chance of being killed again. Personally, I think he deserved better.
I don’t think I deserve this place, either. I suppose this is why it’s not down to us to announce our own sentence. Just as any prisoner may be innocent, each and everyone here has lived his life for something big. Unfortunately, there are forces which will throw you into Purgatory, simply because they can.
Malone was playing something jazzy, and I felt there was something familiar to me about his music; an absurd coincidence, because there was a gap of sixty years between his death and my birth, and he had never recorded. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling I knew it.
We took a table and two ethers.
‘Don’t even take a sip – this stuff is worse than sewage,’ Dizz cautioned me.
‘What’s the point in buying drinks, if you don’t drink them?’
‘To get a table. Drinks cost two mocks, and you get to sit – a table without drinking is five mocks.’
‘Doesn’t that sound like the worst business?’
‘No, because once you start drinking, you won’t stop. Commoners are then too drunk to count the advantage.’
‘Still, such marketing sounds a little idiotic.’
‘Believe me – in the blink of an eye there will be no empty tables.’
Dizz was right: by the time Malone came out, the pub was packed, its audience, more or less, completely drunk.
So, the show began.
The maestro shocked, then surprised me, and in the end I didn’t know what to think; jazzy motives from the coloured world, some crazy can-can numbers, with girls dancing, and, at the end, that melody I found so familiar. It has played in my head, frequently, since then, and I returned to the Wrecking Harbour just to listen to ‘Shadow Fuse’, performed by Malone, over and over again, after.
‘Magnificent,’ was all I could say, upon first hearing it.
‘Yeah, it’s my favourite,’ said Dizz and her eyes fixed on Malone’s fingers, as they gently switched to another melody, accompanied by a woman on vocals. Even the cloud of cigarette smoke above us added to the noir stereotype of the show.
‘Marvellous,’ another comment I dropped unexpectedly.
‘I thought you’d like it.’ Dizz gave me the smile of a victor – she had clearly meant to give me a wonder-moment, as reward for the good work with my first guide. ‘You should think about what you want to do next.’
‘I thought of going down the list, like that wizard-looking guy told me,’ I answered, without another thought. Possessed by the music and the visuals, I didn’t want to miss a thing by conversing.
‘You mean, you don’t want to see the work of a reaper?’ she replied, offended, but I didn’t notice.
‘I’d like to go for a harbinger guide, first. Know a good one you can recommend?’
‘Right. That’ll be fun: walking around glow, whispering at warmies.’ She sat back in her chair, and was silent for the next two songs.
‘You seem hostile when we talk about harbingers,’ I said, finally noticing the look on her face, her eyebrows shaped by frustration and insult.
‘Why would I? They are good guys – useful even. I just don’t find their work as fascinating and absorbing as-’
‘Great! I also think these guys are helpful, and I want to learn more about them,’ I interrupted. ‘They seem the most mysterious to me – I can’t even imagine what they do.’
‘So, you think you know about reapers’ work?’
‘Of course. There are many books and movies about reapers, but who ever imagines what the role of a harbinger is, in the other world?’
‘Then, I hope you have some fascinating moments, Owen.’ She turned her back to me, starting to leave.
‘What’s the matter, Dizz?’ I hardly managed to stop her, as I caught Dizzy’s hand.
‘Nothing. We’ve spent some time having fun – now it’s time I returned to my ordinary work.’ She stood up and left the pub.
I caught her at the entrance, where two drunks seemed to be supporting the walls of the pub; of course, these two had nothing in common with Atlas.
‘I didn’t mean to hurt you, or offend you. I am interested in your work, too, but I thought I could go through the first two, and then I could spend more time with you on less general questions.’ I looked her in the eye, and gave her a big-brotherly smile. ‘Please don’t be angry with me.’
‘I don’t understand what you’re saying. I have work to do – see you later,’ she said, in a way to inform me I had totally misjudged her mood; as though to emphasize this, her attitude and the way she looked and spoke changed – Dizz had never really learned to hide her true feelings; ‘And remember one thing: it’s not that easy to hurt or offend me.’
‘How about some recommendations?’
‘Can’t help you with this one. Only one word of advice: don’t look for them in the pub – you know what happens when you try to find answers among ethers.’ She started to leave, but I stopped her again.
‘But, how can I find one? Who was your harbinger?’
She stood there for a moment, in silence, before unwillingly unleashing the answer she preferred to keep private: ‘My curator, Jericho – he is a harbinger.’
‘Dizz, how could you forget that? Please introduce me to him,’ I said, full of enthusiasm.
‘I don’t think that’s going to work,’ she replied, dryly; ‘he is a ‘High Harbinger’ – I doubt he takes on newcomers, especially for apprenticeship.’
‘Come on – we can still at least try. I want to meet your curator.’ I smirked: ‘Besides, we can share gossip about you as we work together.’
All of a sudden she moved closer, her face right in mine, and filled with anger and rage; ‘He is not your friend to talk about me! I am not a subject for gossips. You get me?’ She spat on the floor, but, of course, nothing came out of her except for the actions.
‘You can’t spit. Don’t you-’
‘Shut up, Owen! No more fooling around. You want to meet my curator? Great – let’s get going. And if he can’t meet us, go and find one yourself.’ She spat again, and her eyes drilled me, as if daring me to comment on it.
We moved out to Oak Harbour.
The place would be green if harbours had colours. It was the first Purgatory city with flora, and there was a glow around each piece of nature. Dizz couldn’t tell me how any of the flowers, bushes and giant oak trees got there. She mentioned something about ‘decolorizing transfers’, but wasn’t in much of a mood for explaining. My guess is that she had no idea.
The place was beautiful and calm – no crowds on the streets, no merchants and no easy girls. No pubs either, and the first harbour with a prohibition on ethers; this meant my second guide was either sober or a smuggler.
We came to the central building, built in the middle of an oak park, and twice as high as the trees around it – a tower! With my bent to magic and fantasy, I expected entering a wizard tower, and that I would see some real magic or alchemy – or at least some good mechanics.
The place was separated into five floors, the first for administration and lower harbinger rooms. The next three levels were circled areas, filled with different types of glow source on each floor, including art, technology and nature. Finally, the fifth floor was the High Harbingers’ headquarters – only High Harbingers, and the directors for each similar structure in different harbours (known as ‘Master Enlighteners’), were allowed into the top level.
Meeting Jericho face-to-face stunned me – whether it was anxiety, or whatever, I didn’t know where to start with him. I had been expecting to meet a long-bearded man, with eyes and wrinkles full of wisdom. Instead, I was now stood before a nine-year-old boy.
Jericho was dressed in a toga. He had short hair, pale skin and an upper-class, aristocratic presence to his stance… until he saw Dizz.
‘Dizz!’ he said, gently, and, like an old man, swinging from one leg to the other, he ran slowly toward her. His gestures and movements gave the impression of an ancient person, if not his appearance.
‘He is an old child,’ I mumbled.
‘Jericho,’ Dizz smiled, going down on her knee to hug the kid.
This scene, which could have depicted a brother and his older sister, was distracted by my presence. Dizz was happy to see him, but at the same time, uneasiness became visible in her behaviour. Was it because of me or Jericho?
‘Owen,’ she introduced me; ‘he is my pupil.’
‘Not a pupil, but an apprentice,’ Jericho corrected Dizz; ‘each apprentice-mentor relationship brings both to a new level of knowledge. The better is this relationship, and invisible contact between the two, then the higher this union will bring both. Never forget the meaning of these words.’
‘He speaks like Yoda,’ I whispered to Dizz, but she didn’t seem to share my joke, or my observation.
‘Is that a friend of yours, or a cultural image you two shared in the lifetime?’ he asked, with awkward interest.
‘Jericho,’ I said nervously, ‘it’s only the way you talk: it sounds unusual, and my initial way to react to anything unusual is to laugh and pull out a joke.’
‘Owen!’ Dizz barked at me.
‘That’s alright, Dizz.’ The kid’s smile said enough for Dizz to step back, ‘I can speak a more modern way.’
‘Sorry for that,’ I apologized; ‘It made me feel an illiterate and very rude fellow.’
‘My enunciation,’ Jericho started, ‘which I have so desperately tried to save, has been damaged as moments have passed – each turn is leaving a mark on my way of expressing thoughts.
‘Anyway, less about me! What brings my beloved apprentice, and her own first here?’
‘I understand you are busy and-’
Dizz was interrupted: ‘And I am always glad to spend a moment with you. I’ve had so many people here lately. His smile took a different, gentle appearance; ‘My being fills with joy, seeing you. Tell me your story.’
‘There is not much to tell,’ Dizz continued, acting coy before her tutor.
‘I asked Dizz to introduce us to each other,’ I broke the hanging moment; ‘I would appreciate it if you could be my second guide, and show me around the harbingers’ world, please.’
‘So many major assignments and tasks I had to accomplish, for the sake of Gray Horizon-’ Jericho started, but was interrupted by Dizz:
‘I tried to explain to him that you are busy with more important things.’
‘True, but with great joy I will take a moment off, and go through the basics of the enlightenment work to which each harbinger hands his heart.’
‘What?’ Dizz was more surprised than I.
‘I love the education of newcomers – they are the future and power of Gray Horizon. As I said, I aim to improve myself, and this relationship is beneficial for both.
‘So, shall we walk together, before we start?’ He turned, and pointed at the garden.
‘Owen and Dizz, I want you to tell me about events happening beyond the mists of Oak Harbour.’
Oak Harbour has a beautiful park. The ever-grey trees never lose their leaves, and stand still above us, unaffected by the windless climate of the harbours. I told Jericho my story, Dizz commented on every part, and, to tell the truth, she made it sound quite fun.
‘The story of your afterlife fills in the events of every next moment, but what about the days of your life?’ Jericho summarized. ‘You were quite short on it.’
‘There’s not much to tell.’
‘There’s always more to tell than we think.’
‘Another wise note from an old child,’ I thought aloud.
‘That’s funny! No-one ever called me an ‘old child’. So, Owen, what is the story of your life?’
It’s one of those questions which gags one, instead of helping the conversation to move along. Gladly, Jericho felt it.
‘Childhood, and your connection with your parents, might be a good place to start. As I understand, from the way you told about the unbinding assignment, you had conflicts with them.’
‘Not ‘conflict’ – I’d say it’s more one-way than that. All my life, I absorbed their complaints, and that made me a nasty teen, and an adult after. Or, more accurately, an infantile young man.’
‘Please continue.’ Jericho showed such an interest, that I couldn’t stop;
‘The problem was that I grew up condemning them, simply because my self-esteem depended upon their approval. There was love in their hearts, but they were parents for the first time, and didn’t find it easy. Despite the fact that I didn’t want to blame them for this, I often did. And that’s how my persona and my character built.
‘I realize that I feel different now – no more sorrow or anger toward my parents; what’s the point in feeling sorry for myself, or blaming anyone. It’s a pity I couldn’t see love amongst the condemnation in my later years. What surprises me most is that I am able to say it now, but I couldn’t explain it during my whole life.’
‘Your consciousness is blooming, and nothing can suppress this growth – you are still able to become the person you were meant to be. Don’t be surprised by this extension of your mentality – it’s no different to when you were becoming a man, filled with new sensations, and hormones boiling your head!’
Playing with his eyebrows, this nine-year-old now seemed to want to discuss my puberty years. ‘Now, tell me – tell me more about your later years?’
‘I just mentioned the emotional part of those late years, but other parts were a rollercoaster, too – ups and downs all the way. Whenever I started moving up my happiness ladder, at half-way I would always find that the ladder would split. I still don’t know what will happen if I ever get to the top step.
‘Even though I’m dead, I still always doubt my own choices. I do understand there is no point in doing this, but I always feel guilty for my choices.
‘It’s a good job there are no mirrors here,’ I squeezed out a flabby laugh.
‘Do you need a mirror?’ Jericho said, troubled by my words.
‘No, it was a bad joke.’
‘Ah, I see now,’ he laughed; ‘amusing, Owen.’
He stopped talking and turned to us. Here was this boy, looking at Dizz and I, and I felt like a first-class pupil; I’m sure Dizz felt it too, in the presence of our old and wise tutor. His inner power and vision pulsed with tremendous energy.
‘There is a small task I need to finish back in the tower, and I will hand my work over to another High-Harbinger. I shall meet you here afterwards – just don’t go anywhere for long.’
With his smile, it was difficult for Dizz to stay annoyed. He touched her elbow and looked into her eyes; ‘Dizz, I hope to see you, too, when I come back.’
Then, he disappeared behind the bushes, leaving us together in this beautiful garden.
All the kindness and comfort vanished as I turned to face Dizz. My tutor was already overflowing with anger, and ready to burst at me – a little like seeing an approaching nuclear blast, and wondering if you’ll make it to the bunker.
‘How could you!?’ she screamed at me.
‘What’s the matter, Dizzy?’
‘Don’t ‘Dizzy’ me! I told you to take a different guide. Why do you never listen to me?’
‘Well, actually you never said this, and I always listen to you.’
‘You always find a way to vindicate yourself, instead of listening and doing as I say. I asked you not to involve my curator in this, and yet here we are – he abandons everything to do your guiding.’
‘You girls! Whether dead or alive, you all just love an argument.’
‘You better watch your tongue!’
‘Sure. Just one more thing.’
‘Nothing. I’m sorry, Dizz – I was getting angry and was about to say something not worth saying.’
She looked at me and spat toward the floor. ‘I’m sorry too, Owen. I just had some bad moments at work, and I guess it’s just jealousy – Jericho is so dear to me, and I don’t want anybody else to be as close to him, or to have so much in common. And I don’t want you two to discuss me, and have your secrets.’
She didn’t react in time to what I was about to do, so was unable to resist when I suddenly stepped toward her, and hugged her hard.
‘Don’t you worry, Dizz – I promise that won’t happen.’
I didn’t see it, but I know I felt her smiling, as her head rested on my shoulder.
‘WORLD OF WHISPERS’
By time Jericho returned, Dizz had left. He was disappointed – he had wanted to see her, but I explained that she’d had to go, and would catch up with him after we had completed my harbinger training.
Jericho was one of those people who could remain silent for long periods, simply because there was no real reason to speak. At the same time, he knew the perfect moments to shake the space with words. I suppose all enlightened, driven and obsessed individuals are alike in this way: one never knows what to expect from them. You can feel the ground, thinking that you’re acting appropriately, and playing according to their rules, until another turn makes it impossible to understand their way of thinking. Dead or alive, humankind just can’t follow one line.
We stepped into the harbingers’ tower, and headed for the floor of technological glow.
Jericho looked around, and asked me if I wanted to know the principles, or get to know the practical part of the connection between grey and coloured. My answer was the one he expected: I said I wanted to use the glow, and to get as much practice, and as many tips and tricks, as possible.
‘Then there is no point in our presence here.’ He tapped on my shoulder; ‘Let’s retreat and find a more appropriate battlefield for our needs.’
‘There seems to be everything we need for the training here. What is wrong with this place?’
Pieces of technology filled the place, and resonated when any entity tried to make contact through it. There were computers, telephones, video-cameras, portable game-consoles, watches, headphones and even a car – how hard does one need to squeeze the steering wheel to bring a car with them?
‘Exactly. Chamber practice would make our training too easy. What is the point of it, if we just use what we are offered?’
‘Can’t we get to know the tools of our craft?’ I said, flinging up my hands. ‘When I went on my trip with Lode… Lodrick, we visited places with a great concentration of technology, and it didn’t take much effort to make contact.’
‘The effort, Owen,’ he interrupted me, ‘is what I want you to show, and to make you come to love. Whenever we make an effort, we grow.’
‘Not much effort in your existence, eh?’
‘That is funny.’
‘I didn’t mean to say that.’
‘But you thought it. And what’s the point of hiding your real self behind a thought barrier?’
‘We shouldn’t always share our thoughts – there are things that remain better unsaid.’
‘What nonsense! If you think something, yet don’t say it, it is already a debt – a debt which creates a crack between the one who thought and the one who didn’t hear it. Later, that crack becomes a hole, building more misunderstanding, and the link starts to fade.’
‘What about hurting someone? Words can bring pain?’
‘If the word is to wound, then a word of remedy must follow.’
‘A well-explained bandage.’
‘You use interesting metaphors.’
‘Sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt you, Jericho. I just don’t have a control of my thoughts, and sometimes they come out.’
‘That’s nice, Owen – I think I’ll like you more for that.’
Jericho’s words were becoming more and more difficult to understand – this is what happens when philosophy meets afterlife slang in a wise ‘kid’.
‘Why so?’ I wanted to know.
‘With time we all learn to separate our thoughts from the things we say. It’s not any particular way of hiding ones thoughts – you just stop thinking about what you don’t want to express in words; we either float in our minds silently, or simply speak what we need to say.’
Jericho continued as we came out of the tower, back into the garden, taking a course toward the mist exit: ‘You, Owen, have it different at the moment – you can say what you want to say, getting lost in your disorganized mind; more to that, you cannot hold notes of truth.’
‘Isn’t what everyone else says the truth? What’s the point in lying here?’
‘Liars hide behind a thousand agendas – what you hear is not always the truth. It’s easier to lie when you don’t have the inner voice to doubt your deed – when one believes in lies, the mind will not fail you with words of apprehension.’
That’s when the laughing began, and didn’t stop for quite some time – Jericho patiently stood, watching me go crazy.
‘I wouldn’t dare to try counting how many times my inner voice gagged me and wouldn’t let me speak while I was still coloured – any argument ended inside, before even finding its voice.’
‘You sound like a child,’ Jericho laughed.
‘It touches my ego to hear this from a child,’ I laughed, too.
‘The importance of voice, however inner or verbal, is the shade it adds to the character,’ Jericho said, stepping onto a philosophical road. ‘The importance of this communication lies mainly in the ears of the listener – it is so easy to misunderstand the actual intention – the meaning – of words, and mislead by perception; to devour the words one speaks, connect them into sentences, and build up one’s own meaning. Understanding, through thousands of prisms, is a diamond we all keep polishing, throughout our existence.’
‘Jericho,’ I interrupted the lyrical impulse of my wise guide; ‘You’re off-track.’
‘What do you mean, my friend? I was just getting to it – listen-’
‘No, I mean… look.’
While we were walking through the park, and all the way around it, Jericho, fully possessed by our debate, had strayed off the path, and was now standing with his ankles in the pond. He looked at his feet with a smile, and stomped in the water, making funny sounds.
‘What was I saying?’ he asked me.
‘About understanding and misunderstanding.’
‘Exactly! Exactly, my dear Owen.’ He rushed from the water, and I could see the bottom of his clothes were wet. He returned to the road, and we continued our walk, to a place we had both almost forgotten about.
‘The person who speaks knows what he wants to say.’
‘That sounds ridiculous; do you know that?’
‘It might sound silly, but just imagine: how often have you tried to express or explain something, yet your listener doesn’t understand your meaning.’
‘Isn’t my new ability to communicate without an internal voice filter already a cure for this?’
‘The inner voice receives data from your thoughts, but the meaning is already lost in translation.’
‘So, communication is doomed, then?’
‘I would like to use that phrase once, perhaps in a different context. Do you mind?’
‘Feel free.’ His behaviour was far beyond my comprehension, so I chose not to burden myself with the search for sense.
‘Communication is not doomed – it is similar to trying to understand your dreams. Due to your inexperience, or perhaps a lack of vocabulary, you might not be able to express the exact meaning of your dreams; believe me: they are much more complicated than you ever might have thought – the more you try to remember, the faster you’ll forget, or might simplify it. The same might happen with communication, and it often does – we need practice and strong will to hear properly. Do you have a will to hear, Owen?’
This was the first time the expression on his face, and his tone, had become serious. It caught me off-guard a little. ‘Yes,’ I squeezed out, gingerly.
‘Don’t be so serious,’ added my thought-voice. He ignored it.
‘Then it is time for us to begin the journey through sound and interpretation. Follow me, apprentice,’ Jericho said, in a happy, childish voice.
We approached a mist in the middle of the park. It is one thing to see mist at the border of the harbour, but those which hover at mid-height look mysterious, and a little magical – like a cloud, or smoke under glass, so thick one can’t see through it.
Jericho disappeared into the mist, and I had no option but to follow my excited guide.
My first feeling, as I walked out of the mist and into the warmies’ territories, was one of overwhelming grief.
I stepped onto crumbled stone, broken glass, and scrap iron. In the alley of what was once a civilian block, I was now amongst pieces of twisted metal and bricks crushed to dust; the skeletons of three and four story buildings lined both sides of the street. Walls were sheared from them, as though scrap pieces of paper.
Not a soul was on the street – any touch of life was long gone. I saw bodies buried beneath the stone and, like melted puppets, between the auxiliary reinforcements.
I couldn’t see it, but I felt glowing beneath this lifeless carpet.
Jericho was standing a few steps before me, looking up at the fourth floor of the building on our left; ‘Ayda lived here.’ His long pause and past tense said it all.
‘She was an exceptional child, with the greatest potential. She wanted to become a chemist, and would start her studies next year – she wasn’t a child anymore; not every adult is as mature as she. I was looking after her – working with her and encouraging her path. I was with her when she decided to become a chemist, and I was there when she found a way to apply to a university. But I wasn’t there when her dreams turned to dust.’
Jericho jumped from one stone to another, climbing the destroyed wall and remaining stairs. I couldn’t make it the same way and had to find another route – jumping and balancing on a thick, brick wall proved to be complicated, with its obstacles and unpredictable fluctuations.
We reached the fourth floor and climbed into one of the rooms – the one Jericho was looking at from the ground: Ayda’s room.
‘Reapers know whenever there is a mass death spot,’ the old child continued. ‘I was told what had happened in this sector, and rushed into the mist to get here before the curators took everyone out, or entities had spread through the place, wandering. I came straight here, but I didn’t find her. I ran all over the place, asking every reaper, harbinger and engineer along my way; each response made me a little calmer, but also made me run a little faster. I’ve spent many moments here and at the passport table looking for her. I was so happy when I had checked every possible place, and still found no sign of Arya.
‘So, she is not in the Monoland?’ I asked, if only to check that I was still following the story.
‘Yes. I met her reaper later, and he told me she had got the ‘white ticket’.’
‘That is..?’ I didn’t know what to say.
‘She went to the gardens – a place for those who led an honest life, and whose lives weren’t for nothing.
‘Hm…’ I took this a little personally, and my thoughts leaked again: ‘Unlike all of us here, right?’
‘I didn’t mean to upset you.’ Jericho turned and put his hand on my elbow.
‘No worries. I’m not alone here, right?’ I smirked, to acknowledge my appreciation of his ‘cheer up’ gesture.
We went back to the streets, and walked down the blocks, away from the carnage. One-by-one, the warmies started to appear, until we reached a block packed with the living. Still, though, the buildings themselves were resembling papier-mache after hard rain.
Crowds filled the streets, and inside buildings, women could be seen cooking in kitchens with missing external walls. A bunch of kids played outside, waiting for food, and two old men were sitting in the holes their houses had become, on different sides of the street, talking to each other. Kids ran from exposed rooms to their neighbours’, and back, and all lived like one big family.
After all, this was still these people’s home – fewer walls, less comfort, but still their will and might stood strong. Trees and bushes were growing inside houses.
‘Are you ready to make contact, Owen?’
‘Yes. But how? There is nothing here – no art, no technology… only a bunch of weak twigs on the street and in the ruins.’
‘The absence of strong glow sources shouldn’t frighten you. The power of each of these glow sources is little – you are right – but you can create a connection with your knowledge of the targeted entity.’
‘How is that?’
‘Each harbinger has sight of the history and character of the entity – you will have this too, if you decide to join us; for now, I will help you with it. Who do you want to know?’
I looked around, and the first person I saw was an aged man, sitting by a broken column, watching over a group of children. Bearded, with dark skin, and wearing a robe, one white, now covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt. It was impossible to say when the last time was that he had showered, or even washed his face.
‘This one.’ I pointed at him.
‘Charbel. He was a school-teacher, but now there is no school, and he is deaf. So, now he spends days looking after children.’
‘Does this mean he is still on his path?’ I said, with words riddled with doubt.
‘That’s your choice, and your decision whether to find out. I gave you a short bio – do you want to know more before you begin?’
‘Begin? I was only asking about him. Maybe he doesn’t need my interference.’
‘We will soon find out,’ Jericho smiled. ‘Now, go on – try to make a glow connection, to reach out to him and listen.’
Jericho’s method of teaching was an old-school one: if you want to teach a kid to swim, throw him off the boat; if you want to teach him to hunt, send him into the woods alone, with a knife (or a rifle, for half a chance)! Not that this situation was really so intense for me – really, I think I was just adding some drama to the situation.
Charbel gazed blankly at the children. His pale eyes didn’t see so well, but he had other senses keen enough to keep him on guard. I stepped forward, and went down on my knees before him.
I have got used to coloured eyes looking right through me, but this old man’s eyes gave me a chill I couldn’t have imagined! I had a feeling he saw me.
At his feet I noticed a young twig, and he had a book on his lap. Books of faith, belief and religion have an intense glow, due to the high energy they hold, and this was true of the book on Charbel’s knees. I concentrated on the twig, as it held a weaker glow, before adding the book to my mind. There was just me, Charbel, the twig and his book – these four energies merged into a cycle, and, for the first time, I tried not to scream – not to impose my own message, but just to listen.
At first I found it too noisy – impossible to maintain privacy in a place like this. But, as our meditation continued, all around us turned silent in a moment. My concentration locked, and I could only hear the voice of the book – a voice I couldn’t understand: symbols and letters, lines and drawings… it was difficult to gain a clean interpretation of it. I switched my attention, instead, to the calm and noiseless twig.
It took a while, but I finally found the voice of Charbel; ‘Ashur, Sabeen, Tira, Sargon…’ He mumbled endless names – about two dozen altogether. Then, he repeated them, cyclically, over again, then again, and again…
I stayed with him for a long time, but, in his mind, nothing changed but the cycle of names. Finally, I lost hope of understanding the old man, and gave up the connection.
Jericho saw me returning, and came over to me.
‘How was it?’ he quietly asked, as if not meaning to startle me or Charbel.
‘Twenty-one names – one after another, in a cycle. He pauses every time one of the children, playing in front of him, leaves his sight.’
‘What do you think that is, Owen?’ Jericho looked cautiously at Charbel.
‘I have no idea. There are only six children and four adults here, so he can’t be counting them. Maybe they are people he knows, or who are close to him, I don’t know. It’s a freaking pointless riddle.’
‘‘Freaking pointless riddle’? How can it be?’ Jericho looked at me with round eyes.
‘Don’t try to find any logic in that. What I meant to say is that I don’t know what he wants. Don’t get me wrong, though: I don’t even think he knows what he wants!’ I stood up and stepped away from behind the pillar, so as not to see anymore of Charbel – I was angry.
‘Did you listen to his book?’ came Jericho’s voice.
‘Why should I? It was messy, and I doubt that religious motives from the book will help me get some sense out of the old man. How could that help me with him?’
‘The book he is holding is not what you think it is; you should try to listen to it for a little longer – then you will find familiar sounds and whispers between the voice of Charbel and his book. It’s a school journal – the names he endlessly repeats are in the register: a list of all the children in his class.’
Jericho stepped up to Charbel, knelt down on the floor next to him and read back Charbel’s list of names. He then pointed at the children playing in front of them, and waved to me: ‘Look, Owen.’
I turned around to watch the kids.
‘There are Rasha and Nizar, from his class – they are two of seven children who survived. Some of the kids who didn’t don’t have parents to keep a memory of them. So, not to let the memory of them vanish into the dust, Charbel keeps repeating their names, just as he used to do every morning, in class.’
‘Why are you telling me these sad stories, Jericho?’ I whispered. On my knees, I wanted to grab hold of a fistful of sand, but I couldn’t move a single grain. ‘I can understand that you share Charbel’s pain, for all the lost lives – but why?’
‘Why do I feel sorrow for the dead?’ he answered, with his golden voice. ‘I guess I am involved too much with work I do.’
‘Shouldn’t you keep a distance between yourself and the work?’
‘What reason can there ever be not to feel compassion for those we pass on our existence to?’ he smiled
‘You are dead – you see death all the time. How can you stay so compassionate in the Monoland? I find it difficult already – in the short time I have spent here. Gray Horizon is a cold-blooded place, filled with cynics, and I need to act just like them in order to feel comfortable.’
‘I can only hope that the energy I create will reach the living and help them – and I know for sure that these feelings make me a better harbinger. Nothing remains in a shadow when I connect and listen, or whisper. Being cynical only keeps you running, but does not achieve any good in anything.’
His words were piercing, yet so warm that it didn’t hurt to hear him ruining my vision. I felt ashamed, but I also learnt something important.
‘We could fly to the moon, if we stopped being scared of failing!’ he exclaimed, to finish his line.
‘But we did already…’ I hesitated to add.
‘Oh, wonderful!’ he replied, with sparks in his eyes. ‘Then we’re on the right course!’
We finally left the place.
Jericho told me that Charbel had already a look of reaper around him, and with a path full of love and meaning, he would certainly get a white ticket.
Meanwhile, our path brought us back into the garden of the Oak Harbour, and we continued our journey through another mist. I had no idea where Jericho was taking me, and what further lessons lay before us.
‘WORLD OF SILENCE’
Africa! I could tell it from first sight – there could be no mistaking its climate, its vista and its people.
We landed in a village, of one of its tribes. Not one of those tribes which were embellished (awkwardly, to me) with plates in their lips or stones under the skin. These were modern and wore clothes – certainly more than I would, in a place of this climate (if I could still feel the heat). Motley clothes, minimal skin drawings, and bald heads are seemingly too primitive for nowadays teenagers, even here.
The village was located a few miles from a mountain, probably because another tribe owned the mountain’s territory. The tribe here gave the impression of a peaceful one – not offensive, or warlike. I caught sight of shields and spears, but they were designed for hunting, and not for battle (not that I am an expert, but if you could see the quality and quantity of this weaponry, I’m sure you would agree).
While I was examining the village and its natives, Jericho entered on its other side, where he stood, waving and calling me over. When we again joined up, he told me about the tribe:
‘They do not talk here,’ said Jericho, ‘at all.’
‘But we don’t speak to them, do we?’ came my logical question.
‘You’re right – we listen to their other voice, not the one which shakes the air. Let’s try and listen to someone here, shall we?’
With pure interest on his face, Jericho gestured me to act, and to pick a person with whom to make contact.
I looked around, and focused on a boy – an active one, who was working with logs, creating models. I came closer, and used the dead, glowing pieces of the tree he used in his craft – so far unknown to me – to get in touch with him.
What I heard, and felt could be described more as a charade than a flow of thoughts. Already experienced from the previous lesson, I searched for keys, to translate the code of his language into coherent thoughts or phrases. But there was nothing on or nearby this boy which I could use as a link to him; my guide certainly didn’t pick easy tasks!
‘Not simple, right?’ Jericho said, with a gentle smirk.
‘What am I doing wrong?’ I didn’t try to guess, and decided, this time, to hear Jericho’s lesson straight away.
‘I don’t know. You tell me: what is wrong?’
‘What I hear is not a common thought – it’s a group of words that I understand, but am finding it impossible to make sense of.’
‘Each language is a group of words, each flow of thoughts has a structure, and every last one of us has a language of his own, when speaking to himself. If a person does not speak, this doesn’t mean he can’t think or communicate with the world he lives in. We use words of our native language to explain thoughts to ourselves, not only to communicate, but, mostly, our ability to speak summarizes our ability to think.
‘Right now it is hard for you to solve this riddle, but perhaps not when you spend some time listening to natives. I will leave you for now.’
And so he did.
I kept a count of coloured days I spent with this tribe, and when Jericho returned, I knew almost a month had passed.
He questioned me about the knowledge I accumulated within these moments, and this time I had an answer:
‘It’s in the energy.’
‘What is?’ he asked, as a parent asks a child.
‘When we speak, we use words, but when we listen, we absorb the energy which comes with those words; it is this force which creates the tone, the character and the real message. Words are often not as important as the message they deliver; if the listener doesn’t just stick to what he hears, but analyzes the emotion and energy within that message, then he has taken a step towards understanding his interlocutor.’
‘These people do not use words.’
‘But the energy remains, in their gestures, mimics and emotions – it works just the same way as using words. It just transfers the energy, and I was able to listen to it.’
‘So, what did you hear?’
I pointed at a man working with an old, long shield, which he was patching up; ‘He is one of the mightiest warriors here, but he respects the young, and always allows them to pick their weapon first when going on a hunt. He trusts his son to become a tracker when the boy grows up. He once mentioned, with a gaze at his beloved wife, that he would kill a lion with his bare hands for her.’
We turned around, to the back of the small house, where an old man slept, in the shadow of a tree. ‘This old man is my favourite. He teaches children the animal world, and makes it look like a game. He teaches them how to act when they meet certain animals, and how to interact with them – both herbivores and predators. At first, I thought he was just a village madman, but then, the special honour and the respect from the other villagers towards this old man made me look at him a little closer, and listen more attentively.’
‘What if he is mad, and the kids just play jokes on the poor man?’
‘No. The children look carefully when he changes into another being, and try to understand what creature it is. If they don’t get it, he continues to show them with different actions. Then, he approaches them, taking a good look at their reaction. After the lesson, he chooses the ones which guessed correctly, and makes sure the others show respect to their brethren.’
‘What a fascinating man – I would like to see that,’ Jericho said, again with simple interest, and fire in his eyes.
‘Haven’t you already?’
‘No. Why do you think I had, Owen?’
‘It’s just that I figured we were visiting places you are familiar with, and knew you could test me.’
‘Partly true, but not really,’ he corrected me; ‘I know about this place, but I’ve never been here before we came – it’s a new mist and a new route. I heard about the unique customs in this village, and always thought it would be great to observe them. Fortunately, then, our paths crossed, and I could go on with my work in the Oak Harbour while you collected information, which you can now share with me.’
‘What?’ I yelped with surprise. ‘Manipulation from a harbinger?’
‘Why? It is a lesson learnt by you, which you can now share with me. Manipulation is when there is only a benefit to one side – when all parties gain experience or knowledge they can share, it is called progress. While everyone is taking steps forward, we should avoid words with negative connotations.’
After a moment of thought, I said that I agreed with Jericho.
My thoughts, as usual, were also a little loud, and he heard every argument I considered to understand his words; ‘The kid says the right thing, but why am I so pissed off about it?’
Jericho laughed and came closer to me. He put his hand on my elbow, and this time I understood his unusual gesture:
‘Too short to tap me on the shoulder.’ I thought this with a smirk, which quickly changed to an ‘oops!’ face; I looked askance at him.
‘I like you, Owen – you seem to be a fair man,’ he winked at me.
‘I used to be called the opposite, back in warmy days.’
‘Sooner or later we all grow up a little.’ He philosophically let the words float above us.
‘Guess you need a little bit more to reach my shoulder.’ This time I winked, and tapped him on the shoulder.
Jericho laughed more, and took my hand. He ran to the other side of the village, asking me about others, and as he did I described the role of each within the tribe, and their communication and relationship between each other.
‘So, how can we regulate these energy flows?’ he asked, suddenly becoming serious.
‘I considered our aim to be observing. Why do we have to regulate them?’
‘Oh, Owen. So many moments have passed, and you haven’t even tried to interfere.’
Boiling – that’s how I could explain my sudden feeling inside. Anger scorched me from the inside, as my temperature increased.
‘How on freaking Earth was I supposed to know that you wanted me to interfere in their minds, after you just told me to listen, then left? A simple statement would have been enough.’
Jericho lowered his eyes and took one step back. He waited silently while I swore and protested.
‘I did not say a word about this – correct,’ he pointed out, ‘but do you always do things by the book?’
‘For one reason, yes!’ I screamed: ‘You’re talking about these people’s lives, and my interfering in them. You said I should spend time practicing on my own – didn’t you see a freaking tiny chance that I might fail?’
‘Do you think you will never fail after the training is over?’
I listened to that nasty boy, and just stood there, shocked – so bold and so blatant, and I couldn’t just accede. His words only continued to raise my anger – I wanted to hit him, and I told him that.
‘I still think you should have said something. I’m studying, and I do things by the book, just as you just said.’
‘Let’s talk about books, then,’ Jericho picked up my notice; ‘the cook-book.’
‘What about it?’ I prepared for another philosophy lesson.
‘You can follow the book, and get a good soup, for example, or, at the same time, you can change the proportions, or add something, or leave some ingredients out – there are always different paths for making a good soup.’
‘If you follow the book, you will get a good soup,’ I objected, proud to oppose my teacher.
‘Yes, and you can mess something up when you try to experiment. But, it may end up with something better – or, at least, better for you. In truth, you never know what you will get in the end, but one thing is certain: if you follow the book, your soup will end up the same every time.’
Checkmate, I thought. He won this battle: I couldn’t find another word, and had no other option but to close this quarrel on Jericho’s last words.
I chewed what he had said in my mind for some time. The thought of what could have been said raised in my head, but it was too late now, and would have been nothing more than just another way to oppose the simple truth: you either create your soup or follow the recipe. If thinking lucidly, why would you choose a negative truth in place of positive one?
From that moment onward, I started to experiment, and to look outside the box of my assignment or situation. But that is a story for later.
We returned to the Oak Harbour, and while Jericho took care of his affairs in the harbingers’ tower, I took the opportunity to visit my dear curator.
Dizz spent her moments working hard. Her routine is her hobby, and her favourite way to relax. I anticipated finding out more about reapers, to see for myself what makes this work so pleasurably possessing.
I caught Dizz on her way back from an assignment. She was walking slowly, checking her pocket-book. It would probably be better to call it a ‘diary’, as they usually hold mystery and secrets, just like Dizz’s pocket-book. She always had it with her and never let me or anyone else look inside it. As soon as Dizz noticed me on the horizon, she put the diary back into the postman’s bag she always had with her.
‘Hey there, schoolboy!’ she screamed from the other side of the street, smiling. Passers-by turned around to see the student to which she referred, and I felt a little uncomfortable. But that feeling vanished as soon as our paths crossed, and I mischievously passed her in the other way direction and continued walking – it might have looked a bit of fun from the side. I guess I did it to break the ice following our recent encounters, and keep that lovely smile on her face.
‘Hey yourself, Miss Dizz.’
‘Whoa! Never call me ‘Miss’: it’s old-fashioned.’
‘Speaking of ages, my dear curator? We call them ‘moments’; more or less of them – who cares when only infinity lies before us?’
‘Jericho overdose!’ she said, though with less fun and a fading smile.
‘Jealous again?’ I didn’t even try to hide this thought, and said it consciously.
‘Sort of,’ she didn’t bother to deny the obvious behaviour.
‘But he is still your curator, and you still have your story and your moments together. He has had dozens of others, I suspect.’
‘Don’t even start,’ Dizz interrupted me.
‘Sorry. What I meant to say is that you will always have your bond with him, so there is no reason to worry about it.’
‘And now imagine seeing me with another pupil, coming out of the passport centre laughing about ‘our’ stuff. Wouldn’t that at least touch you?’
‘Maybe, but…’ She had a point; ‘..but we will always have our story, right?’
‘Listen to yourself; you put it as a question,’ she smirked, aimlessly looking forward as we walked.
‘What I meant to say, in a polite way, was an obvious truth: time- .. moments go on, and we will always have past ones in our memories, and will always create new ones – unless we act like stubborn babies.’ Her words had made me a little angry.
‘You don’t need to be polite to me – just be yourself. You won’t hurt me with the truth, or even with your awkward way of saying it. So, just skip the formalities – they don’t show you as a respectable person; they just look like show. You can give respect without being polite, and without ass-licking. Get me?’
I just nodded without saying anything. Dizz is so straight-up at times – her principles are straight, fair and monolith, and she is definite and clear in her thoughts and actions. I know I was lacking this myself occasionally (or, perhaps more honestly, on many occasions) back when I was coloured; I suppose I still am, but at least now I have my curator to learn from. Still, beneath her straight judgement and insight, she retains an infantile jealousy, which should have long since dried out and expired during her time in Monoland.
So, we walked on.
‘Tell me: how was harbingers’ duty?’ she changed the subject, not because we were in a difficult conversation, but simply because there was nothing more to say on it. Once again, with her straightforwardness, she blew that burden from my back.
‘Jericho is truly wise – he was testing me at every step,’ I started as a complaint, though with a smile.
‘And that drove you mad, right?’ She laughed; ‘Jericho is so far from this world – from both, actually.’
I shared all my stories with Dizz, and slowly calmed her jealousy. She even shared some of her stories with me.
She told me about the time that she and Jericho went to collect her passport – the whole routine of slowly walking from one room to another drove Dizz nuts. Jericho had noticed a change in her mood and hurried the process, telling them he had an emergency at the harbingers’ tower, but couldn’t leave his pupil alone here – as a result, the grumpy commission bureaucrats checked in all the personal notes as fast as they could, got in a mess, and she ended up with access to more zones than many qualified entities have. The personal story of her life was simply summarized at the time as: ‘Everyone’s dead’ – no friends, no family; as such, her entity was already well enlightened about the afterlife within her lifetime – such vision opened vast horizons of the Monoland for her, right from the first day. With unlimited access, an open-minded curator and a natural will to experiment, Dizz became an expert in the psychology of both coloured and grey entities.
She thanks Jericho for the possibilities he gave her, and can’t imagine what her existence be like if, that day, all had gone according to procedure.
Hearing her story, I recalled my first day, and the passport process: Dizz had given me the chance to act on my own at first, showing she had trust in me, then she had defended me, and tried to hurry the routine bureaucratic process. Back then, I had thought she just didn’t care, but now, of course, I saw it differently; I suddenly felt grateful to Dizz, and ashamed I had doubted her.
‘I have to get back to work,’ she said, as we reached a pause in the unending flow of words and thoughts of our dialogue.
‘It’s a pity to hear that.’ The pause grew longer. ‘Then…’
‘Until then,’ she winked. ‘Come back when you two finish your harbinger pranks.’
‘I will. After all, I have a reaper guide waiting for me. So, don’t make me have to look for you when the moment comes.’
‘Or else what?’
‘Or else I will start with all the pubs,’ I smiled, and she laughed.
It was time to get back to my apprentice duties, and team up with my guide for another journey.
‘INTO THE FUTURE’
I found Jericho in his cabinet, inside the harbingers’ tower.
As I stood there, in the middle of his room, I understood his high position: the small number of harbingers to hold his cabinet were top-ranked, respected entities, and Gray Horizon gave a decent level of respect to Jericho.
At the same time, little was known about his beginnings on this path – no-one was able to tell me anything about his curator; that left only one person who could…
‘Jericho, I was wondering: what were your first days here like?’ I asked my guide.
‘Contrasting,’ Jericho exhaled, as we exited the tower, into the Oak Harbour park.
‘I expected to hear a few more words than that.’
‘As I said; there were differing moments – good and bad, just like in anyone else’s story. I don’t think mine is interesting enough to spend our tutoring time sharing – let’s keep ourselves in the flow, and not get stuck in a pond of memories.’
Despite all those words, the way he parried my question showed me that he didn’t wish to share his pond. I had no intention of turning our dialogue into an interrogation, so I let us change the subject. I still hoped to hear his story though, so I willingly shared mine, as we led a path on our way to Slippy Harbour.
‘I know what we can do now!’ Jericho shouted, when I had finished my story; ‘Follow me.’
As I followed Jericho, I recalled the path that I’d not walked for so long, and had almost forgotten, as if it had never existed. We stopped at the passport control.
‘This fellow can’t pass through,’ the guard pointed at me, after checking my I.D.; ‘origin zones are forbidden.’
‘Take a look at my passport, and then grant this entity a short pass under my custody,’ Jericho replied, with an imperturbable expression.
They checked his passport, and then shifted their attitude in a wink of an eye – the second guard stamped my passport with a mark which removed the ban placed on ‘sealed’ zones. He accidently dropped it, but stood still until he thought we had faded into the mist, before bending to pick it up.
And his nervousness rubbed off on me – after all, I was going home.
I was surprised to find that three years had passed since my departure into the grey lands. Learning this gave me chills, though only psychologically.
This place had lived three years without me. Trees kept growing, warmies kept walking… the course of life hadn’t shattered with my death, and there were no closing credits above our heads. Life went on in colour, just as existence went on for me in Monoland. Such moments let you understand the light-weightedness of life – no matter what we think of ourselves, the universe has its own vision, and it doesn’t need our advice.
It appeared that my wish suited Jericho – so, the road we chose ended at my mother’s door.
The place hadn’t changed much – decor variations had appeared in the kitchen, and furniture had moved in the living room, but photo frames were still in their places; there were also a few new ones.
Happiness filled me, as I saw a picture of Mom with a man by her side. She lived with him, and from what I could make out, I got a feeling of calm and happiness reigning in this house – the two things she had wanted so much, and now finally had. And seeing her in this state of mind and spirit, made me even happier.
Jericho stood by my side.
#10th impression – Death opens the way for new, pleasant memories.
‘Life is infinitely polygonal, isn’t it?’ my guide stepped in.
Jericho had an ability to use words which one would never otherwise say, to portray particular moments in his reality or vision.
‘You mean versatile?’ I often had to check if we were talking about the same thing.
‘I say we subsist on the side of this multi-angular universe. Any time that we take a step to the other side, our view angle slightly changes. If we make a big leap, land and look around, we can have a different perspective.’
‘Everyone in the Monoland is stood motionless on that side, unwilling to look over the edge, for fear that they will slip and fall off. But we believe that the world will change its angle, not our own balance.’ I was beginning to talk his language again.
‘Exactly! Or at least a valid few of us; by your representation, I can assume you are one of them.’ With this, in an unintentionally harsh way, Jericho had confirmed what I was starting to guess.
‘Your mother stepped on a new side, and her reality changed.’
‘Does this mean she won’t join the Gray Horizon when her time comes?’
‘Not exactly,’ Jericho hesitated, clearly not wanting to frighten me, which I understood completely; ‘we don’t know how many edges we have to overcome to achieve something in living life – we can change many, yet the ones we choose might not be so crucial for us. On the other side, we can come to the right place and fulfil our mission there.’
‘But so few people achieve their dreams in a lifetime. How can life be measured in a check-box questionnaire?’
‘It is not – as I only see from what I know – measured in this way; there are so many aspects that make our life full, and it is not just a question of achieving one’s dream or not, making a good career or growing a psychologically stable child.’ Jericho suddenly started speaking my language: ‘It’s so far from us, why should we bother trying to understand it? At least I don’t feel I can, from my level of consciousness.’
A good trick to stop demagogy, is for one of the parties to just stop talking, otherwise eternity wouldn’t be enough. With this in mind, I walked away, and looked over the apartment.
I noticed some things which had changed, and other which hadn’t – this gave me a warm feeling, and made me smile. My room had changed a little, but had never been used.
‘Why don’t you listen to her?’ Jericho invited me to make contact with my mother. She sat on the sofa, reading, while her partner was working in the bathroom.
Her book, a ficus plant and a picture on the wall were the glow sources I chose to create the link. I closed my eyes and touched the plant, to kindle the initial contact in the chain – I knew by now that with my predilection to nature’s glow, I should use it – and the exchange of the energy began. I could feel the flow inside me – not physically, but somewhere deeper inside my conscious; just me and the plant, stalking in the warm darkness, until I found the painting on the wall.
It’s like striding through the universe: absolute darkness of space, and the bursting energy of the stars; only, in my world, stars are sources of glow.
The connection was made when I made contact with the glow of the painting – like a bridge or a rope holding the divergent together, another jump through the void, and I was linking to the book in my mother’s hands. The flow of pulsing energy was circling back to me – such a strong force, which vibrated the strings of my existence; I imagined the link as a circle, of which I let my mother into the centre, while I remained with my eyes closed, seeing that vision.
My Mom was in the middle of an energy vortex – sounds and noises were coming from every item; each source whispered, as together they created their buzz. That is the problem with a two-sided connection: you get a better contact, but it’s more difficult to manage the buzz.
Silence! No more noise then, and I could finally hear the whisper coming from the vortex centre – the voice of my mother. She was reading her book, but her thoughts kept distracting her from the context, and she didn’t even notice.
Michel is so gentle and loving – I’m even afraid to harm or offend him with my usual behaviour. We can walk, talk and do our things, or each just sit on his own, and it’s so easy for us. God works in mysterious ways. I should not forget about that present…
Her mind returned to the book, and I listened to the words she read – serenity wound through me, hearing her whisper; she made me believe in her happiness.
My moment was interrupted, when I suddenly realized the text she whispered – oh, the irony of life: it was ‘Paradise Lost’. Her dead son, leading his existence in Purgatory, was stood beside her, as she was reading the book he had recommended before his death. Another coincidence was the slogan on the shirt I wore: ‘You either reign or serve’ – it now reminded me of a quote from the book, reading: ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven’.
#11th impression – Death has a sense of humour.
‘There is no point getting involved in memories of passing moments – we always have them with us,’ Jericho told me, drawing a line. ‘Let’s see how you handle the other meeting.’
Apparently, Jericho wanted me to meet my father – I guess it was this insatiable hunger for communication, and a desire to always know more, which made Jericho a High-Harbinger. Besides, it made long journeys imperceptible.
‘Your mother – did her whispers affect you?’ he asked seriously, like a census-taker waiting for a response, to make another check on his list.
‘Of course they did: I heard her thoughts. That part of a human usually holds something sacred, unless we think about-’
‘I see,’ he interrupted.
‘It’s not always so informative or divine, but I still heard some things that are better unsaid – I heard something significant. Let’s leave it at that.’
‘Pardon me – my question most certainly wasn’t clear,’ Jericho said, in the most pleasant manner; the way a psychologist might talk, hearing his client veering too far in the wrong direction. ‘I wasn’t asking about her words, but of their effect. How did the whisper touch you? Do you feel the phantom bond between the two of you rising?’
‘Okay, I have one answer and one question – first: I did have a feeling tying us together, that I never had while I was on the coloured side; second: what ‘phantom bond’ are you talking about?’
‘When you first came to the Gray Horizon, you had a tie between the world of the living and ours, and it prevented you freeing your conscious space for a new perception. You can’t probably feel it yet, but that process has now already started – the way you look at things will change, and your values’ weight will change as well.’
‘You mean I’m changing into something else, inside?’ The thought gave me a sense of discomfort.
‘No. You are you – that foundation is set, and we cannot change it. Remember the polygonal life? You are now on the other figure, moving through new edges – the one you moved through during life is now vague and distant, yet it is still visible to you, but the path you walk and the steps you take open up the old life’s path in another perspective. Just as an island appears over the horizon, as you sail in its direction, your perception will open up your lifetime’s experience in a different angle.’
‘Oh, I beg you – not the philosophy again! Can we talk about something real? I know: fishing! Do you like fishing, Jericho? Can we go fishing in Monoland?’
‘I’m sorry, but we cannot. I will transfer the subject, and associated terms and objects to fishing, if you’d like.’
‘I would prefer not to hear any metaphors now,’ my voice dropped, as my gaze fell to the ground.
‘I like metaphors: they give thoughts a form. Unknown becomes understandable, when we associate it with the simplest.’
‘I KNOW!!’ I couldn’t bear any more, and threw it all out at Jericho.
‘I see…’ he replied, with a kind understanding.
I looked at him, initially with a look full of the anger which grew inside me. Then, within a moment, I devoured the anger and apologized for my outburst. This is one of the changes in me I had noticed: I was able to cool down with ease. Maybe with practice, I would learn to predict these outbursts of rage, and avert them altogether.
The second half of our journey passed in silence, until my uncontrollable thought-talking broke the serenity of our walk, as my father’s house appeared before us.
We stepped inside. Everything was in its place, as before and as always, except that the number of photographs in frames had increased.
He clearly spent his days looking after the house – maybe the only thing left for him in this life. Perhaps he just wanted to keep it stagnant, for the memories it held, still dear to him.
For the first time in my existence, I see the life he was always hiding from others, even his own family.
‘Why?’ my thoughts screamed out loud.
‘I think this has something to do with human psychology,’ Jericho summarized, without taking time for reflection.
‘Is that all you can say?’ This time I wanted to hear more than he told me.
‘The answer might be hidden in both his and your childhood, followed by a chain of actions which created your father as you know him, and you as the person you were before Gray Horizon. In the end, the road brought each of you to a particular place, and it couldn’t be any more different.’
‘No, it is all within all – life, existence and universe.’ Jericho was increasing the speed of his flight of thoughts; ‘Once again, I will mention changed perspective and freedom of movements; back in colours you were on different paths, but now you have stepped off and can walk by him.’
‘There you go: that’s the Jericho I know,’ I smirked.
I wanted to walk around and see what else had changed, and what had remained untouched, while Jericho stayed with my father in the living room and watched TV. Being High-Harbinger kept him inside harbours most of the time, and watching hot news-reports for warmies absorbed him; this junk-box hypnotized him, and he could spend hours watching it, admiring the continual progress of its technology – he didn’t even think about the uselessness of the content, so charmed was he by the magic of technology, and the dance of light and colour on its screen.
Meanwhile, I walked from one room to another. Photos were everywhere. It gave a feeling that Father used them to keep something grave outside, and not let it in. Indeed, that was probably the intention: to surround himself with the past.
I entered his bedroom, and was immediately met by somebody standing in there: a woman, quite young, and scantily dressed. She was standing on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.
‘Who is that?’ I asked myself. I was then even more surprised when she turned to me and said:
‘I’m Ohra. Pleased to meet you.’ She smiled and turned back toward the ceiling.
‘Can you see me? Are you…’ I couldn’t find the right word.
‘A Grey Bay citizen? Yes.’ She’d found it for me.
‘You know my father?’
‘Ah, he’s your Dad? Are you here to break the bond?’ She jumped off the bed and stood right in front of me – closer than I liked.
‘I’m just visiting. What are you doing here?’
‘Visiting? Do you know that is against the rules?’ Her eyebrows moved in suspicion.
‘I have a High-Harbinger with me, so it’s an official visit.’ I grinned with pride at my friend’s status.
‘I see.’ She turned back to the ceiling, staring as if there were something important there; I couldn’t see anything, besides a little moth, sleeping by the lamp.
‘You didn’t answer my question: who are you and what are you doing here?’ I repeated, already a little tense at this strange encounter.
‘I’m working. Can’t you see?’
‘Actually, no,’ I stated; ‘you are looking at a moth.’
‘I’m inspecting the ceiling,’ she argued.
‘That doesn’t make it any better. Why are you here?’
‘I told you: I’m working. I’m a reaper.’
Phantom shivers ran through my body. I screamed something – asking her again why she was here and who she was, but I already knew the answer: that the reaper had come to take my father.
I jumped on her and bowled her down, straddling her, with my hands around her neck. She looked at me with a questioning eyebrow and a blank face.
‘Really? Strangle me?’
I took my hands off her, but I didn’t stand up – it felt more comfortable with her beneath me, and keeping her there felt safer. Besides, I felt… horny!
Then I felt something I hadn’t for quite some time: the man-power growing inside. This simple act of domination was driving the sensations of my mind insane. She wasn’t gorgeous, and the surroundings were far from intimate, but the tension and emotional peak, combined with the close, aggressive contact had become a potential sexual harassment situation! Luckily for me, I hadn’t signed any contract stating it was illegal to rub oneself against other dead colleagues.
‘Is this what I think it is?’
‘It’s…’ I was too embarrassed to say.
‘I’ll take it as a compliment,’ she smiled, and that smile didn’t have a friendly tone, nor an arrogant one.
It did, however, raise the tension inside me, and Ohra felt it. One word followed another, then we were sliding together, our voices deeper, and our words slower. We ended up naked, and, eventually, sexually satiated.
‘I used to smoke two cigarettes after sex, when I was warm,’ she said, looking at the ceiling.
We were lying on Father’s bed, naked and exhausted. For entities unable to affect the coloured world, a soft bed feels more like a stone street. Still, releasing the pressure took us to a place where thinking about time squeezes into a thin ring of existence – a place where it is illegal to act in haste. A place where you simply give yourself to the universe, and take the first step, and then the second one – where you just lay on the shore of life’s river, watching it flow, and you don’t give a funk.
But, lying on a beach, there always comes a moment that you realize clouds are gathering, and that it’s time to pack and run;
‘Crap!’ I said, out loud; ‘Father!’
‘Don’t worry – he won’t come here. And even if he did, he wouldn’t see us violating his bedroom,’ she had that smile again.
‘Get up.’ I was already putting on my clothes and slippers.
‘What for? I have business here – I have no reason to hurry.’
‘I said get up and leave.’ I started to grow angry again.
‘First: you don’t talk to a higher rank like that, apprentice! Second: if I leave here now, nothing changes – arrangements are made, and, after all, it is inevitable.’
‘Nothing is inevitable!’ I cried out.
‘In movies, maybe. In life – and especially death – you can’t escape the shit your path takes you through; or, in our case, the dead-end that opens up ahead of you’.
‘But it’s just…’ I sat down on the side of the bed.
‘Too early?’ Ohra interrupted me, saying what I barely could whisper. ‘Open your eyes. I checked his file: he quit living years ago, and has been waiting for this.’
She was right. I didn’t want to admit it, but Dad simply existed, and unwillingly stepped from one day to the next. There are certain things one never wishes to think about, especially where one’s family is concerned: cheating… arrest… death… all things we can’t accept, even after we have grown up. Even after you come to terms with the fact there is no Santa, you still hide from accepting the thought that one (or both) of your parents might have an affair, or that they might go to prison. Especially so, that that they are not going to live forever; this is too much to accept in one’s life – that the time has come for one of them to vanish. Even with my insight into death, I still couldn’t accept this easily.
Ohra dressed and sat next to me. She put her hand on my shoulder, and patted it, clumsily and unnaturally. ‘Well, I sympathize with your loss.’
‘It hasn’t happened yet!’
‘True, but I can think of nothing else to say to wipe away your tears, so I may as well say it now.’
‘What makes me mad is that most people in this world respond to death as if it were hiccups: ‘I’m dying? No worries: it won’t last long’ – there are even those who find it amusing. or: ‘I’ll stay away from that dying person because it bothers me too much’. It’s ridiculous, and I’m not ready to just accept it.’
‘I don’t get your metaphor – you should be more clearer when choosing your words, if you want the listener to understand; you should be simple as a-b-c, and don’t try to complicate the original subject. Make yourself easier to read.’
‘‘Read’? Do you talk to people as if you’re their editor? I was just saying-’
‘I was a poet, back in eighteenth-century England.’
‘Did you know Shakespeare?’
‘Really!?’ she rolled her eyes, incredulously; ‘He lived two-hundred years before me! Not to mention the fact that he didn’t actually exist.’
‘Oh, come on!’ I laughed. ‘What is this – a conspiracy theory? Of course he did exist – I’ve read all about his life.’
‘Maybe you read about the one who lived in the eighteenth-century!’ Ohra sneered. ‘History blurs with time; believe me, my vision is much clearer – I lived two ages closer to his days of triumph.’
‘This is all compelling, but it has nothing to do with what I was saying.’
‘What you said has nothing to do with reality. But please go on,’ she said, with false interest, which she clearly wanted me to see. She sat there, watching me as if I had prepared a speech, and ready to assess it.
My growing rage wanted me to scream at her – to make her listen.
Then I recalled: I, too, had been dead to life, even before I had died. Just like my Dad, I had already neglected my dreams, and was stepping toward the deserted field of my own seclusion. After arguing with Ohra, I realized I had to reject my own presence in this argument; ‘Okay – if it’s time, let it be so. Promise me he won’t suffer.’
‘I promise it’ll be quick.’
Father then went to sleep; during the night he felt a pain in his back, and then the spasm gripped his chest – it was painful for him, but it was fast.
I was standing there, waiting for him, but he did not appear.
‘Gray Horizon is not for him – he has gone another way.’
I had nothing to say. On one hand I was happy to hear this; on the other, I was frightened, that he might go to a corrupt place.
Ohra wouldn’t tell me his destination – it is classified for relatives, making it sound almost as though she were some sort of intelligence agent. Reapers are very bossy, and are proud of what they do – their work is a means of asserting themselves, in the shifting existence of the Monoland. I was envious of her at that moment: I wanted to take comfort in what had happened, and be exact about it. But she left me only with guesses, and no answers.
‘I need to go – mortals don’t wait, you know,’ Ohra said, smiling, and she left.
I was left alone in the room. Jericho was still here, but he had waited in the living-room for the whole visit. Like an older brother, I picked him up, and said: ‘We have to leave.’
His answer seemed strange to me at the time: ‘I see,’ he said.
Now I think that he knew what was going to happen, and that he had brought me there for that moment – to say my final farewell to Dad, and finally accept him for the person he is… was. If so, Jericho had succeeded in his intention.
‘MEET THE SHORTY’
‘The Pit’ – the largest bazaar of all – took its piece (or more accurately, the whole territory) of the Angular Harbour, although nobody really calls it ‘Angular Harbour’ anymore.
The Pit is famous amongst Gray Horizon citizens, for its ability to create demand and supply as completely separate from each other – as one strolls through the bazaar, after bumping into a dozen badminton racquet vendors, for example, you may realize your need for a shuttlecock; unfortunately, by the time one returns to the racquet stall, it has already moved, and is now occupied by some other vendor, selling fishing-poles. If one wants to return any item to the seller, he will rarely be found, as he has already relocated to another spot. In other words, the afterlife is fast-moving in the Pit.
It is not called ‘The Pit’ for nothing: it is indeed a pit. The bazaar was originally sited here to make it easier for visitors to find what they need, by looking down at the stalls from above; the terrain opened a great perspective opportunity, and, initially, this was generally a terrific idea. But later, as the bazaar grew, and the concept of supply-and-demand changed its shape, its single aim became one to leave visitors with empty pockets, and a desire to keep returning. The pit is now a dwelling-place for those who were thieves, smugglers and salesmen in the coloured world.
Jericho led me through the crowd, walking as if he knew our destination – as if it were even possible to reach the place you wanted to, in such chaos. I had never seen so many entities in one place before that moment.
Finally, we reached a merchant that Jericho seemed to know, and not in the capacity of customer and merchant. Jericho didn’t try to hide the familiarity, and, after a short chat, the merchant handed Jericho a small sack.
We jumped back into the raging stream of dead, consuming force.
‘Who is that man?’ I asked him.
‘Mm… my doctor,’ Jericho answered, without turning to me.
Moving through a herd of buffalo must be easier than walking through the Pit. Like some ice-breaker, Jericho pushed forward into through the crowd, clearing a path for me to follow.
Then we seemed to reach the eye of the storm: the central square of the Pit – it was not so crowded here. The reason for this seemed to be that the specialty concession areas of the merchants moved outward from the plaza, with little in the centre. This created a marketing paradox – it was actually the best place for merchants to site, and it charged the highest rates, which caused traders raise their prices; as a result, high prices brought fewer consumers, but more affluent ones. Prices and rates went to extremes every other moment in the central square, appealing only to the wealthy, and the lazier merchants.
In general, most come to the Pit because it is so busy, and its price policy is lower than in any other harbour. It is so busy that most customers will never enjoy moments of one square meter for their duration. On these rare occasions, most take the opportunity just to catch their breath, before being plunged back into the market tornado.
We came here to meet another friend of Jericho’s.
‘Myles!’ Jericho shouted out loud.
The man named Myles detached his face from the newspaper he was reading, and, with a grumpy expression, greeted my teacher. Gazing at Jericho’s friend, seated in a merchant’s cart, I saw something very familiar about him.
Myles jumped off of the cart, and landed on the ground next to it, proudly standing only as high as the carriage itself.
‘You!’ I said, looking with dead eyes, and pointing at him – culturally wrong of me, I know, but I tend to act faster than I think.
‘You!’ he sulkily retorted.
‘Who?’ Jericho’s eyes flicked back and forth; ‘You two know each other?’
‘No,’ myself and the short guy replied, together; the same small man I met on my first day in Monoland – my first contact and first conflict in the dead land; one who had promised me a terrible moment, if we ever met again.
‘Then let me introduce you to each other,’ Jericho happily continued: ‘Owen, meet Myles – Myles, meet Owen.’
‘‘Owen’!? Obviously; no wonder you’re such a jerk!’ Myles laughed.
I was getting annoyed, but my curiosity was growing faster than my anger. ‘What’s so obvious about my name and me being a jerk?’ I asked Myles.
‘Obvious?’ he yelled; ‘Everything! Whatever your name, it’s only a different word with the same meaning.’
‘And what is that?’ I wasn’t going to step back.
‘Damn it,’ Myles said, losing his temper; raising his fists, he started bobbing from one foot to another. ‘Why don’t we just go straight to a fight?’
‘Oh…’ I said; ‘I didn’t know that was the custom here.’
‘Useless…’ he muttered, conceding.
‘Great, then!’ Jericho summarized, standing between us. ‘Let’s get back to our conversation, shall we?’
‘Get back to something that has never even started yet?’ Myles continued muttering. ‘Let’s just get on with it, so we can end it.’
‘Well, in a philosophical way dialogue can never end,’ Jericho said, raising his eyes to the harbour’s dark ceiling
‘Unless between men and women,’ I added.
‘No, it can never have a result when it’s between a man and a woman,’ Myles lowered his fists, and joined the chat.
‘I think it can never have a result, as there is no such thing as a result – all we have are conversation milestones, which can serve as a break in an endless dialogue; the point at which we need to stop, think through our position, and, in the best case, recreate our perspective,’ Jericho enlightened us with his truth.
‘You win,’ said Myles; ‘I’m getting bored talking about nothing.’
‘But that wasn’t about nothing!’ Jericho seemed a little hurt at hearing this.
‘What can make money?’ Myles asked me.
‘Anything,’ I replied, without thinking.
‘Could that conversation make us any money?’
‘I don’t see how.’
‘There – like I said: nothing!’ he concluded, lighting a small, portable hookah. Myles’s grumpy face showed his own self-satisfaction, while Jericho’s thoughtful face showed his desire to announce another ‘truth’.
A moment passed, as we stood around one of the barrels which served as tables, for those who wanted to drain a cannikin or two, during his shopping break. My second impression of Myles changed my view of him – he proved to be far worse than I had thought. The character of his persona was one of pure acid, that seemed to get into your eyes, ears and nerves, as long as you spent any time in a room with him. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to meet this guy for a second time, yet Jericho and Myles turned out to be good friends.
Jericho laughed, listening to Myles’s vulgar stories; it was probably his absurd curiosity of Myles’s behaviour in a life filled with filth, which cemented their strong friendship. ‘Episodes of a Low-Life Bastard’ could be a title to characterize Myles’s life-stories. My face remained emotionless; I, myself, had lived in a world filled with these stories.
‘Why are we here, Jericho?’ I finally lost my temper when Shorty again opened his mouth, about to start to another story.
‘Ah, right. Myles, I was hoping you could help me find some sugar.’
‘Sugar?’ I cried. ‘We came here for sugar?’
‘Did you get some?’ Myles became excited, all of a sudden.
‘Yes, but only a bit – I won’t be able to share with you this time, my friend.’
‘Bugger,’ the small man exhaled with disappointment. He sighed, looking again at Jericho, as though he was deprived of something which was his by right, before returning to his former state. He then asked us to wait in the square, and disappeared into the crowd.
Jericho told me he wanted to look around for new slippers, which reminded me again of what I looked like; I decided to search for a more normal outfit.
One of the merchants sold jeans, and, with luck, he had a pair in my size. ‘Try these,’ he said; ‘only ten mocks.’
‘Why not?’ I thought, jumping into the dressing cabin between the stalls. Well, I found use of it as a dressing cabin – his neighbour was using the place for garbage.
‘You scuffed them!’ the merchant cried, as I came out.
‘The jeans – you scuffed them. How am I going to sell them now? You’ll have to pay for them!’ He wouldn’t stop.
I looked down, and admit I saw marks on the jeans’ cuffs, which had probably not been present before I took them in – I guessed the garbage in the dressing cabin had left its mark. Still, filled with joy that I would now have new clothes, I decided that this wouldn’t ruin my moment; ‘No problem – I’ll buy them.’
‘You said ten a moment ago! What’s going on?’
‘You didn’t ruin them a moment ago.’
‘But I’m still going to buy them. What’s the difference?’
‘But you haven’t bought them, and now I have to find a customer who is willing to buy them for half price.’
The merchant’s logic stumped me into a dead end. I spent what felt like eternity trying to explain that he didn’t need to worry about the stains on the jeans, because I would buy them – he would never see them again, and there was no harm done, to him or his business. But it always ended, vainly, with him quoting a new price – one that exceeded my budget of ten mocks.
‘Okay, forget it – I won’t buy them. How much do you want for compensation?’
Another round of bargaining which I had lost. ‘I don’t have it – all I have is ten mocks.’
‘Then I’ll take your shorts!’
It was at that point that the bazaar guard came over, and at that moment all my arguments and logical thinking were lost in vain. I ended up leaving the shop with no money and a naked butt!
As figures, Jericho and Myles were already there when I returned to the barrel. Jericho was instantly surprised by my new look, and I could see Myles already thinking about ways to create a cheap story out of me.
‘Boy, I don’t know what happened there, but you did it wrong!’ Myles laughed.
I made the story as short as possible, to leave as few gaps as possible for his witty interjections.
‘How rude,’ said Jericho; ‘he can’t do that.’
I didn’t expect help from him, but Myles’s reaction was, if anything, unpredictable. He nodded, and gestured for me to go with him. I unwillingly followed, as we headed back to the shop which I had left with a bare bottom.
‘Remember this guy, Karl?’ Myles started, aggressively.
‘Why should I?’ Karl started, deadpan; ‘are we related?’
‘He is your customer,’ Myles continued.
‘I don’t even remember my loved ones, and you expect me to recall one client? Not a word, Myles – you’re mad.’
‘I understand,’ Myles smirked; ‘we all have problems like that from time to time, eh?’
‘I suppose, Myles,’ a smile appeared on Karl’s face.
‘Just like he-’ Shorty pointed at me ‘-forgot his pants leaving your shop. Can you imagine?’
‘I don’t remember anyone forgetting his pants in my shop,’ the smile on Karl’s face dropped, and a stiffness came to his lips and his voice.
‘Of course you don’t – there are so many of them. But, no worries – we’ll just take his pants and we’ll leave, right?’ he turned to me.
‘Right,’ I said.
‘Right?’ he turned to Karl.
‘Right…’ Karl stated, in half a voice.
On our way back, the repulsive energy between us had vanished. He was still the same vulgar and insolent Myles, looking under every passing skirt, yet now I saw him differently. He hadn’t changed – it was me who had changed toward him. You can’t judge by looks, I thought, pulling up my new jeans.
We picked up Jericho by the barrel, and together we headed to the shisha tents – opium smoking dens must have had a similar atmosphere, back in the time of their global appeal.
This place had arrhythmia of time – a day could slip by in a moment, and vice versa. Another unique feature of this site was its mobility; owing to the illegal origin of the activity inside it, this tent had to continually change its location – whenever the authorities appeared on the horizon, the tent literally ran away, on the foot of its owners, each holding a wooden support column in his hands. From the side, it must have looked comical – like some large cloak, fleeting on its own feet. Over-relaxed visitors often didn’t realize what had happened, until the vacant space around them was suddenly occupied immediately by merchants.
Jericho, Myles and I sat in a private area of the tent, where we would not be disturbed. The strange pack Jericho had received earlier appeared once again on the table.
‘Will you tell me what this, or I should go on guessing?’ I asked with interest.
‘Lysergic acid,’ Jericho took a small bulb out of the sealed package.
‘L.S.D. – right; a drug of the coloured world,’ he explained, inspecting the fluid inside. ‘Do you have sugar?’
‘What?! How did it… I mean, where did you get this thing?’
‘Here you go,’ Myles threw two cubes of sugar onto the table.
I asked for an explanation, but Jericho, possessed by his preparations, didn’t notice. A moment later, he started to explain that an already opened conscious is limited only by the borders of its entity:
‘L.S.D. is one of few triggers which can break the boundary for the length of its duration. When two or more individuals take the acid, they can unite their conscious – or, in other words, can connect and interact inside their minds. As we already are, in a way, this will be some freaking magic!’
So, we took our places inside the tent and prepared for our trip. Myles had the role of ‘trip-sitter’ – one who stays awake and aware of what is happening, like a kind of steward for junkies.
With the doses inside our non-existing bodies, Jericho sat back, relaxed, and with a silly stare, invited me to sit back, too. It took less than a moment for us to get into our sub-conscious trouble.
The sub-conscious, for us, can be twisted; for the coloured, it is an another, uncontrollable level of his conscious, but, for Monolanders, it is only a sub-level away.
The problem, which I haven’t yet mentioned, comes when your perception acts as a mirror, so what you see is your inner self, but there is something which doesn’t belong; for me, that something was Myles. He had taken a dose out of what was left in Jericho’s bulb, and had thought he could keep this a secret. And, with my inexperience of L.S.D., I foolishly allowed Myles, a pervert, into my inner world.
‘What is this place?’ Myles said.
‘First of all, this is my home. And second, what are you doing here?’
‘It seems that I was quicker arriving than Jericho. He’ll probably join us later.’
‘Well, could you – you know – leave?’
‘Tell me straight! I’d prefer to stay, and look around for some of the dirty stuff you hide in here,’ he said, giggling.
‘Guess I don’t have much choice,’ I shrugged. ‘Let’s get going.’
‘You didn’t answer: where are we?’
I raised my eyes and looked around, trying to, first of all, understand it myself. We were floating on a rock, in a blue, almost liquid, space; three other rocks floated around us.
In the centre of the reef upon which we stood, I started to notice a black, almost transparent silhouette of a man breaking into convulsions. Silently, we moved closer to him. By the shadow’s form, and his movements, it slowly became apparent that the figure was me. I looked around again, until finally I got it.
‘I know where we are.’
‘Tell me, Sherlock.’
‘It’s a computer game.’
‘Boy, we are dead!,’ he said, as if I needed reminding of our state. ‘There are no computer games here.’
‘I mean, we are in me, and this is a computer game from my childhood – one I’ve played hundreds of times during my life; there’s no way I could forget this landscape, and this part of the story.’
‘Tell me,’ Myles said, with no real interest.
‘This is a part where the protagonist travels to his sub-consciousness to find his true self, after realizing an unbearable, frightening truth about himself. He has to talk with his other selves to put it all back into one piece, to become whole again.’
‘You call that a game?! What’s the matter with you people back there in the coloured land? Games are supposed to be for relaxation – for fun… Except chess – that’s just a mind-rape!’
‘Don’t worry about it. According to the game we need to visit three different, drifting areas of my life, and then… something will happen to me, I suppose.’
‘Sounds crazy. Sign me in! Let’s get going.’ Myles suddenly grew serious: ‘Any chance we will see girls with double-D jugs in your world?’
‘Let’s get going, Don Juan.’
Standing on this floating piece of rock, I thought of my warm days in the coloured land. I had never lived by certain rules, and I’d never had particularly high moral standards. Still, the absence of jugs on the horizon relieved me, and stressed Myles.
I noticed a building, far in the thick air of this place, and it brought me back to my childhood days… to long-lost innocence. As we approached, I recalled the building immediately: my kindergarten.
My journey took the direction of a walk-through-life experience. I always considered my life and inner-world would be reflected in a thrilling, intriguing way, but reality punches us with a simple truth: we are all humans, with the same thoughts, fears and childhood problems; I reckoned Freud must be clapping his hands now, wherever he is.
I called Myles, and we jumped onto the loose reef upon which this part of my kindergarten building stood frozen in time. As we drew closer, I saw that only one floor of the whole structure was present. One of the walls seemed to have a hole roughly torn out of it, and we used it to enter the building.
We stepped directly into the main dormitory – a large room with tables on either side, beds in the middle and a playing area at the back; beyond that we saw only a thin strip of floor – the abyss behind it, like the edge of a cliff.
My memory was left to draw that which was missing: this thin line of old, worn-out floor, as I recalled, led into a back room, which held the usual household items. For my bad behaviour, I had spent a lot of hours locked in that chamber. I was five years old back then. I inspected the room during my first few incarcerations, but then, on occasions afterwards, I would sit on the floor, doing nothing; mostly, I just watched the door, listening, as I tried to imagine the situations and occurrences creating the sounds I heard. Most of the time, these events were nothing of any interest, but the more time I spent in my cell, the more improbable the stories and scenarios I began to create in my head.
That small boy was sat in that place now.
‘Hey!’ I said to him, but he didn’t hear me.
‘What is this place?’ Myles entered, with a look of disgust, as though this were some foul-smelling elephant enclosure.
‘This is-’ I started to explain.
‘You get sent here for bad behaviour,’ the boy suddenly answered.
‘He can hear you!’ I shouted.
‘Who are you?’ the boy went on. ‘Did you misbehave?’
‘Well… not right now. But, if there were such a room in my childhood, I would certainly have spent a lot of time in it.’
‘If you are not a kid, why are you so small?’ the young ‘me’ asked.
‘Well, I liked to look up girls’ skirts so much when I was little, I decided to stop growing and stay that size.’
‘I once looked between a girl’s legs and Ms. Pierce brought me here.’
‘What a shame.’
‘We just wanted to see what the difference was. I told Ms. Pierce that I also showed Lilly what I have between my legs, but that only made her angrier.’
‘Is Ms. Pierce old?’
‘Then that explains it: she is jealous. She hasn’t seen naked boys for a long time, and that’s why she threw you in here.’
‘What the hell are you saying to him?!’ I yelled, unable to keep listening to Myles any longer.
‘Wasn’t it wrong?’ the boy asked, hopefully.
‘Of course not,’ Myles went on.
‘Stop it, you pervert!’ I hit Myles around the head; ‘I’m still just a young boy.’
‘You are just a memory of yourself – any harm which might affect this kid has already long since left an imprint on his life. We can only understand here, not change.’
#12th impression – Death is a conclusion.
‘Go on,’ I stepped back.
‘What makes you think you did something wrong?’ Myles asked the child.
‘Because adults say. They say they know better, and I do things wrong. Will I be a bad person when I grow up?’
‘Maybe. Do you want to?’
‘They say I must be good.’
‘Is it hard for you to be good?’
‘I don’t know – I don’t know what the difference is.’
‘There is none. What is good for one person might not be okay for another. You will mess up your life trying to be good for everyone.’
‘Adults say that all other kids are good.’
‘They will always say that. You shouldn’t worry about that; don’t pretend to be someone else.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Enough!’ I cried. ‘Stop this, Myles!’
‘What’s your problem, buddy?’
‘It’s going nowhere – he’s just a kid. What’s the point of this?’
‘He doesn’t have all those years of public opinion on his shoulders, yet. Do you think there is more point talking to you? I doubt it. Now you can think over everything you’ve just heard.’
‘He feels guilty for not being good,’ I replied, with annoyance in my voice.
‘He is you – you do remember that, right?’
‘What is it you want to hear? Whether I feel this guilt? Yes, I do! Trying to be good is a pain – I would rather live life just being the asshole that others called me, often; at least then I wouldn’t waste time trying to prove that I wasn’t.
‘Does all this come from my childhood? Maybe. But does hearing all this now help? No!’
‘But you are angry,’ Myles started laughing.
‘Who are you talking to?’ the kid asked Myles.
‘My imaginary friend. He is a lot like you.’
‘Is he good?’
‘Yes. Just like you are,’ Myles smiled, looking at the naïve child. ‘And he says he wants to be more like you.’
‘Say hi to him from me,’ the kid laughed.
‘I will. Take care, kid, and don’t ever miss a chance to look between girls’ legs – it will keep you warm on some of those long, cold nights.’
The kid laughed.
We stepped out of the dark store-room, back into the torn away piece of the building’s main room, floating in a space of nothing.
We continued on our way toward the main rock in the centre, with my convulsing silhouette in the middle of it, and I thought about Myles’s conversation with the little boy me. I had kept this child inside me, as an excuse for becoming the man I turned out to be, and I realized the truth: whenever life brought me to a crossroads, at which I could either take the route I wanted to, or choose the one with less resonance in the eyes of the masses, I always picked the second.
Even after joining the Monoland mass nothing changed – I didn’t take a risky decision if there was a chance it would disappoint someone, even when that disappointment was only inside myself; ‘Who cares? No-one,’ I would ask myself, answering my own question. I continually repeated these words to myself, reinforcing, as usual, my minimal borders of resistance – never dare to act in a way that people around you will disapprove of; never dare to attract doubt.
These were my ‘amendments’, and I had the same destructive cracks in my life as anyone following these lines.
‘Thanks, Myles,’ I whispered.
‘Nothing. Just accept it and keep your mouth shut for a moment.’
‘That I can’t guarantee.’ The little bastard made me smile.
Back toward the central isle of my consciousness, I looked around, searching for our next destination – the second level of this insubstantial journey. It was only now that I noticed the presence of pale colours: blue, green and red, floating in the air, like the coloured cloud when a painter puts his brushes into water. They whirled in the thick air, taking me back to the days of colour. I assumed this to be another conscious lead, created by my consciousness to guide our way – or perhaps they were just colours in the air.
We went on.
One rock was floating a little lower than the others – to get onto it we had to jump down, and did so without thinking, gliding through the blue air, with the speed of a falling feather.
Four hospital beds stood on that part of my memory, and a teenager lay upon one of them. I guessed immediately where we were: winter – the night before my operation. I was fourteen, and had fallen out of a second floor window – a broken rib had punctured my left lung. The first operation fixed the lung and drained the blood out; the second one broke ribs again, to access and clean out the crumbled bone splinters. Half an hour later, a nurse came to give me some good tranquilizers – so good, in fact, that even ten years later I wouldn’t recall the discomfort of the following day.
But before that half an hour had passed, I was just a teen, who didn’t even think of the following day – I just wanted to talk with my friends, and maybe write some kind words, just in case the doctors messed up.
I called the boy, but he didn’t hear me; again, it was left to Myles to run the show.
‘I know you! What are you doing here?’
‘How do you know me? Explain, boy?’
‘We were in the locker cupboard when I was a child.’
‘How can this be?’ I was shocked; ‘How could that me remember you, if these are parts of my memory?’
‘Don’t ask me, Owen – I eat L.S.D. for fun, not for these sick trips!’
‘I mean: you’re now in my memory, and that me just recalled your visit.’ I couldn’t hide the note of panic in my voice; ‘What if this changes my overall lifetime experience.’
‘Wow, hold on! It was just a drug, not a time-machine!’
‘Did you bring your invisible friend with you again?’ the teen-me asked.
‘Let’s get out of here!’ I screamed at Myles; ‘I don’t like this!’
‘Just chill, Owen,’ Myles stopped me; ‘you get what you order. Let’s see why we are here.’
‘It’s easy for you – it’s not your head we’re hacking now!’
Myles didn’t listen. He came closer to the Owen sitting on the bed, and jumped on it, next to him.
‘You’ve grown, boy,’ Myles smiled.
‘And you didn’t,’ Owen replied, making me a little proud.
‘A-ha – fourteen and already a smart-ass!’
The boy silently stared at Myles – a silence which Myles clearly found more disturbing than the sight of the teenager in front of him.
‘How is life, little fellow?’
‘I’m not that little, if you take a closer look.’
‘You know the basis of dialogue, right? I ask the question, and you answer before asking yours.’
‘Conversations like that are boring. I’d rather build a dialogue that’s interesting to listen to.’
‘Listened to by who?’
‘Viewers, or readers.’
‘We’re not in a movie, or a book.’
Both Myles and I noticed a book, lying on the shelf next to the hospital bed – a thick fantasy novel.
‘So you want to be a writer?’ Myles thought he could find a way to approach the boy.
‘A lot of people want to, but how many actually are?’
‘Bugger! Can we just talk, here?’
‘You speak strangely.’
‘We can talk about whatever you want to – we live in a real world, and the borders of language are not limiting us.’
‘Maybe your vocabulary is poor.’
‘Well, maybe… But my life is rich with wisdom and experience, so I’ll speak any way I want to.’
‘I’ll remember that – it might sound silly, but there is some sense to what you’re saying.’
‘No.’ I jumped into this absurd conversation; ‘Don’t bother remembering anything this rude man says to you!’
Myles turned to me and laughed: ‘You don’t have a voice in this play, bastard!’
‘Are you talking to your imaginary friend?’ The boy stared into the direction in which Myles was throwing his words, but he stared through me.
‘Yes. But luckily he can’t interrupt – the guy is annoying!’ Myles thought for a second, before adding: ‘Don’t ever be boring – you hear me?’
‘I’d never choose to be boring – who would want to be?’
‘Well… maybe you, in a few years.’
‘I don’t want to be boring. I want to be fun, and make people around me laugh all the time.’ The boy said this with anxiety in his voice. ‘I want to create stories which make people hold their breath when they play.’
‘Play? Play what?’
‘Computer games – I want to build computer games. I’m going to finish college and become a programmer, so I can create great games, which are more entertaining than books or movies.’
‘You had this shit in your head?’ Myles turned again, asking me.
‘I was a boy – enchanted by the world of games – and I hoped I would create them. I wanted to make others fall into magic worlds that I created for them.’
‘Oh… So you’re still a kid.’
‘It was a long time ago.’
‘But you still believe it, from the way you talk about it; you are still there – it’s obvious,’ Myles laughed, in no hurry to talk to me, or the other me – he was just enjoying himself.
‘Why do you want to do that?’ he asked the young me.
‘To leave a footprint. I want to be remembered.’
‘Well, keep up the good work, boy. Don’t pass up your dream.’
Myles didn’t say anything more after that – he just left the room, and jumped into the air, back up onto the main platform.
I stayed and stared at the boy on the bed. The coming days would be a trial for him and his parents. Many times I had tried to recall that night, but the memories had vanished; I assumed it was an effect of the tranquilizers the nurse gave me, but now I thought that maybe some other reason was behind it. Maybe time is indeed as liquid as the colours floating above; maybe Myles and I had just dropped in, and permanently affected my life!
Maybe a cocktail of too many science fiction movies and L.S.D. had made me paranoid.
Perhaps I was so preoccupied with the footprints I wanted to leave in life, and frightened of the operation, that my memory had erased the day – a defence to make me concentrate on the future, and not think about the past.
Now I realized it might not have been such a good idea to repress my unpleasant memories – which hurt and disappointed a young mind. I knew I had never wanted to create games or become a programmer; had never wanted to become a sculptor, or an author… I never wanted to become anyone! All I really wanted to do was leave a footprint, because the agony of being forgotten was unbearable to me. As a five-year-old boy, locked in a kindergarten household room, all I really wanted was for others to think about me when I wasn’t there, and later, for my memory to live on after I finally leave the stage of the coloured land.
But one cannot grow into somebody, if one is not himself to start; how can one’s footprints be identified if they have never built their identity in the first place? Perhaps it was my enlightenment, or maybe a change of perspective: I felt cogs moving inside me.
We returned to the large, central reef, where shadow Owen stood straight upright, making no movement, as he waited for me to approach.
Myles, in contrast, couldn’t contain himself in one place – full of enthusiasm, he leapt onto the reef, ran past the shadow, and beckoned me to the final platform.
I jumped onto it, and then I stopped, looking apprehensively over the rock, floating in the thick air – it contained a bench from my old neighbourhood, a children’s sandpit, and a tree.
‘Let’s get going, Owen – one more checkpoint to your wicked personality and we’re done,’ Myles laughed, and fled across the floating isle toward them.
‘What for? It’s going to be fun. Let’s go!’
I silently turned my back on Myles and the last rock of my memory, and walked over to the silent shadow of myself, whispering something into its ear.
Myles stood still, looking at me, before swearing aloud in the way only he could: ‘I didn’t come here for secrets – I want to know all the dirt on you.’
He started to run in the direction of the floating garden, but, as he drew closer to it, my last remaining memory suddenly blew sky-high, and vanished in the thickness of the air, where it disappeared like a ring blown out of a smoker’s mouth.
Myles spun around, and he saw the other memory reefs behind us also vanishing into the sky. He looked down at his feet, and opted to run, as fast as he could, back to me and the shadow. The central platform was disappearing into the air behind him as he ran.
‘We’re losing ground! What have you done?’
Yet, even when there was no more ground beneath our feet, we were still standing in space.
The shadow stepped in my direction, approached, and stepped into me – we became one. Then, the glowing shadows of the children from kindergarten, and the hospital bed, beamed through space, and also into my body. I felt so… calm.
‘Now what?’ Myles asked, gruffly.
I didn’t know why he looked at me the way he did: with surprise and resentment, all at the same time.
‘What’s with you, cry-baby?’ he asked again.
I touched my face, and realized that tears were running down it, but I didn’t feel myself crying; there seemed no reason, and no emotion, for the tears. I laughed and gazed at Myles, as he just stood, staring at me; I laughed louder and louder…
‘I am great – I never felt better!’ My laughter was becoming hysterical.
Obviously it was an infectious grin, as Myles, too, couldn’t hold out any longer, and burst into laughter. I moved closer to him and rested my hand on his head, as we couldn’t stop laughing, and I couldn’t stop crying.
I awoke sitting on the same sofa from which we had departed, in that same tent, laughing along with my new friend, Myles.
The wise and peaceful face of Jericho, staring at us, caught me off-guard.
Our trip came to an end, and we safely landed. Jericho’s had been a solo trip into his own consciousness, where he spent some pleasant time.
Simultaneously, interrupting each other, Myles and I told the story of our journey, and Jericho listened carefully. Before I had even finished my story – which Myles still seemed so personally interested in – Jericho asked me about the value of this trip.
At that point I didn’t want to tell him or Myles what was in the middle of that third isle – I knew what it was, and it made me understand the reason my consciousness had brought me into that triangle; I could see the bigger picture, without the third piece of the puzzle.
‘You don’t have to answer, Owen,’ Jericho reminded me of my freedom of choice.
‘I have nothing to hide from the lesson – or perhaps I should say the understanding I achieved back there,’ I started; ‘in a way it’s trivial, really. I’ve spent my life trying to please everyone but myself, and in the end, no-one’s satisfied.
‘Back then, I always felt that the point of living was for others – just begging for approval in the eyes and minds of others. But, those whose support I desperately called for never responded, even if they approved of my choices; it didn’t help me achieve anything, as I had no other particular goal. In another way, now, it has revealed to me the price of free choice, and the meaninglessness of jumping crazily through life’s possibilities.’
‘In my time that was obvious,’ Myles commented, harshly.
‘And it’s no different now,’ I agreed. ‘But it’s like banging into a door – when the door opens you apologize and hope you didn’t disturb anyone, before stepping inside; in the end, you know that your apology didn’t achieve anything – it just appeased people.’
‘Why is it every time we talk about life, we end up associating it with roads and doors?’ Myles, sick of all the philosophical talking, stood and left the tent.
The distraction his comment presented suddenly shattered the atmosphere in the tent – Jericho reacted quickly to the change, and stood, inviting me to follow.
Outside, we found Myles, who was standing by the wooden barrel, already with a cup of ethers in his hand; questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ are simply unanswered when one is talking about Myles – it was impossible to explain why he now held this cup, and how he had already finished half of it before we had even stepped out of the tent! If Monoland teaches you one thing, it is just to take things the way they are.
#13th impression – Death is as it is.
‘WORLD OF SORROWS’
The vacation came to an end, and I was ready to take a step into ‘Dizz Zone’.
From my perspective as an apprentice, I had better knowledge of this area – before entering into it – than any other. There is pop-culture, and tons of esoteric books and fiction novels describing death, reapers, and their way of doing business, but all that knowledge had only created a false impression in my head; far from what I thought, and had ever imagined, the reality planned to surprise me – a reality best kept silent for the sake of narration.
We met at the Scythebow Harbour – a place which can be called ‘Reaper Capital’. Before visiting Scythe, I had only heard about the climate inside this harbour: raining all the time is what they’d said about Scythebow. Each raindrop felt different – I realized I was experiencing the feeling of every raindrop falling onto me. As the distance between the rain in Scythebow and the rain I had always remembered grew, this feeling deformed. Still, it felt great; I imagined a warm, spring rain, yet it fell harder than I had ever remembered.
Dizz, her world, and her aim, were all intended to show me its undoubted superiority.
We went straight to the mist door, and upon emerging on the other side, were stood in front of a hospital. I couldn’t say exactly where we were – the architecture only hinted at its European origin.
As we entered, Dizz briefed me on reapers’ procedures. I became distracted a few times, due to the crowds of warmies moving too close to each other in narrow halls; a punch on the shoulder from a school bully is not even close to being hit on the shoulder by a warmy! I was thrown into a wall straight away, and Dizz just stood there, waiting for me to get up and hesitantly look around, before taking a step further.
‘This one is going to be easy – we’re only here to collect. You’ve been through this, not so long ago, but only from the other side. You probably remember the emotional state our newcomer is going to be in now,’ Dizz mumbled as we walked; ‘I want you to do the talking.’
‘But what if-’ I started.
‘There can be no ‘ifs’ in this welcoming moment,’ Dizz interrupted me. ‘Just wait and reply. Believe me, they do all the talking, and they have all the answers; just nod when they talk, and respond when they shut up.’
‘Is that how you do it?’ I smirked at Dizz.
‘You can act in lots of different ways – I’m just telling you the easiest one. If you don’t freak out, you can lead any way you like.’
The corridors, brimming with surgeons, nurses, interns and patients, became colder and darker, as we moved toward our destination.
An intensive care unit is a place with a doomsday clock ticking above each bed; that is where we met our passenger. Philip had been on vacation with his family, and, as Dizz simply said, it didn’t go well.
The room had no life in it – not a single source of glow inside; it is amazing how patients manage to survive in a place like this, where there is no life to hold on to. Even relatives are not allowed inside. Patients simply slip away, without even recognizing the moment.
‘Hey!’ Philip noticed us, and realized we could see him. ‘You two – what’s happening here? I thought I was in a coma or something.’
He was petrified the moment he caught sight of me. I just played out the scenario as Dizz had proposed: standing still, looking at him and listening.
‘Why does no-one see me? If this is a dream, I want to wake up!’ Philip approached and pushed me; ‘Say something!’
‘He’s not getting it, Dizz,’ I whispered; I failed: Philip heard me.
‘Getting what? Tell me what is happening?’ He pushed me once again, and I can’t say I liked him doing it.
‘Everything around you is the same, but different. No-one can hear or see you, except us two foreign guests.’ I couldn’t bring myself to say what I meant – I wanted him to understand by himself. ‘You didn’t feel any pain, right?’
‘Are you saying I’m dead?’ Philip laughed.
I smiled and nodded; I shouldn’t have smiled.
‘But I’m standing right here!’ he rejected, but I could see that something in him was already agreeing with me.
‘Are you religious?’
‘Then you are your soul.’
‘What would I be if I wasn’t religious?’ He raised his hands and clenched them behind his head.
‘I would use some other word.’ I talked too much and took guesses: ‘Anyway, you are not a living being, and your body is probably already in the morgue.’
‘I want to see it. Show me the body.’
‘You won’t see it.’
‘Why?’ He started breathing fast, exhaling with fatigue.
‘Don’t ask me – I’m kind of new here, too.’
Philip sat down on the bed, and started to breathe even heavier. I think I did the right thing in shutting up, and letting him overcome the moment.
Dizz is no good at hiding her emotions, so I measured pauses between responding, and holding off her responses. I tried to change the course of our dialogue with Philip, and explained to him about breathing – I told him he didn’t need to do this anymore.
But I failed again: I just pushed him over the edge, into a deeper hole of depression. Dizz nodded now, ready to take the lead, but I didn’t want to give up yet.
‘Nothing about this is inspiring – I know that,’ I started my third round, ‘but you are here. Those you have left on the other side will get used to living with this. You are alone here, and we came to give you a hand. You’ll need to learn to exist in your new state of being, and that won’t come fast, or easy – years have passed on the living side since I came here, and I still can’t say I’m used to the place.’
‘Should I just follow you and forget about my family, and my life?’ His voice sounded a little calmer, though still distraught.
‘No – don’t forget them. Just start by releasing life, as you are no longer there; then, you just keep going further. But, what stayed behind will never fade from your memory.’
Finally, I had his attention, and we found a string of contact between us. Dizz, seeing I was doing better, stepped outside and let me spend a few moments with Philip, to prepare him for what was going to happen next.
I actually thought I did a better job with his entry briefing than Dizz had on my arrival. On our way to the harbour, he was calm, and he asked questions which I was mostly able to answer.
His mentor was expecting us at the passport building – an engineer, who welcomed his apprentice with a gentle smile, and kind words. Philip thanked Dizz and I for our part in his new existence.
I recalled my first moments here, comparing them to how things had happened with this guy. Philip made me feel envious, and, actually, a little disappointed with Dizz – I repeated the thought that I did a better job of my first try than my curator did, getting me on-board; I was a hundred-percent certain that my favourable result had had nothing to do with skill, but was more a matter of will. As we left the place, Dizz had noticed a change in my attitude.
‘Why the long face? Cheer up – this guy is in good hands,’ she said, assuming I was concerned about Philip’s future.
‘You’re right. We have work to do – let’s go.’
I let Dizz walk in front, and lead the way to our next mission. Even if she could see I was still bothered, Dizz would never think that she had any part in it.
The rift starts with a crack.
Our second job brought us to the slums – an unfinished construction site, of a dozen blocks of flats. We took stairs to the top of one of them, finding its columns, walls and ceiling mostly unfinished.
The fourteenth and fifteenth floors of such buildings had been popular with kids, as a perfect place for war games. From there, I now looked around the slums – there was a river to the south, a few blocks from us, and beyond it the happy land was visible – a place with no hunger, no sorrow, but many more problems; problems like a clogged pool filter, the dog’s missed haircut, or perfect children being underestimated by teachers. For slum brats, life is easier – they don’t have to go to school or do any homework, and their parents never blow up on them if they come home late or dirty, as long as they come home.
Standing on top of this neglected concrete skeleton, seeing young ones running around playing, I felt emptiness. I could only move my sight from one to another, trying to guess which one we were here for.
‘Wake up, Owen. Keep your eyes open and follow my command,’ said my mentor.
‘Can’t we wait?’
‘Remember, we’re reapers? Don’t worry – I’ve been here and I already know the place. What I want you to do is just follow my command – do as I say.’
‘You expect me to prepare a trap for a kid?’ I said, without hiding my anger.
‘Just shut your mouth and open your ears. Otherwise, leave, and don’t waste my time,’ Dizz copied my tone, replying the same way.
I followed, listening to her instructions. After a few moments, I was stood on the edge of the building, looking at the creepers growing up its construction side, like pieces of fur, covering the remains of a cement beast. Dizz explained, without giving too many details, that I was to use the glow of the creepers, and draw the kids’ attention to it.
As I sat there, waiting, I played out the coming scenario a hundred times in my head: one of those boys would run into this part of the building, attracted by the plant, which he would decide to climb, and he would fall. In that short, yet endless moment, falling from the fourteenth floor, he would wonder why he ever tried to climb it, now knowing it would never have held his weight. He wouldn’t understand that this was all a set-up, because death has to stick to a plan.
Of course, none of this had happened yet, and I went over another scenario, one of him leaning against this ivy-covered wall from the inside, and, so unstable, it wouldn’t hold his weight; again, from the fourteenth floor, the boy would fall.
The more I thought about what was coming, the more I wanted it to happen, just so I could finally stop thinking about it.
But it didn’t; I stood there for ages, watching them play, and holding my breath every time one of them risked a possibility which might kill them. For another moment I lost myself, gazing at the landscape before me; despite the slums and the poverty, it opened up a beautiful and romantic perspective. The ability to see beauty, where most only see grief and disgust, is a must-have trait, for the benefit of a good, happy life.
As I floated through the landscape in my head, I almost missed the sight of the boy running into the room I was in, stumbling and flipping over the balcony. I was simply focused on the green ivy crawlers which he crashed through.
As soon as I realized, I shouted out loud to him, hoping he would hear me.
The horizon opened wider after the boy fell through the crawlers. Too frightened to go to the edge and look down, I could only stand there, rooted.
The sound of a voice from below hit me like an electric shock, and I rushed over to look. The boy was grasping desperately to one of the crawlers, hanging from the outside of the fourteenth floor, his will to live giving him an inexplicable strength. He started to climb, and it took him only a short while to pull himself over and fall safely to the floor. I could almost feel his hard breathing and pounding heart.
I found Dizz to share the good news – she was standing beside a child’s body.
We had spared one life, in order that another would be taken – Dizz did this without me; we could not take more than one life – this is the assignment we had.
The boy had been running through the corridor, and misjudged the sharp corner of a brick protruding into the doorway. It struck and punctured his temple, and his death was virtually immediate.
‘Where is he?’ I asked Dizz, in a grim voice.
‘I guess he went to the gardens, or got a reload. I find it a relief every time, seeing a child spared Monoland.’
‘What is ‘reload’?’
‘Another try at the coloured world.’
‘Just when I thought I’d started to understand how it works…’
‘We did our part here. Let’s go and check out our next assignment.’
Dizz explained to me about ‘reload’, or as it is more commonly understood, reincarnation. It is the chance for an entity to show its means, and its will to live; usually, premature death, or in rare cases, unfinished deeds, result in the opportunity for a reload. Dizz said it is like a football match, in which the referee can’t say for certain if the goal was clean or not, so awards the defending team the benefit of the doubt, by disallowing the goal – a second chance. Sports metaphors always work well for me, but, as always, one answer from Dizz created two further questions.
‘What makes you think you didn’t have a second chance,’ was her answer to my first one. ‘Why do you even think you deserved one?’ Dizz laughed.
‘It’s human nature-’ I tried to explain my meaning, but I was interrupted:
‘Bullshit! I didn’t question my place or ask for my right to a second round,’ Dizz blasted at me. ‘Maybe your human nature was why you weren’t given a second chance.’
‘You mean my egotistical nature? Yes, I know I was-’
‘And you still are! Don’t think that you’re now enlightened or something, just because you’ve been backstage.’
‘Okay, I’ve got your point – I realized from the moment I asked it that I would not get a precise answer.’ I asked my second question.
She answered: ‘Only the boss decides who can go for another round. Maybe other guys can offer input, but as far as I know, it is his authority alone to refill someone’s hourglass.’
‘But how does God’s will relate to the Monoland?’
‘I said ‘the boss’, not ‘God’ – you should listen better before asking questions,’ Dizz’s voice was harsh.
A guessing game flew around my head, like a speeding train with no brakes. If God is not the boss, what does that mean? If there is both the garden and the pit, but we are somewhere in between, then who rules the Gray Horizon? Dizz saw the questions in my growing eyes, and I finally opened my mouth to ask.
‘Oh, my!’ Her look changed to one of absolute joy; ‘You don’t have a clue! Now we’re playing!’
‘No games, Dizz. Just tell me who’s the ‘king’, ‘boss’, or whatever we’re supposed to call him?’
I’ve never seen Dizz so cheerful – her giggling, laughing, smirking face drove me nuts, and she kept teasing me all the way back to the harbour, parrying all my questions without giving me the slightest hint. I decided to make my own guesses:
‘So the first one is biblical, as we already know: God and the devil rule the two sides-’
‘Both the greenhouse and the boiler-room are run by the one same boss, and I’m not sure if he is ‘God’. You shouldn’t think about it – you’ll never meet him,’ Dizz interrupted me. ‘Monoland has a different hierarchy, though I wouldn’t expect to meet our boss either.’
‘There is a myth about Adam’s first wife, created before Eve – a woman with a temper unable to be tamed; Adam couldn’t handle her nature, and God banished her from Eden. On his second attempt, God used Adam’s rib to create the woman named Eve. The first wife was not happy with this, and she turned to sin; Lilith was her name.’ I stood, watching, waiting on Dizz’s reaction.
‘An interesting story – I’d never heard of her. You’re a fan of fantasy books and stuff, right?’
‘It’s not a fantasy.’
‘Call it whatever you like – it sounds like a child’s tale to me.’
‘So, I take it our boss is not Lilith?’
As we went on, I was thinking of other theories to make my next guess. Thankfully, this was all helping to take my mind off of the reaping back at the slums.
‘You’re such a pain in the-’
‘Ha! Loud thoughts, Owen,’ Dizz laughed. ‘Come up with some more bright ideas, and we’ll have a second round later.’
Scythebow Harbour was quiet, as always. A place so creepy and still, that one might be frightened by their own voice.
A reaper’s way of being differs from the other two factions, just like their behaviour does. My mentor is not like most of the others, perhaps because she is still new to this, and hasn’t yet been devoured by this vacuum. Or perhaps the other reason, and most likely the truth, is that Dizz just can’t be changed – she is who she is, and despite her unfulfilled life in colour, she came to the monochrome already open and complete.
Another moment and another assignment approached. As I watched the process of assignment, I imagined the reapers as assassins or contract killers, as the mail system arranged the distribution of their work. Each harbour has a post-station for reapers – whenever one uses his passport to get into a harbour-block post, he receives assignments to locations which are accessible from this harbour, in three or fewer changes. If he leaves without his assignments, they are reassigned to other reapers in this harbour. The workflow in the post-station is organized and controlled by engineers. The system seemed overly complicated to me, but proves to be very reliable, with rare mistakes.
The engineer threw a ‘Hey’ to Dizz, as we entered the post-station, and gave him her box number. Finding the right box can often be hard, but as Dizz is a regular at Scythebow Harbour post office, and the engineer recognized her, it didn’t take long.
Her mailbox contained three assignments, and my mentor looked through them for a while. I stood next to her, trying to read the paper she held, but she pushed me off, like a mother with an annoying child. She put two of the notes back into the mailbox, and chose one for our next assignment, slipping it into the pneumatic mail tube.
‘We’re leaving,’ she commanded, and I followed without questions.
At the exit doors, we met Dorian. He ducked into the doorway, to let me pass, but stepped into Dizz’s way; she shoved him hard with her shoulder.
‘My apologies, Dizz,’ was his polite reply to her aggressive shunt.
‘No need to apologize, just don’t stand in my way, ever again,’ she didn’t look back as she spoke, remaining on her path.
I didn’t mean for it to happen, but my eyes caught Dorian’s, and he nodded a gesture to acknowledge me; I tried to evade this uncomfortable situation, but he had already caught me in a talk trap.
‘Owen, right?’ he said. ‘How is your apprenticeship going?
‘Uh… Thanks, it’s good. I need to get out of this conversation, before incurring the wrath of my mentor, seeing me talking with someone she despises.’
‘Thanks for those kind words,’ he smiled, in a very pleasant manner. ‘All the same, I’m open to questions about reaper-craft.’
‘He doesn’t have any questions. Owen, let’s go,’ Dizz threw harshly.
‘I’m not saying your mentor is incompetent, but she might be busy,’ he smiled.
Dizz couldn’t contain it any longer, and her calm defence cracked – she turned around and came back to us. She stood inches from Dorian, and stared at him, with the eyes and grin of a beast, ready to tear apart its opponent.
‘He’s my responsibility – take care of your own apprentice,’ she said, in a low voice.
‘Well, I’d like to, but my last one has successfully finished his training, and now takes on his own assignments,’ Dorian replied, in a calm manner. ‘It’s a pity: they grow so fast. Because he completed his training early, I’ve now a sort of vacation before I can take on a new one. I’m already getting a little lonely.’
Dizz was burning inside, and she didn’t try to hide it. Dorian saw this, and he left – but I think he had got what he wanted. It took Dizz some time to get back to our work, as she remained in an emotional state – an inappropriate frame of mind to work an assignment.
But soon, once again, we were back to the warmies’ plane.
A small village, and a small crowd, in a large cemetery with a big ceremony. Orthodox burials differ from others: the emotions people express, the priest, people’s attire, and their behaviour. Mourners stand on a more formal level here, and you do not see the same presence of sorrow and loss that you do in other funeral ceremonies – at least I haven’t.
‘What are we doing here?’ I asked Dizz.
‘Our work,’ she replied.
‘I know that, but I can’t see the person we came for. Is there going to be a death at this funeral?’
‘No. It’s what we call a ‘death rope’ – the bond between two people who go through life together, and will never let the other one go. This has two outcomes: either, when one person dies, the survivor cuts the rope to go on living, or they can’t do this – that usually ends up with both people falling.’
‘You mean one of these people will just give up living, because of the loss?’
‘Have you never heard of anything like that?’
‘Yes, I have, and I always thought it was romantic. But it is also desperate and weak.’
Dizz didn’t like my comment, and I saw it on her face. I added: ‘Still, it’s sad.’
‘Depends on how you look at it. Now…’ she pointed at the inner circle of the crowd, around the coffin, ‘walk around and try to work out who our client is.’
I silently obeyed. It didn’t take me long to separate family from friends and other guests; wife, wife’s father, both parents of the departed, and, most likely his sister. The wife was in her fifties, and there were no children at the ceremony; as we reached the grave-site, a tombstone alongside the hole dug for today’s ceremony answered this question:
Died twenty years ago, aged seven.
His father now sleeps beside him.’
‘The wife. She lost her son long ago, and now she has lost her husband – she has nothing to hold onto in this world now; her two loved ones hang onto that rope, and are pulling her down.’
‘Fate has no mercy – if you believe in ‘fate’, that is. This broken woman is overwhelmed with grief and sorrow, but she has already accepted it – look at her.’ Dizz slipped into the crowd; ‘Can’t you see it in her eyes? She has let him go – she knows her boy and husband are in a better place together; she believes he will look after her little boy, and that she can now live on, in peace and serenity, until her day comes. She is a devout person – she would not give up life.’ Dizz looked at the wife with an expression of esteem.
She then moved her eyes aside; ‘But, look at his sister.’
I hadn’t noticed what was right before me – I’d picked the most logical choice, and had forgotten to do the obvious: to look at the eyes of the family members.
The sister of the passed man was barely standing, barely breathing… Her condition looked closer to the man in the coffin, than to those standing beside her. At first glance, I thought she had stood between her parents to support them, but I realized that they were the ones supporting her, as they tried to calm her.
‘She has accepted his death already – why can’t we let her live on? Humans mourn their dead loved ones – this is a normal emotional state,’ I shared these thoughts with my mentor.
‘And that’s why we have to push her over the Styx, if you know what I mean,’ Dizz replied.
‘No, I don’t! What do you mean ‘push’ her? Coax her into suicide? How? Why?’
‘We have to lead her out because she is lost, and will not find the way on her own – she won’t even look for a way out. Her entity has stopped building itself; it has stopped evolving. Her anchor of despair will trap her, and others who try to help her – they will step off of their path to push her forward, and it will put a wall in their way.’
‘Who are we to decide if she is of any value or not to the living?’
‘You could scream nonsense like that when you were alive; but now, you are exactly the one who decides – if you hadn’t realized it before now, that is what the Gray Horizon is all about!’
‘Then I must have had a useless mentor tutoring me!’ I shouted out loud.
‘You could have changed mentor at any time – didn’t I tell you that?’ She stood there, laughing in my face.
‘See! That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about! If you can’t remember what you did or didn’t tell me then you’re worthless as a mentor!’ Anger was building in me. ‘And no, Dizz, you did not tell me. I wonder how many other things you haven’t told me.’
‘You’re pissed off with me, eh?’ Her voice changed to a serious tone, but she kept that smirk on her face; to me, smirking has the same effect as a red rag to a bull!
‘TERRICO DE MUERTE’
Man vs. beast – only one leaves the arena.
Needless to say, no-one ever bets on the bull – if the matador doesn’t defeat it, his assistants will; the thousands of bloodthirsty spectators had already killed the beast long before the fight, when they bought the ticket and came to the show.
Bulls are colour-blind, and it is not the red colour which drives them nuts – it’s the disturbance.
I didn’t explain to Dizz what had disturbed me about her actions – there is no point in explaining once you reach this point. On my way out of the cemetery, with Dizz walking behind, asking for answers and willing me to stop, I didn’t care – I just wanted to leave this place, and Dizz, behind. She will still be my mentor, but not for much longer – all that is required now is a brief understanding of reapers’ work, and I can finish the training. Then I will have my passport updated, and my profile will be complete – I will have a profession, and a career ladder to climb. Sure, I will have to get used to the sides and edges of this world, but I doubt our paths will cross often.
Behind these thoughts – mainly in my head, but partly off of my tongue – I hid from the words Dizz threw at me. She said she didn’t blame me.
I didn’t justify her actions – it didn’t matter now; what was the point, when I didn’t want to listen to her anymore?
Entering the harbour, and continuing further still, I thought of more reasons why it is good to break the contact, and my relationship, with Dizz; she was being held back – after all, she had work to do, while I was just an apprentice in search of a reaper who would give a reference on my reaper-craft.
Back in Scythebow Harbour, things were busy as usual; reapers were in and out, getting their new assignments, and reporting on completed ones. The few I asked about taking me to a job with them silently rejected me.
This was when I started to get the feeling that these guys are the most antisocial human-haters. Of course, it’s generalizing to think such a thing, but let’s be honest: why would one take the job of planning warmies’ deaths, and pushing them into suicide when they feel unwanted? That last job with Dizz… I didn’t want to think about it. I already knew I wouldn’t step into the brotherhood of reapers – I didn’t want to go into the pit of sorrow, and spend my eternal existence collecting the dead.
‘Greetings! Owen, if I recall, right?’ a familiar voice behind me said.
‘Donovan.’ I recognized my curator’s ex-friend.
‘Dorian,’ he smiled.
‘Sorry, I won’t forget it next time.’ I probably would, but at least I probably wouldn’t call him Donovan again.
‘Ready for the next assignment with your mentor? How is Dizzy?’
‘Not many people call her that,’ I laughed through a sad face, and Dorian noticed it.
‘So, you’re not here for another assignment?’ He caught on quickly.
‘I’m here for another reaper guide. I don’t want to explain it, but we didn’t do well together, and I want someone else to finish my training.’ For a man who didn’t want to talk about it, I had said far too much.
‘I have an interesting job now. Would you care to join me?’
Needless to say, I didn’t think too long on it, and joined Dorian on his assignment. He was an experienced reaper, and a good mentor, which I could clearly see from those few short times our paths had crossed. His last trainee had finished faster than it took me to complete my first step.
He was a very open man, and overly polite; that might not be particularly helpful, but, after Dizz, I felt I could do with some gentle communication. In the end, he had offered his help, and I was not in a position to reject it.
We departed without any delays. We walked in the direction I was familiar with, yet I couldn’t recall where it led, as we jumped from one harbour to another. On the way, Dorian shared the assignment details with me; this was something new – Dizz had never told me anything before we reached our destination point, and not just during our reaper assignments. During my whole training with Dizz, I had never received a clue about where we were headed until we reached the place, and I rarely got an explanation on why we were there, or what we were there to do. Still, thanks to Dizz I had achieved a degree in self-education and improvisation.
In three changes at small harbours, we reached Melun (not that I am particularly good at geography, but I do read signs, and we came out right in front of it) – we were outside the city.
On our way, Dorian pointed at the road, and taught me the ‘dead-sprint’ – it’s a fantastic skill, which becomes clearer when you stop thinking of mortal physics. For us, there is no resistance or inertia – adding a little to each step you take can infinitely increase your speed: the faster you run, the less you touch the ground; it’s a little like floating at high speed, or riding an invisible kick-scooter.
Speed is so differently experienced when you don’t feel the motion of it, or the air in your face, or your ears. It was a touch scary at the beginning, when I realized I would need to make turns, until I found that you don’t feel speed there, either – when you reach your turning point, you can just stop to a standstill in one, single step.
The forest of Fontainebleau was our destination, and by dead-sprinting we reached it faster than it would have taken by car (one of the tricks I learnt from my teacher, Dizz, back at the beginning of my journey, was to travel on car-rooves or trunks – I can’t say it wasn’t fun). If I had known about ‘grey-land power’, I would have rushed through cities like Road-Runner, or The Flash.
Upon reaching the forest we dropped speed, searching for the exact place we required – it didn’t take us long to find it. Suddenly, there we were, in a meadow, looking at nine barely-dressed young and old warmies, standing in a circle, facing each other, relaxed and smiling. In the centre of the circle, one – positioning himself as their spiritual leader – made a speech, marking the skin of the circle’s other attendees with blue dye; he wrote a different symbol on the chest of each, and, with a part-smile, kissed them upon the mark. His face and lips were messy with remnants of the dye, and the symbols, already imperfect, blurred following the contact with his lips, and his moustache.
Cults are known for the lack of creativity in their rituals: always mumbling, smiling, and close to sexual intercourse-based rituals – saving souls through their insane deeds. This one had brought us into the beautiful forest to witness a group suicide. Such a thing is rare.
The group stood in their death circle, ready to leave the world they know, to fall into the hands of the unknown, yet with such certainty in their eyes and faces that they knew exactly where they would land; sadly, this was false expectation, and nothing more.
The leader finished his ritual of marking the followers, and together they began mumbling their lines, which never seemed to break into coherent words. Weaving from side to side, they hummed with closed eyes.
‘Owen,’ Dorian called me; ‘why are you still standing there?’
‘Oh, I thought you would tell me when we start,’ I replied.
‘Then, we start now – start with chains.’
The links Jericho had explained to me previously are a slightly different matter to this practice; among reapers, this phenomenon is called ‘chaining’: reapers attach chains to two or more warmies, to pull them – in actions or thoughts – in a desired direction. Accurately, they would be described as reins used to direct the living. Each carries a spiritual amulet; if a bond between a warmy and his own amulet is a link, then a bond forged between a warmy and another person’s amulet is a ‘chain’.
Lode would rant and rave, on hearing such experienced reapers as Dorian and the High-Harbinger Jericho misuse official terms, which would, in fact, call the links of this phenomenon ‘threads’. They are used extensively by Gray Horizon citizens to form webs between the living, for future interaction and guidance. I couldn’t really see why there were different names for more or less the same thing, so, as far as I am concerned, ‘chains’ it is.
On our way here, Dorian had explained how reapers use the chain system: chains can be created on bonds warmies share to certain everyday items, or behaviour they might have in common. Identifying those chains through the glow, and seeing them, can enable us to use those chains as a life rope to pull warmies out of decisions, or a condition they didn’t fully accept. Additionally, warmies might have chains that they are not even aware of; I can only associate such chains with some example of endearment – when we can’t say what it is that steers us toward an individual, or what we like about them, but just feel like there is something we share, even if we don’t know it yet; these are the chains Dorian was speaking of: the chains that can make one change the course of his thoughts or decisions.
Once again, the thought that someone unseen might have used such instruments to alter the course of my life gave me the creeps.
I thought Dorian was expecting too much of me, as I looked around.
A middle-aged man, with a trace of loss on his face, and the hands of a hard worker, scratched by years of fighting through life, was dressed in a white cloth with very little to it. A young woman stood next to him, dressed much the same – her long, dark hair shimmered, as she swayed from side to side with the others.
There were two women, looking close, or the same, in age, as the man. One of the women had her hair in a ponytail, the other’s was short and grey. Although one was slightly chubby, and the other overly slim, they shared standard lines of ageing.
Two men stood beside each other, both too young – you could see it in their eyes: naive and blank, and controlled by their puppet-master, in the middle of the circle.
As well as those mentioned, there was a man of later years, probably a rocker or a biker, before turning to the cult. Tattoos covered his body, and his moustache gave him the image of a real badass. There were rings on his middle fingers – chunky symbols of an old life, which he couldn’t quite discard. Next to him stood a guy of the complete opposites! Young, slim, with pale skin and glasses; if searching for a cliché to describe the guy, one would probably think of a computer geek, or bookworm. How had he ended up here? If I was right, the world he lived in would never bring him to such a place, to take the decision of committing suicide.
The last of the group was a woman in her late-thirties, with a tan she couldn’t have got anywhere near here; this meant she was either a recent recruit, or had sought her enlightenment at the Mediterranean, or someplace similar.
‘We’re running short on time, Owen,’ Dorian’s voice startled me, waking me from the thoughts I had found myself floating in.
I nodded, and ran to the other side of the circle – it didn’t really help much, but it did show Dorian I was energetically doing something to help; giving an illusion of hard work, so to speak.
I stood between the two middle-aged women. The way they were holding hands and looking at each other, in addition to their body language, gave me a clue about how to find a wire to attach to – a bond between them to use for the chain creation. I noticed glow emanating from their small, barely visible tattoos – an inscription, which ‘Ponytail’ had on her neck, just behind the ear; the other featured the same tattoo on her collarbone, which was barely visible, hidden from my sight by her robe. The tattoo was the chain I could use, and I did. I held onto the note on Ponytail’s neck, looking for any feelings or memories, which I could use to call for her sister’s identical tattoo.
I saw feeling between them – one I could sense tangibly – yet it just wouldn’t hold; no childhood memories, no common feelings to parents… In fact, worse than that: trying to retrieve memories of the short-haired woman’s parents, the string from the glow I held was slipping away from me. Her face twitched, and the hand her sister held tightened. Ponytail felt this and caressed the hand with her thumb – a gesture which quickly returned the short-haired woman to a calm state.
‘I get it!’ I shouted out loud, unwillingly as usual; ‘Sorry – I still can’t control that.’
Dorian laughed, and prompted me to act quickly.
The same glow, same memories, and same emotions, yet a different plot; it was there, and I was blind to see it: this was not the love of two sisters, but the love of two women; they cared for each other, and held one another, intimately. What had led me in the wrong direction was their similar appearance, but I now realized it wasn’t a familial similarity – they looked alike because they’d added these features.
The chain forged, and they felt it – I began to notice changes in how they reacted to my interaction. Both relied more heavily on each other, than upon what was surrounding them, and this was the string I would play. Their faces suddenly started to show a change in their line of thought; I aimed for doubt in them, and I saw it: a tic in their cheeks, and the glances they threw each other, when their leader had moved his own away from them. But, still, both women remained in the circle, and continued to act as the group.
I decided to switch my focus to someone else, to try to get their doubt spreading through the circle. Slowly, people began to feel change in the air, and I aimed to fill that air with a will to live.
All of my ensuing attempts failed. No-one else seemed connected like these two, and I had no idea how to tie chains between them. My confidence began to fade.
Dorian saw this, but frostily waited, without putting any pressure on me; I looked at him, and he smiled. The smile I returned to him was fake; despair washed over me, like an oil-spill on water, and I didn’t want to admit it.
Gazing at the fanatics in the circle, part of me saw a dim light of hope, that the two lovers would break the unity and others would react in a like way, leaving their leader alone in the woods.
Strange: wetness appeared out of nowhere, their robes suddenly appearing damp against their shoulders and chests, becoming transparent, and their drenched hair sticking to their faces. Some raised their heads, looking to the sky; then came the sound. But I saw nothing.
‘Rain?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ Dorian answered, stepping in; ‘Is it your first rain after death?’
‘I think so… I mean, I would have remembered something this strange.’ The comment came as a thought in my head, though I’d wanted to say it anyway.
‘We don’t see raindrops until they hit the surface – either that of the Earth, a tree or a living being. It’s hypnotic seeing this – I still get mesmerized every time.’
We stood there and watched, as the rain changed the appearance and behaviour of the people standing in a circle; the magnetic power of this nature lured us into a range of emotions.
‘But, how? Why can’t we see the raindrops? It’s just silly and not logical.’ I wanted an explanation; my mind was rejecting something it didn’t have one for.
‘I never asked,’ Dorian replied, calmly looking around; ‘I don’t want to destroy the magic.’
My new mentor came closer, patted me on the shoulder and pointed at the circle, showing me a new development: the glow around those standing in the circle was growing, becoming visibly brighter. The thin string I had managed to raise between the two women now became a visible thread; the glow of the members of the group’s rings, tattoos, glasses, and even the pendant on the neck of the cult’s leader, grew bright.
I hastily approached the ex-biker, with all his tattoos. I thought perhaps I could do the same with them, as I had done with those small tattoos on the two ladies. Of course, the real difference with his tattoos was that I had nobody with whom to bond him, and no chain to create.
The ink on his right forearm – depicting the image of a rhino wearing a helmet and smoking a cigar – drew my attention, as did the one on his left shoulder: an image of Charon – the Underworld transporter from Greek mythology – bearing the legend ‘Need a ride?’. I chained the two together, attempting to trigger an emotion or a memory. It didn’t work, so I continued further, linking the chain to a ring on the middle finger of his right hand. I had no idea what this ring meant to him, but hoped the improvisation would work.
And work it did: an emotional wave of memories rose inside him, as he began to recall days of long past; a tear started to run down his unshaven cheek. And only now, as I looked at his tears, I saw his eyes – despair; just like with the loving couple beside him, depression had brought the biker to this point.
Knowing what had driven him into arms of the circle, I used it, concentrating on that feeling – tugging those strings in an attempt to trigger as much emotional experience as it would take to shake his confidence in this decision.
His despair was due to his loss of good eyesight; he couldn’t ride his bike these days – the single thing which had formerly given meaning to his life.
I returned to Ponytail and her girlfriend – two women who also felt isolated from the world they lived in. This seemed strange to me: I had assumed the world had changed, and unisexual relationships were no longer socially unacceptable – there are so many unconventional couples living freely, and fewer in society taking issue with them over it. Sure, I know there are those who still stand against same-sex couples privately, and may spill dirt on the internet, or perhaps share their opinion in close company, but what the heck – who cared for the opinion of one small-minded person (well, I did, but not enough to drive me to some cult, or suicide)? Mind you, I supposed, the negative judgment of relatives or friends would have an effect on many.
I concentrated on this shared experience – I hoped it would work. I added my own emotional experiences, in an attempt to strengthen the chain, recalling my feelings in the moments I was affected by the opinion of others; it may or may not have come close to what they’d been through, but I felt it was worth a try.
Something seemed to be working: those three began to act constrained – from their movements, mimics and darting eyes, to the way their breathing and posture changed. I chained them together quickly, determined that these individuals noticed the hesitation in each other. The voice of the leader now seemed to disturb them, as the flow of each one’s memories hurled them from the false comfort they had sought in this circle of unity.
Inside I rejoiced, but had no time to waste – the other followers, humming in a trance, brought me back to Earth; unaware of the tension growing in their tattooed brother and sisters, they praised their leader, and the false God he bade them worship.
The leader began another speech, but now I detected a slipping confidence in his words – littered with long pauses – and in his eyes. Every second word he spoke, he threw a glance at one of my chained defectors, feeling their nervousness. He knew the irony of faith: those who bring the word of truth, are those most likely to be tempted by doubt.
I spied a hand-crafted bangle on the guru’s wrist – an accessory I noticed the glow of which had dimmed, with the onset of the falling rain, unlike that of other trinkets those in the group wore, which had intensified; I hadn’t noticed this until now, and silently I looked at Dorian, pointing at the bracelet questioningly. With his usual smile, he just nodded.
I ran through the likely associations of such an accessory in my head, as I tried to delve into the meaning of this bracelet.
Was the bangle a memento of someone dear? No pulse or any kind of reaction supported this.
Could the bangle symbolize his belief? I felt that was it, but even then, as I explored this, the pulsing energy barely breathed in this piece of steel. I knew then that this man’s faith was only skin-deep – even pretentious.
The bangle was a symbol of status – of showing himself as a leader, presenting his own difference among equals; my suspicion of this immediately yielded a higher pulse. And, like a mirror, the pride and certainty of one’s own importance reflected back at me – in one way, such an assumption was obvious to make of a cult-leader. But, then it also raised an obvious question: would a man with so much self-worship throw himself on a stake? The ends did not meet.
Perhaps the bangle was the symbol of a shield: of defending oneself from the outside world’s invisible threat. The pulse from the bangle’s grow was increasing further still – it echoed the fear I now implied: downtrodden and desperate.
As I threaded these pieces together, the reaction started to come on its own – my investigation was already triggering changes in the leader’s behaviour.
Yet, for a brief instant, though long enough to realize his hesitancy, his confidence returned. He picked up a cloth bag, which had all this time rested at his feet, and opened it. He stepped forward, first to the elderly man, and invited him to select an item from the bag.
The old man paused for a moment, then, quickly, took out a dagger.
Then the leader approached the young girl, the lovers, the two youngsters, the geeky man, the tanned woman, and, finally, the biker – all drew an item from the bag.
The cult-leader returned to the circle’s centre, picking up another bag from the floor, much smaller than the previous one. From this bag, he brought out his own personal dagger, as well as a handful of tiny bottles, filled with a transparent liquid. Everyone in the groups was handed one of the bottles.
They waited for the next instruction from their holy lead.
‘Are you done, Owen?’ Stepping into the circle, Dorian drew my attention: ‘If not, I suggest you hurry up – it looks like we’re reaching the end.’
Transfixed by the ritual, I was delaying, so curious was I to understand what it was that made these people follow, and how their actions reflected the will of whichever God or being they served with their worship. Dorian’s words instantly returned me to reality.
Now desperately short on time, I took the two youngsters as my next target; if I could influence two at one time, I may hit momentum to recruit others into my own cult – that of willing warmies to live. They knew each other; this was the only thing I could really tell about them from the beginning, and after deeper inspection.
Dorian cleared his throat, and I wondered if he had a sore throat. I focused again on the two young guys. Again, Dorian cleared his throat – this time louder – and distracted me.
‘I know we’re running out of time, Dorian!’ I threw at him, growing annoyed. ‘Give me a moment.’
‘Sorry for interrupting, but it might help to take a wider look around.’ He stepped back a little.
Fixed in my mind-set, I looked around the site, but I couldn’t notice one single thing of importance. Dorian drew my attention and pointed to bags which held the followers’ belongings, suggesting I scan them for items which might help me.
No-one would travel all the way out here in these robes, I explained to myself, and I dashed to the pile of clothes and other items, looking them over. But it was a puzzle of their personal belongings – a child’s game just to work out who owned each piece; play for reapers and their harvest.
I walked around and between the pile of clothes, accessories and other belongings, trying to calculate the owner of each; the game would have been fun, if not for the fact there were so many lives at stake. There were so many things here, yet no use from any – none of them had any decent glow, or gave a hint to its owner; of course, it was possible to separate the women’s items from those of the men, but this didn’t help much.
‘It’s time,’ Dorian stepped into the circle, where he stood next to the leader.
I simply stood, petrified. I couldn’t move, speak or even think – I could only spectate the act unfolding before our eyes.
The leader opened his own tiny bottle of the unknown liquid, and sniffed its fumes greedily. In his face, and his eyes, I could see fear, but I knew he wasn’t able to change his mind now, even if he wanted to, loath to run away from his plan.
Those around him mimicked his actions, opening up their own bottles. With even less confidence on display than their leader, they lifted the vials to their noses.
‘The moment has come!’ yelled the leader, in a state of intoxicated confusion. ‘We are all from the sky, and the ocean awaits us. We shall pour ourselves into the universe, and HE will greet us with arms wide open. Follow me, children – follow me, and let us fuse together in the ether.’
Lack of confidence – that is what he saw in their eyes. He looked around the group, trying to find a support in at least one of them; he found it in the face of the tanned woman. She nodded, willing him to take the next step. She inhaled the fumes again from the bottle, her appearance that of someone drifting far from this meadow – so far that in reality, she simply stood rooted, smiling, as a crimson stain started to spread across the robe her leader wore.
Immediately visible on his face were shock and regret – a desperate will to undo what he had just done.
The agony on the man’s face was enough to make some others in the group drop their daggers and bottles, from which one or two of whom had only pretended to inhale. Other than the rapturous, tanned woman, the same look crossed the faces of the group as that expressed by their leader; the difference being that there were no crimson marks on their clothes. Almost everybody took a step back, before the biker and the geek dashed to help the man who would be their leader, who had collapsed to his knees. The help came too late: a moment earlier, having stabbed himself right through the heart, the cult’s leader had already died.
Suddenly, the two young guys and the woman hastily grabbed up their belongings and fled without hesitation. Others remained on the meadow, dazed.
After a few moments of silence, the ex-biker took his phone from one of the piles amongst their belongings, and called the police and an ambulance. Ponytail, and her beloved, froze into a hug, crying, trying to calm each other.
‘Do you think you succeeded?’ Dorian’s voice broke the silence and drama of the moment.
‘When you say it like that, I doubt it.’
‘You can never doubt yourself, if you want to be a reaper,’ he said, with a sternness he hadn’t shown before, ‘otherwise your consciousness will break. A living person can hide from reality – you can’t. If that’s too much for you to accept, I suggest taking on a different role. But, remember, in every role you confront people, and your decisions affect them – no different from being alive, if you think about it.’
Dorian laughed and suggested that we leave, but I wanted to stay a little longer, and watch over the group. There were so many questions in my head, begging for answers – I was desperate to know if I had done this right.
A few of the group did indeed reveal themselves, and proved my guesses correct; the ex-biker had lost his licence, as his eyes had dimmed, and couldn’t ride anymore; the geeky guy was betrayed by his friends and rejected by his family, simply for not fulfilling their expectations; the girlfriends were rejected by the society they lived in, and for one of them this had proven unbearable – the other would never leave her, no matter what, and hence they had ended up in this meadow of despair. Others revealed their story when asked by police officers and ambulance crew: the middle-aged man had lost his belief in God, and couldn’t continue to live with the burden of this – he didn’t explain why in any greater detail, but I suspected he had suffered the loss of loved ones. The tanned woman remained outside the real world, even when spoken to – the drug’s effect may have already dissipated, but these events had left an imprint on her mental state. I wanted to listen to others, but police took them away before I was able.
Dorian again reminded me we had to leave.
Farewell survivors – stay warm a little longer.
‘ONE MORE FAREWELL’
The road to Scythebow passed quickly, so deep were we in dialogue. I had so many questions, and, luckily, Dorian had plenty of answers for me.
His mentoring approach had met my expectations, unlike my original mentor; Dizz did a great job, but Dorian’s experience went far beyond. During just one assignment, I’d learnt all about chaining emotions and memories, the dead sprint and environmental anomalies.
He told me about the rain during the ceremony, and how it had affected the whole situation. Such traits of nature, as I called them, helped to increase the glow of people’s personal artefacts, and even nature’s glow itself. Warmies are emotional, and such events as rain, snow and other significant climate changes are an effective trigger of emotions in the background, whilst altering the whole scene; the glow of personal items, such as pendants, rings, tattoos, scars and even phones or shoes – if they have a story behind them – will grow. And it is the same of nature itself – there is a story behind it for everyone; with its power, almost anything can be pulled from the depth of one’s consciousness or subconscious. But that does not mean controlling such a vast source of energy is not difficult.
To calm me down, Dorian explained that each assignment has its own specific objective, and may not always be necessarily intended to facilitate death, or prevent it; our accomplishment on this occasion had been to achieve our goal of avoiding a death chain. The leader of the cult himself had had to go – there was no other possible outcome for him – and our role had been to prevent others from following him; our goal would been achieved even if we had managed to save just one at the last moment.
We reached Scythebow – the centre of death. As we passed through, my gaze adhered to one of the block posts: the door back home.
‘That’s the city you came from, right?’ Dorian asked, noticing me stare at the exit.
‘Yes, that’s my hometown. I just…’
‘..just want to go there,’ he smiled. ‘You understand that you can’t, until you have this zone included into your pass?’
‘Sure – I don’t plan to go. I just saw the entrance, and a few memories came back to me.’
‘No. Parents, friends…’ I sighed; ‘..a girl, yes.’
‘What would you do, if you could have just one more day in colour, starting now?’
‘I would go to my parents, and meet up with as many of my friends as I could, just to tell them how lucky I was to have had them in my life.’ But my conscious did not want to be quieted; ‘No, none of that – I would go to that girl. My family and friends know, and would understand that between the two of us there was still so much unsolved, just left hanging in the air… so much I would want to… I don’t know, Dorian – I would just find her, and then maybe take a shot at what I want to say. I’m kind of getting used to unfiltered speech, so I would just be comfortable to say it all.’
‘Sounds interesting,’ he smiled. ‘Would you join me for a cup of ether, and tell more about you two?’
‘Oh… I thought… I got the impression that my past days are of no interest to anyone here. You surprise me.’
‘Well, our existence itself is all big surprise. Perhaps when we stop surprising each other, we’ll finally be truly dead. Shall we?’ He gestured me in the direction of a nearby pub, which looked more like a fancy restaurant, and from the outside, I would never have thought served ethers.
‘Gentle Sparks’ is a place for high-class citizens; the pubs where I previously took my sips had the look of outcast drinking houses. In Sparks, you are properly served – clean and gentleman-like; even the ether has a taste of aristocracy about it. We took a table at the corner, and, unlike all the previous pubs I frequented, we didn’t have to shout at each other to speak. Quiet, soft background music played to create a relaxing atmosphere; despite the fact that there were no free tables, still there was little noise in the place – I wondered if the upper classes speak on a different frequency. We got our cups, and Dorian raised a toast to my achievement in training.
‘What path do you have a feel for, Owen?’ he asked me.
‘So certain of it! Makes me want to hear the reasons behind that confidence, then for your choice.’
‘After the engineering intro, I already decided it was not for me: I couldn’t spend an hour sitting in a chair when I was back in colour, so eternity in one place would certainly disturb me! Add to that a total absence and inability to understand innovation and technical skill.’
‘That still leaves you with two options.’
‘I don’t want to take lives, or prevent one from dying while I watch the person next to him go – too many personal feelings would get in the way of me doing this work. Back in my warm body, I always thought that we humans have the capability to kill anyone, if there is no moral or criminal responsibility for it, but looking back at some of my moments in grey, I can see that my thoughts have changed. I can imagine a scenario involving two children, where I would have to throw one onto a railway while preventing the other from following him, and that gives me the chills, if you know what I mean.’
‘I see.’ He raised his cup again: ‘Here’s to the growth of the harbingers, who save the Monoland from overpopulation.’
I laughed and joined the toast.
We spent more time discussing my wish of going back to my hometown and meeting my girl, Christy, then Dorian told me the story of his own girlfriend from the past, and how he would love to meet her one last time, just to tell her a few more things. I realized that behind his wall of confidence and moral high-ground, Dorian was actually a decent, romantic fellow.
We ordered the third cup, and I was still bright and lucid, whilst relaxed and open for more private chat. Ethers can be truly unpredictable.
‘I’m enjoying our little chat, Owen,’ he mentioned.
‘Same here,’ I smiled.
‘I did sneak through patrol to find and contact my girl once.’
I couldn’t even think of what to say; ‘You mean you broke the law? It’s not a good idea to do that, right? You knew that, right?’
‘Yes, Owen,’ he laughed; ‘that is exactly what I did.’
‘Why are you telling me this? Shouldn’t my curator be teaching me how to be a good citizen?’
‘Feeling does not make you a bad citizen.’ He patted me on the shoulder; ‘You are still human, even if you are not breathing – you only broke out of the shell when you died. Your emotions can still burst and boil over – if you keep smothering them, you’ll risk becoming burnt out… dead inside.’
A moment of silence passed – far beyond what seemed appropriate.
‘I don’t want to die…’ I said.
‘It would probably make you a better reaper, if you ask me,’ he laughed, trying to drag me out of the thought vortex I was falling into.
‘I believe we have had enough,’ he then said. ‘I have a few more assignments I would like to get done today, so I must leave you.’ Once again, he patted me on the shoulder; ‘Order anything you want – they will put it on my bill.
‘Just relax, and get your passport updated whenever you’re ready. A whole new plane of possibilities lies before you – smile, Owen.’ He laughed again, and made his way to the exit, at a leisurely, almost dawdling pace.
I stayed behind, and mulled over our conversation. Our shared stories were along many of the same lines. He had been certain of his feelings for his girl, while the world he was in hadn’t been willing to accept the relationship between an aristocrat and a girl who worked as a waitress in a port tavern; it was the early seventeenth-century, and union of these two would have caused a scandal for Dorian’s family – ‘inadmissible’ he called it. His family had paid the tavern’s owner to throw her out. For weeks he had desperately searched for her, but when he finally found the girl he loved, she had changed: harmed, corrupted and used by the world – she hadn’t been able to pay for her lodgings, and in those days, this didn’t leave women with many options. She moved to a different quarter and invited men to help her pay the rent. She had refused Dorian’s offer of money, and blamed him for what had happened to her, and Dorian couldn’t argue with this – his feelings for her had destroyed her life.
In the afterlife, he had sneaked past the mist patrol, only to find that he had nothing more to say to her – one of her customers had developed feelings for her, and had saved her from the God-forsaken hole she had been living in. Now Dorian realized he could do only one thing for her: disappear from her life. Seeing her smile, finally, after all those years of pain, made him happy.
I didn’t want to abuse Dorian’s hospitality, and left Sparks when I finished the cup we had ordered together.
Outside, Scythebow hadn’t changed: reapers were rushing to and from assignments, while engineers dug new mist portals and resource worm-holes; mist patrols, with faces like statues, checked the I.D.s of all those arriving and departing. I brought out my I.D., and my temporary pass to the zone I had been allowed to visit during my training with Jericho; he had forgotten about this one, just as I had, and it needed to be returned – but not yet.
‘I’ll catch up with you later. Good luck, Lorna.’
I turned around at the voices, and saw two reapers talking; the one named Lorna headed in the direction of the mist portal which led to my home-town, and I followed her.
As she passed the patrol, I didn’t stop to think – whatever was in my head jumped straight off the tip of my tongue; ‘I need to get through that portal.’ I repeated this several times.
‘Show me your I.D.,’ said the portal guard.
I handed him my pass, which he scanned with a trained eye, in less than a moment.
‘You’re only allowed through accompanied by a curator or mentor,’ he said.
‘I’m right behind her – I just got stuck in the crowd.’ I said it before I even thought it: ‘Lorna, there – she’s my guide.’
‘Keep walking, and don’t hold up the line,’ he said, returning my I.D., as he allowed me to pass through.
The little swindler in me was elated.
The mist brought me to the park near the National Opera house.
It was midday, according to the sun, and people were about, trying to find an empty bench, upon which to spend their lunch-break.
This was also a favourite spot for young and old alike to meet for romantic dates; men of all ages stood expectantly, holding flowers, while women looked around furtively, waiting for their respective men.
The crowded city centre, within which this park sat, meant only one thing for somebody in my situation, and the best way to describe that would be ‘ping-pong’! That’s all that would happen to me if I dared head into the crowd – thanks to the physics of the monochrome world, I would be ricocheted from one person to the next like a pinball. I decided to take a route which I knew would be longer, but for sure less populated. I was now skilled in the dead sprint, and getting around such a small city as this would take no time.
I went straight to the place where I had last met Christy, hoping that she still lived there. Without the ability to practice a gentleman’s manners, I rudely entered her apartment, and instantly exhaled with relief, seeing her belongings, still in the places I had last seen them.
I decided to stay put, and wait patiently to see her when she returned that evening. The day was still young, leaving me alone for a long time in her apartment. I walked around, seeing with my own eyes for the first time how she lived in her messy room; her wardrobe hung open, filled with clothes – many more hung on the door, and over the chair next to it. I saw a shelf full of books – mostly romantic, though some detective novels, judging by their titles. On a lower bookshelf were only ornaments and souvenirs; a smile appeared on my face, as I saw the singing rhino I had once won for her at the carnival.
My excursion in the flat seemed to be coming to its end soon after it had started – there was very little to see in the small place.
The big chest beside the bed drew my attention; unfortunately the dexterity of the dead wouldn’t enable me open it, but I couldn’t ignore the soft glow around it.
I spent the rest of the day sitting on her bed, scrolling through memories of Christy and I together: our long, nightly talks, and moments of comforting silence, our rare, but emotionally charged quarrels, and those few intimate moments we had, which I would prefer to prevent leaving my memory through the written word.
The door opened, and I rushed out of the room, as happy as one could ever be to meet with his beloved; there she stood, undressing in the corridor. She trudged from the corridor into her living-room, threw her bag onto the sofa, and went straight into the bathroom. It was hard to resist, but I didn’t follow her in; I stopped by the door, patiently waiting for her to finish her shower and emerge. When the door finally opened, the sight of her made me freeze for a moment, before chivalrously throwing my gaze to the floor. I didn’t need to look – I recalled her body perfectly, my memory filled with a sense of the textiles of her skin; she still had the same curves and grace. If I closed my eyes, I could feel my hand stroking her face, her neck, and continuing downward. The moment seemed almost infinite in my mind, drawing me into a vortex of sensations I had all but forgotten.
I listened to her dressing, and counted to thirty before opening my eyes. With her now dressed, my tension decreased slightly, and I was comfortable enough to talk to her; of course, we couldn’t communicate, but I felt like speaking, and nothing would stop me.
One by one, I started to use all the glow sources in the room. I started with my favoured ones, but she had only two plants in the apartment, and both had little meaning to her – my attempt yielded a false start. I chained the picture on the wall to her laptop, and the chest beside the bed, encircling her within these sources of emotion; then I screamed out to her.
The chest worked, and her gaze fell upon it. As I said my words, she kept on staring at it. After a while, her eyes moved away, but I knew she had already heard me, somewhere deep inside her. She bit her lip, when I told her that I couldn’t forget those moments that we were close.
She rose from the sofa, lifted the phone and sat down on the edge of the bed. I sat next to her, as she scrolled through the contacts and started dialling one. I finally told her that it was probably love I had felt all along, but hadn’t had the courage to admit or accept it.
‘Hey, what are you up to tonight?’ she said, her voice a little uncertain. ‘Then don’t pass by – I need some company. Yes.’
She hung up, and fell down onto the sofa, her eyes fixed to the ceiling.
‘If only you could say something… anything…’ I said, sitting next to her, begging; ‘I feel so lonely.’
‘I’m lonely,’ she whispered.
I jumped from the sofa, and stood, staring at her. She had heard me!
After that moment I was a little nervous, and hoped her friend would be here soon – I didn’t want her to be alone tonight; everybody needs some support when they are lonely, especially when a dead friend is whispering in their head his feelings of love, and big words like ‘forever’.
The doorbell rang, and she rose from the bed, stretched her neck, and, with a brand new smile, went to the door.
Christy opened it, and a man, older than herself, entered. He smiled as he greeted her, closing the door behind him.
He undressed, as they had a weather-themed conversation, while Christy went into her room. I went after her, wondering if she was going to tell him about her strange, supernatural conversation with me, or just talk generically as a way to relax and calm herself down.
The man entered behind her, and drew closed a curtain which hung where a door should be, separating the hallway from the bedroom.
I now realized that being dead didn’t spare one a feeling of nervousness, especially when Christy approached her friend, took his hand, and put it under her skirt, squeezing it between her legs.
I backed away a few steps.
She kissed him, with as much passion and lust as could be put into one single kiss. She jerked off her clothes, and when she had finished that, helped him out of his pants.
Christy knelt before that man, and she stayed there for a long time. Her eyes registered not a single emotion – this was primitive hunger.
I wanted to run away, but that freaking curtain blocked my way – it wasn’t the same as a door: I couldn’t get through such a thin, almost transparent wall, and couldn’t get out of this nightmare. I couldn’t bear to look, and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t close my ears; like a giant drill, mixing my guts and taking my breath away, I heard those disgusting sounds and moans of his.
Then, he asked her to stand up, and told her what he wanted her to do. I turned away from them, pressing my hands to ears. My eyes opened wide now, gazing through the wall, trying to send my mind somewhere far beyond it, away from this place. From a corner of my eye, I saw Christy kneel before the glowing chest and open it.
What a naïve, stupid freaking dumbass I had been, thinking this chest contained good memories of us! It was nothing more than a stash of her sex toys! She brought out a bottle and a handful of ropes, and moved again out of my vision.
Agony grew in me, and I started running around the room, trying to avoid seeing them. Maybe I could find a crack in the wall which would let me out – I searched for anything which could enable me to escape.
Her moaning grew louder, and she was begging him for more.
A scream burst out of me – an inhuman, endless roar; you can’t hurt your throat when you are grey. Yet even through that deafening roar, I still heard them – every word, moan and sound; I couldn’t stop myself from drawing detailed pictures in my imagination. Hitting the walls didn’t cause me any pain; I was already torn apart by the pain I was feeling inside. I fell to my knees.
I wasn’t sure if I had touched one of them, or one of them had collided with me, but I was suddenly hurled against the nearest wall. When I lifted my head, I saw them, and an uncontrollable, hot wrath expanded inside me. Waves of rage poured from me, and the glow of everything inside the room shone bright.
I can only recall that she screamed in terror, as the light-bulb exploded, whilst all the electric powered devices in the room started to erupt sparks, before bursting into flames.
I think at that point the two of them probably ran out of the room, though I didn’t actually see this – by now everything was fading and blurred.
I don’t know how much time had passed, but I eventually reached the mist and entered the harbour; I don’t recall if it was Scythebow or another. But I do recall that the guards asked to see my I.D., before I was escorted to a place unfamiliar to me. Then it all faded to black.
We come to the moment that my story takes its turn from the past to the present.
I am sitting in a prison cell, with a single window set in a locked door. If I look through the window, I see only a thin corridor, and an identical door and window directly opposite.
From time to time I see Dizz walk by that window. She doesn’t even look at me; my curator is disappointed, and maybe even hates me – I can’t blame her for that.
I hid the temporary pass I’d got from Jericho – I had used his privileges to illegally get into a restricted area; bad enough that I had made unauthorized contact with one of the living, from my past bonds’ circle, and brought chaos to the life of two warmies – this charge alone takes up a full sheet in the eyes of the law!
The worst part, though, is that all the responsibility for this rests on Dizz’s shoulders.
I didn’t inform Dizz which mentor I had chosen for my reaper training, and Dorian didn’t report my mentorship to the authorities. Getting in touch with Dorian is not allowed, and I hear from the guards that he denies ever taking me for mentoring.
I now know that everything he did for me, with a smile on his face, he did for one reason: to destroy Dizzy’s career. I can’t imagine what must have happened in their past for him to stoop to doing all this: to gaining my trust, pushing me into doing something which would harm Dizz; I handed him the opportunity, and it had gone even better than he had expected.
Running my mind over these events drives me crazy – the feeling of guilt for Dizz piles frustration on top of itself.
I can’t lay down and close my eyes, without picturing the events back in Christy’s apartment. How childish is that? I had sex with a reaper in my father’s house, yet I can’t handle the thought of Christy doing it with someone else. We never really got started together while I was still alive, and it’s been quite some time since I passed away.
Suddenly the door to the corridor outside opens, and the sound of approaching footsteps makes me run to the window in my prison cell’s door.
‘Greetings, my dear friends.’ The voice I will never forget – one which will always wake malice in me: the sound of Dorian.
‘You!’ I say. ‘Why?’
‘Why ask?’ His smile makes me sick. ‘You are a bad pupil – a shame to all of your mentors. How could you undermine the credibility of your curator like this?’
‘You did this!’
‘I only meant for you to misstep,’ he laughs, ‘but you, my dear Owen, messed up real big.’
I raise my voice: ‘I funked up! But I will fix it!’
Dorian steps back, leans his hands on his knees and starts laughing; pretentious and disgusting.
‘Dizz – precious flower of mine; have you heard what this brave boy just said?’
Dizz doesn’t respond; she sits quietly in her chamber, away from the window.
‘I will destroy you…’ I whisper.
‘Owen,’ the smile now disappears from his face, as Dorian leans closer to my door; ‘you still don’t understand what happens next…’
‘Then tell me!’ I scream.
‘For us to reach this understanding, we need to look in a particular direction, from a certain point on the map of perception,’ Dorian starts, then stops. ‘As you are, as yet, far from being the enlightened entity, allow me to use a simple example.’
‘I can handle your explanation – there’s no need to act as if I was a child.’
‘Dear Owen, there is a need,’ he smirks; ‘You’re just a moth, flying in the darkness – seeing the light, far away, you rush to it; you quicken as the light grows bigger, and you can already feel the warmth. But loneliness has already settled, deep inside, while the darkness surrounded you – it doesn’t leave, even as you approach that alluring light. The tragedy of all of this is that you will never reach that light, because its bonfire will devour you, and burn you to ashes.’
‘There’s no need to protect me – just say what you wanted to say.’
‘We exist in freefall, like petals in an undying wind – always trying to catch that stream of the wind which will raise us above the cold, dark void. We fly high, and we do our best to keep tail-wind – to swing, by chance, into a parallel flow which lifts us higher, but still trying to stay beneath that blazing light. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves in a dizzy fall, losing that light and its warm feeling. So, we finally recover from the vertigo, and we find ourselves in the void, trying to climb the wind again, yet knowing that we will never catch the same wind-stream twice, but we might reclaim our place underneath the rays of light. We can only keep searching, and keep fighting the flow, in the hope of reaching a place close to where we once were.
‘What is it that you think makes us contend against the elements, time and time again, Owen?’
‘Who cares? It’s your wicked story.’
‘One little petal,’ he says, taking steps toward Dizzy’s door, with the clear intention of making her listen to what he was saying; ‘You see the one who pushed you out of your ideal flow. What would you do? You want to outrun this little petal, but at the same time you don’t feel satisfied: you want this troublemaker to fall, just like you did; to make him feel the same way that you felt.’
‘You meant to say ‘her’.’
‘We’re talking generally now.’ He turns to me again; But you want that one to climb just a little bit higher, so that through that feeling of loss, and the grief of exile, that one will learn his lesson.’
‘Inside your shell is a rotten little child,’ I whisper. ‘What have you lost that was so valuable, in the land of the dead, that made you do this?’
‘My place!’ Dorian raises his voice; ‘I was lucky to be a harbinger. When Dizz found out I’d failed her, as her guardian angel, she left me; she couldn’t accept her responsibility to her own life – she just threw all the blame at me. She chewed my heart up and spat it out in the mud, and I failed my harbinger responsibilities. One by one after that, I failed all my assignments, until they threw me out; just a few steps from becoming a High Harbinger, I fell off my stone, and I had to start from the bottom again, as a reaper.’
‘It’s still just revenge!’
‘Yes!’ he laughs. ‘My respects to you, Owen: you did a great job making this happen – exceeded all my expectations. I bow before you.’
‘I’ve only got one question for you, Dorian.’
‘I’ll gladly answer,’ his smirk shines.
‘How would you feel if you lost your wind again, and as you fell into the void, you got to see me taking over your hot, sunny stream?’
‘I’ll answer your question,’ he starts laughing, hysterically. ‘I’d be proud of you. Because, if you manage to achieve such a fantastic event as the one you’ve just described, it means you’ve fooled death; that is beyond all respect.’
‘What do you mean?’ Anger fills my voice. ‘I don’t understand your metaphors. What do you mean, Dorian?’
Dorian has left.
I can’t settle, stuck in these four walls. I need to talk to Dizz – I call her, but she doesn’t reply. I start screaming her name out; screaming for forgiveness, I cry without tears. Only the guard hears me; he comes into this hall of neglected souls to restore silence.
There is nothing I can do, and it drives me insane. I can only wait for the moment of my trial.
‘Death is unbiased,’ Dorian had said, as he was leaving; ‘and death will see through you.’
Jericho told me once: ‘By being drops in the ocean, the existence of each one of us saves it from ever completely drying out.’ I recall it now, and maybe I understand it differently to the first time I heard it. Indeed, we have no weight in the universe in which we exist, but for every moment of our existence, this world is affected by us. Not all ripples are visible, nor can they always be heard, yet they go far beyond our own horizon, whether coloured or grey. Tiny drops change the state of matter.
Is this going to be my last moment in Monoland – will I be sent to a worse world? They won’t send me to the gardens, that’s for sure! Or will I get another turn on eternity roundabout, in this grey prison?
In a few moments I will be reunited with Dizz, and we will both enter the ‘Hall of Grey Justice’, where moments of my afterlife will be weighed and measured; I will meet death face to face, and I don’t know what to tell it.
#14th impression – Death is the boss!
TO BE CONTINUED…