By Alexandra Serbay
Copywrite 2017 Alexandra Serbay
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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A clot of lacerated blackness was emitting hatred. Hatred and contempt were the basis and the meaning of his existence, but at the moment he was enveloped in the viscid black joy – he was pleased. The red coals that he had for his eyes narrowed – he was plunging himself again and again into the fascinating moment of victory until he had relished it enough and the time came to reap his more-than-rich win. No one else, except him and the giant silent blob-butterfly, believed they could set this Adam, who considered himself a sanctifier, on the right track the first time out.
Raka-Dja-Vardja rose to his mighty paws and jumped through the space. It took him three dashes to reach his destination. The winners were always feasting over the torments of those who lost from a safe distance, standing on the verge of the absolute darkness, where not a single beam of the odious light could reach them. The blob-butterfly was already there and his blade wings were impatiently quivering.
Several dozens made the wrong bet this time. The crowd was patchy. The most numerous were, of course, hounds – simple soldiers like him. However, he noticed a few demons of a higher rank among them – black capes could not hide hideous humanlike forms completely, especially since not all of them were trying to disguise it. One demoness was changing shape after shape without noticing it. It must have been fear. Watching it had been a sheer delight.
A watcher shook his head, noticing the newcomer, and fiends moved to the emery-black edge of the world. Their world. The end of the light existed in every sense, and they lived beyond it, in the inky-velvet night. There was no real border between the light and the dark, but there was a point from which gloom was getting gradually less and less intense.
Even the tiniest specks of light were hurting their eyes and burning their essence, should any get close. The time of staying across the border was same for everyone, but the distance from the border was different. The size of their bet, and whether they lost on a sweepstake, determined how far each went from the alluring murk.
Raka-Dja-Vardja was watching those who were hovering in the frozen greyish void, writhing in pain and terror, and savored waves of rapture that ran across his body. The memories of those times he was in the place of those losers were simmering somewhere inside until they burst out in a croaking laugh. His maw opened, exposing an impenetrable ebony abyss which was framed by the pitch of his jagged fangs.
Thirty-six years old Adam Lance was smiling on his way home. He was happy: beautiful witty wife, two diligent sons – one has already been studying in the special mathematics school, the second one was getting ready to be enrolled there the next year. His beloved work finally started being profitable, after he was invited to teach in the elite private school. The one thing that was overshadowing his life was his sister, Zoe. Not she herself, of course. Her condition. Zoe has been sick, and what’s more, she had gone totally blind a couple of years ago.
What exactly his sister had he didn’t really know, just remembered that it was always like this. Zoe didn’t want to be a burden to anyone and never married, although there were several candidates while she was younger and still able to get out by herself. She lived alone in the one-bedroom apartment that her brother bought for her after selling a large place the two of them inherited after their parents died. Nonetheless, Adam had to visit her and accompany her to the hospital from time to time. Zoe never complained, loved his wife and kids, and rarely asked for help.
He would regularly call her to check if she had everything necessary, and would come: alone – for thirty awkward minutes twice a month to silently drink a cup of cheap tea, and with the family – for a couple of hours two or three times a year, usually after Christmas and on Zoe’s birthday. The thoughts about what he must do if his sister got worse made him frown more and more often.
This line of reasoning reminded him about his brotherly duty and he made a mental note to call his sister tomorrow – and, having turned to more pleasant thoughts, he quickened his pace. His wife promised to cook a grilled chicken and to bake his favorite chocolate cake to celebrate his students taking the first prize at the city mathematical contest.
Falling asleep after grading a heap of school papers and watching his favorite TV-show, the teacher was thinking that it was time to get a new car. He was not an enthusiast, but the spring was coming and they planned to go camping again and he wanted it to be more comfortable this year. Moreover, their impudent neighbor recently bought a brand new Nissan Jeep, compared to which his old Toyota completely faded.
Adam woke up in a strange manner, with a jerk, and started blinking: still in his plaid sweatpants, fluffy slippers and a warm bathrobe covering his narrow shoulders, he was sitting in his sister’s apartment with his legs wide spread, as if he was a doll carefully placed there by a giant child. His left eyebrow rose in surprise, he stood up, rubbed his eye, patted his cheeks and even pinched himself – all in vain. He was still in the poorly lit corridor with patches of dirt and wet stains where Zoe tried to clean what she could not see. For the past couple of years he has been meaning to freshen the paint, but kept putting it off.
The kitchen was a dark spot, but there was a dim light, coming from under the bedroom door – Zoe probably was listening to some series, though he could not imagine what kind of series would be running at this time of night.
Having made a couple of steps forward, he opened the door. The room breathed musty old mans’ smell with a tinge of medicine at him. But it was not the reason he recoiled, gasping for air like a fish.
Zoe was towering in the middle of the room, like some kind of an ancient horror come to life. She stood with her back to the door and her weak doughy body was tightened with a corset made of snakes from floor to neck. Glossy tentacles of different color and width were constantly moving, as if flowing into one another obeying a silent rhythm. Zoe heard that someone was at the door and tried looking over her shoulder with her cloudy blind eyes:
“It is you, Adam? Please, help me! I can’t move. What’s going on, Adam?
Frozen with panic, dread and the preposterousness of the situation, Adam was silent. Zoe was listening carefully, desperately trying to turn to the door and calling his name again and again. It seemed like she was begging and pleading all together with just one word.
“This can’t be happening”, he thought, pinching himself hard, until his left hand became red and swollen.
“It very much can”, a silky voice answered right into his ear.
“It can’t, it can’t!” Adam whispered like an offended child, before he realized that he was not talking to himself anymore. He turned around abruptly. No one was there. Meanwhile, the voice continued:
“Soon the snakes will cover her face and she will die. Yes-yes,” the voice confirmed softly, – “die. If you, my dear Mr. Lance would not save her”.
“Me? Save her? How?” – Time was dragging slowly, thoughts were lagging, every heartbeat roared in Adam’s ears and his sight was blurred. He saw the monstrous unity of Zoe and snakes as though through a piece of white amber. The only thing that was truly real was the voice, which either came from the inside of him, or penetrated his every cell.
“Oh, it is very-very easy. You just need to take her place”. – The voice was smiling.
“And those snakes, they would not hurt me, right?” – Already knowing the answer asked Adam. “B-but I have a family, kids,” – he didn’t know what he was trying to do: justify himself or bargain with the invisible hangman. “I am…I am still young, I have so many things ahead, I am a useful community member!” The bells of indignation and righteous anger appeared in the man’s patter.
The voice was silent.
“I don’t want to die”, added Mr. Lance in a barely audible voice, fingering the bathrobe’s belt. The next moment the haze that separated the room from him disappeared, time ticked on with its normal speed, the snakes started moving up and Zoe screamed. And the voice growled in chorus with her:
“Time to decide: her or you? You or her? Your choice, human!” The word “human” was usually a proud banner which many people raise above their heads, but this time it was a spittle, a mockery, an insult.
Adam took one timid step back, then one more, then turned around and ran to the front door. His slippers were trying to get lost every step, preventing him from moving faster, his bathrobe was waving, the muffled cries were following him:
“Little brother! Adam! Help…”
He grasped the door handle, pulled it as hard as he could, and woke up in his bed.
His heart was pounding, head was dizzy and perspiration covered his face.
“This was a dream, dream, just a dream.” Muttering to himself, Adam went to the bathroom to wash up. Even the ice water was not able to make his dream less real. He looked at himself in the mirror and felt sick, when he saw a bruise emerging on his hand. His knees betrayed him and he slid to the floor.
Adam Lance had been an obedient child. He was a diligent student, never pulled the girl’s hair and never fought with other boys. Growing up, he, unlike the other kids, was polite all the time and tried cigarettes only once. He always helped old ladies cross the street and Mom with the groceries and dishes. He chose a useful profession, married early, was faithful to his wife, had two children, regularly went to Church and helped his sister as much as he could! He was doing everything that a good man is supposed to do, and he was a good man!
“This choice was right too. Yes, it was right and efficient! I am young, I have to take care of my family and children! After all, I am a talented teacher: my class is the best in the city, I am increasing the school’s rating, forming the minds of the youth, I am able to give a lot to this world! And Zoe? What is a sick and lonely person able to give? Nothing! She has no family, well, not counting myself as it is a different thing. She’s got no husband and no kids, and her future is a continuous torture for her and the others!
Whatever is said, people are not born equal and life takes them apart even more. Some people are more valuable than others. It is obvious! Anyway, no one has the right to ask such a sacrifice of me! I am a husband and a father! Why would she even ask for my help in such a situation? She is an adult independent person and must solve her problems on her own! I have been doing even more than most brothers would! And what did I get in return? Yes, what? Nothing at all! A rare thank you? A sense of fulfillment? For all that I did for her!”
Adam spent a long time pacing around the bathroom, then he moved to the kitchen, where he rehearsed and repeated every thought, argument and word multiple times while drinking coffee. As a result, the morning found Mr. Lance reborn: his shoulders broadened, his head was higher than ever before, his eyes were gleaming with the light of truths he discovered and when he looked in the mirror, he saw a radiance of a martyr’s halo around his disheveled brown hair.
I will never forget the day I saw Thirteenth for the first time. That day my life took a sudden turn, although I am not sure that the life I live was ever really mine.
I had just turned six. It was the beginning of summer: already warm, but the choking heat was not there yet to drain your hair and throat dry. We had just finished our lunch, and my nanny came into the room to take me for a walk in the garden, when the door burst open and the black woman stormed in. Her cheap black dress, a long black caftan too warm for the current weather, huge sparkling black eyes and orange-brown skin – everything was screaming of poverty and Tarsian origin.
Higher gravity and lack of light that were usual for underground settlements of industrial planets resulted in larger eyes, thicker bones and squat bodies of their residents. But only Tarsians were the owners of dark, reddish-brown skin, because of local water. There were some elements in it that could not be filtered by any means known to humans. These elements were not dangerous for people. On the contrary, scientists who had been studying this phenomenon came to a conclusion it was because of the unique water composition that life expectancy on Tars reached three hundred years, whilst it was at best two hundred and seventy on any other planet.
It seemed that an elixir of longevity had been found, but no matter how hard chemists tried, they could not recreate this miracle water. Being taken from Tars, the healing elements would just disintegrate, regardless of the efforts made to preserve them. Very few people were ready to spend their lives bearing the hardships of a red planet for the sake of thirty extra years, if they had an opportunity to avoid it.
I had asked myself many times why I was so unlike my parents, and even asked others the same question: my father would pretend not to hear what I had said, however, he purposefully and successfully did not notice me most of the time; my nanny would start telling me some old tales about extinct animals and wandering worlds until I fell asleep; my mother would babble something incoherent about grandparents, kiss me on the top on my head and run off to a meeting of one of the multiple women societies she attended to solve the problems of starving children from the outskirts of the colonized Space, or to decide fates of provincial artists and poets, or to discuss endless amendments to all sorts of contracts that were the basis of Tarsian society and a stifling hand to life in all its manifestations.
As the unexpected guest appeared, scrambled thoughts started roaring in my head. I continued to stare at this Black Woman, unable to turn away, even when my mom pressed me to herself in awe before handing me over to the nanny, brave Clementine immediately barred me with herself and I had to watch what was happening by peeping out from the folds of her wide skirts.
“Who are you?” My mother’s hoarse voice trembled a little. A thin hand stretched to straighten an impeccably-laid high hair, but stopped in the middle of the way and, going down on the knee of its mistress, began to stroke the soft blue fabric of her long dress.
Thirteenth later told me that at that moment he was pondering on the strangeness of our planet: the inhabitants of Renaissance, who rejected harmful technologies, leading the lifestyle of the Terrain European elite of the eighteenth century that was described in the ancient literature. Water and solar engines, artificial atmosphere system and robotized manufactures allowed this fantasy to those, whose ancestors had more or less decent fortune, when living on the blue planet.
State art support and development programs had been attracting all sorts of men of arts and creative personalities from around the galaxy. As a result, the planet and its entire solar system had become a source of beauty, a hotbed of strange and a greenhouse for the inexplicable.
Despite the progressing bureaucratization of life, one could find something that could not be bought, explained by profit or prescribed by a contract in this corner of the Universe.
What struck him most was that we dressed in such an uncomfortable eight centuries old fashion and that we did not use the commonly accepted nominal structure, borrowing earth names from different cultures and eras, and mercilessly mixing them instead. My mother, for example was called Elizaveta Vacharaporn Manuela Ai. Her maiden name – Vasquez, her married name – Jones. My fathers’ name was simple Darcy Luis.
The standard nominal structure reflected not only the name, but also a year, the city and the birth planet of the person. That simplified the life of multiple clerks who now needed to ask a single question to obtain all the necessary information. Our system was unique, being used as a reproach to comfort and simplicity.
“Who are you?” Mom repeated, glancing at her husband, who was calmly smoking his usual afternoon fragrant cigar.
No one could have imagined that we were facing the metamorph “Organic 1397” with serial number 132713, who was called Liquid Metal in honor of his great, though fictional, ancestor from the long-forgotten absurd film. It was always difficult for me to imagine that films were once not only non-interactive, but also two-dimensional. It was even more difficult to understand how a character from an entertaining picture could have become the progenitor of robots – metamorphs, which are considered the apex of the engineering thought.
We all saw a woman who silently handed my mother an incredible paper document, which I have never seen anywhere else, except for the cozy outskirts of the planet where I managed to be born. The document certified that she, Tyra 2634 Div Telek Tars, was the biological mother of six-years-old AnasAsiy Sieggy Tayiin Div, who happened to be me.
“It cannot be!” exclaimed Mom, after studying the writing. She put the paper on the table and, for some reason neatly straightened it, then stood up, took a few steps in one direction, then into the other, tearing with her long fingers the lace handkerchief that was grabbed from a table by her self-willed left hand. “Sr. Jones, please confirm, we were told that AnastAsiy’s mother died during childbirth!”
As an answer to that, silent Tyra held out the second document.
The permission to reunite the family looked even more impressive: a huge seal, ribbons hanging down, and ornate letters. Mom turned pale and slowly sank into a chair.
“I believe Mr. Jones is able to confirm something else: Six years ago one immigrant who gave birth to a boy in the hospital of St. Rembrandt was deported on his orders. As it turned out, under the new law on the restriction of the social, racial, religious and sexually-oriented stratification of the Renaissance society, it was forbidden for her to enter and stay on this planet. At the same time her child was pronounced a rene-citizen and the property of state and she was not allowed to take him with her. And what Mr. Jones is not able to confirm to you, having no idea about it, is what this poor woman has had to go through having no money, no connections, no religion, being orange-skinned and heterosexual to get a revision of this decision in the Supreme Galactic Court and get a permission to get her son back.” The reserved words of the black woman were generously sated by depleted indignation.
Not a bit embarrassed, Darcy Louis Jones took the smoking pipe out of his mouth and said:
“I did it for you, darling. After the death of Celia Marie Antoinette you were completely lost and I thought that you needed to take care of someone. Well-well, you don’t need to wring your hands. I accept your gratitude, of course. Give the boy back, we’ll find you another one. Or better yet – a girl. Do you agree?”
For a couple of moments mother shifted a stunned look from Tyra 2634 Div Telek Tars to Darcy Luis Jones and back. Then I witnessed a true miracle: how the fragments of a broken refined lady, who has lost the illusion of support long time ago, gather themselves back into a new strong woman in just a few heartbeats. Her eyes glittered, maybe because of treacherous tears, maybe because of anger. She took a deep breath and said:
“Let it be then: Clementine, pack up AnastAsiy’s belongings – only the necessary ones, choose clothes for different kinds of weather. We shall send later for the rest. Son, go check that everything important for you is packed. Tyra, how much time do we have?”
“We?” the black woman asked dispassionately.
“Yes, we!” Mom answered, backing her words with a nod. “The boy has lost his mother once. You don’t want it to happen again, right? Two mothers are better than one, but we shall discuss it on our way. Apparently, you have no plans to stay here and I see no luggage, most likely your flight is today. We shall move quickly so I am able to change my dress and buy a ticket for the trip.”
Silence filled the room: I could not fully understand what was happening and I wanted to cry in fear, and laugh in joy, anticipating an adventure. Clementine froze, peering at my mother with her eyes narrowed. She probably was trying to find the features of her usual mistress, who would rely on her husband for everything, in this new Mrs. Jones. Mr. Jones, in his turn, looked no less dumbfounded than his wife a couple of minutes ago.
“My dear! You can’t just leave me like that,” he croaked, after having choked on tobacco smoke and cleared his throat.
“I easily can, my dear!” my mother replied with contempt. “You seem to have forgotten that I am Vasquez! However, I have to admit, that I myself have forgotten it for far too long. Expect the divorce papers by mail shortly. Do not worry, I will not leave you on the street, so be so kind as to sign them right away without further ado. Or family lawyers would have to remind you about the terms of our marriage agreement.” Then she added: “Clementine, will you stay to look after the house?” Not waiting for the answer she turned to me: “AnastAsiy, hurry up!”
After then the commotion started: it seemed that the whole house was moving, except for the father, who froze in the midst of chaos, as if petrified. I haven’t seen him since, and I still see him in my head like I saw him that day: sitting still with his eyes half-closed and the extinguished pipe in his hand.
Only when we left the house, did my mother throw back a slightly confused, uncertain look, but almost immediately nodded to herself, and then hugged crying Clementine and, taking my hand, walked steadily to the ecoplane.
We learned the truth by accident, half way to the Canis Major. While recalculating the plan of action taking into account the unplanned element – my mother, Thirteenth weakened the control over facial expressions and voice, and it dawned on me. I realized what was bothering me from the very beginning, as soon as I saw Tyra.
I’ve been fascinated with micropsychology since I was five, when I started sneaking into my parent’s library when I couldn’t sleep. Clementine was too old to watch over me at night, and I shamelessly exploited it. Despite a meager choice of worthy books in our house, I managed to learn that micropsychology is only a small part of cryptopsychology. We didn’t have any literature on the latter. Anyway, such an extensive science would have been too complicated for me at that age. Nevertheless, I was sure I would study it when I grew up. In the meantime, I was content with those five books on micropsychology which I found pushed behind disparate ladies’ publications on everyday parapsychology and other nonsense.
I was always attentive to details and enjoyed observing people. This trait would often get me in trouble with mom or nanny. They were worried that I would have problems at the gymnasium because of it too. I still can’t understand why they always got angry! Mom told me I have a heavy, pressing gaze at such moments, that she feels it on her back. I would look at my eyes in the mirror after that: I watched and I watched – all I could see were normal eyes, a normal glance.
Micropsychology studies the smallest movements of a human body, the slightest changes in his voice timbre, micromimics – details in general. It creates a whole picture of a real person, hidden behind social and psychological masks. It deciphers his essence.
What I am trying to say is that any person produces a lot of unconscious movements, giving out his or her excitement, anger, fatigue, character. But you, metamorphs, have only necessary movements: you blink at even intervals, swallow periodically, correct your clothes mechanically – you just pretend you are people. I understood this looking at Thirteenth, who was playing the role of my missing biological mother.
Ten years have passed since then, robotics and roboengineering have made a huge step forward and the Church, with its endless prophecies and limited fantasy, haven’t abandoned its attempts to tame me. But we also did not lose time in vain. I was able to master cryptopsychology a long time ago and the three main laws of robotics have remained unchanged for centuries now.
So now you’d better get dressed and go out that door, Thirteenth will explain how to operate from now on.
The copper-haired stocky young man heaved a deep sigh looking after the leaving girl, who literally fell on him in the restaurant where he was having dinner the evening before, and, like all the rest, was trying to earn his trust through his bed.
“She is the sixth this month,” he said to a thin silhouette that appeared in the doorway of a noiselessly opened secret door. “It’s time to move on. Otherwise we will have an army of metamorphs with no notion of what to do with them.”
“All in good time, son, all in good time,” the shadow answered gently.
AnastAsiy, whom the Church awaited for centuries, laying the responsibility for implementing the impossible on the fragile child’s shoulders – changing the human nature through the efforts of a single person; Sieggy, who in one way or another was called for in the prayers of the inhabitants of all the planets humankind had occupied; Tayiin, who was hunted by many, each with their own motives; a member of the Div clan, having lost his birth family and found a new one; together ‘AnastAsiy Sieggy Tayiin Div’, who dreamed of being an ordinary boy, who would not need to flee anywhere, dreading his destiny.
Stretching his back, the young man took a small paper book from under his pillow. It was a collection of poems by an unknown author, who had sent his works to Mrs. Jones long ago hoping to acquire a rich patron, but instead gained just one little reader, who carried those poems through the years and galaxies, lulling himself to sleep with abrupt lines a thousandth time:
No outrunning our fate,
No shielding life with bare hands,
No making eras change their gait,
No seeing where a childhood spans.
Protect the kingdom of your dreams
And make the time to slow its pace.
Set free forever your heart’s screams,
Come first among your foes in race.
Restore the meaning of your life.
Provide your army with a faith.
Ignite the eyes of Love with drive.
Imagine that you live in grace.
Rewrite the code of happiness.
Reshape the fabric of the worlds.
Reduce the feelings’ timid-ness.
Release anew the book of odds.
Without stirring tears’ load,
Nor picking up old dust from soul,
Remain yourself and face your bode,
Stop playing hide and seek in whole.
Here, two steps from the sea, the sense of loneliness was stronger than ever. It would come in soft waves, rustling the sand, tenderly whispering something indecipherable, while covering me with a thick and heavy blanket of hopelessness. From time to time a strong desire to shout filled me. I wanted to cut this smothering viscous cocoon with the sharpness of a sound and finally get free. But I had no power to do that.
I was sitting beside the window, warming my hands with a hot cup of tea and my legs wrapped in a quilt, as if an old lady. The flavor of far-away herbs was cradling and carrying me off to where the past was merging with fantasies, creating a bizarre blend of a reality and a dream: where I was, where he was, where we were.
Shaking my head I squinted, grabbed my hair like Baron Munchausen and pulled myself out of the swamping squash of ethereal regrets, might-have-been hopes, chronic hurts and childish illusions. What for? I longed to give up, I desperately wanted to unclasp my fingers and let myself sink into a fabled world, live an unreal bright life, breathe an impossible savory air, feel a phantom exceptional love, be joyous over an imaginary incredible happiness. Weird and mysterious realm of dreams always beckoned me, giving me wings and singing songs in the unknown language, but every time I was grateful and relieved to go back to reality. This temptation was much worse. A moan shoot through my head: let go! But I stubbornly clenched my hands and teeth harder and kept pulling. My hair withstood, I did too, and we emerged out of the mirage.
Finishing the cold tea, I took my favorite book in my hands. At the very end of it, there was a little girl, fiercely fighting with the long sleeves of her holiday dress that firmly bound her arms, as though by chains. A phone was persistently ringing on the table. She had to answer. It was the tradition: the first step was for one of the families to propose the terms of an alliance, then call after a set amount of time. In case a second clan wanted to accept the offer, the youngest child was to pick up the phone and invite new friends to their house on behalf of the patriarch. If the call was left unanswered, the alliance was rejected and the war was to start.
The house was decorated, the table set, the phone was ringing and the prickly stare of her father was poking her in the back. The cunning sleeves were prevailing, but finally the girl broke free from the constraint of the ritual solemnity; she threw her hand forward and grasped the silence.
The girl stood there daring not to turn around and knowing not what scared her most: to see anger or disappointment on her father’s stern face that she loved so much.
I felt for the girl. No, even more – I was there with her: standing near and trying to hold her wet tiny palm, wanting to touch and comfort, hug and teach her how to cry; and same as her, more than anything I was scared to turn back.
Many times I have read this story, but never to the end. And again I didn’t let myself learn what happened next either: whether both families got killed in the pointless bloodshed, whether the girl’s father patted her on her head, called their allies back and they all laughed at this silly situation later, whether…
For me this girl froze in her dither and fear forever. I have been dreaming about her – a half-mad girl roaming in the crannies of her subconscious, searching for the bits of courage so she could stay alive.
But what if this girl was me?
I was walking along the sea knee-deep in the water. Playful waves were attacking me and trying to drag me away with them into the deep. There were no big city lights here. The night was as black as before electricity was discovered. And at the same time, the stars were so close that I felt like the shining dots would hide in my fist, should I lift my hand up a bit.
While I was moving across the space, I felt like time was striding through me. Backwards. Sparks of the past fuzzing away with every step, were competing with stars to illuminate my way.
At forty-three I bought a house at the lake, as I had always wanted. Furnished it tastefully. Slowly unpacked my things. Chose the biggest cable package. Put a TV in every room. They were big and small, some even in frames like photos. But it didn’t help me to revive the air in the house, nor to drive away the chilly silence.
At thirty-six I was walking down the street, shameless, slightly touching the beauty around with my eyes. A smile to the right, a nod to the left, while you were at home, crumbling in fissures of disappointment. Will you ever forgive me? Because I forgave. Myself. Being angry with fools took too much energy. Ic wish I could scrape enough to powder the emptiness inside with love someday.
At thirty-two I was soaring and whirling, besotted, in love, devouring each and every day, tearing it to its mellow parts. Life was running down my fingers, I was shaking it off to the floor and spread sticky dirt around the Earth with my coarse boots. I was happy. And you? I had not really seen your happiness being blinded with mine. Please, forgive me.
At twenty-five life was crumbling around me, as if I was not there at all. I was howling and moaning, and pitying myself with all my might. I was lulling my conscience with stories so sad. I was sick. But I got better and met you. Then I learned I was only seemingly healthy. And my sickness came back when I stepped on the right-not right path.
At nineteen I considered life to be pointless. I was thrashing on the outside looking for it, but haven’t found. Never looked inside myself. Alas!
At thirteen I was smart, I was strong, I was fearless – a warrior! Having no understanding, I ran, knowing not where to: “I will gain, I will be, and I will solve all the mysteries! I will save, I will change…everyone dies, but not me”.
I was eight when I saw this boy with his hands stuck to the window, greedily looking into the semidarkness of my father’s small shop. The boy was thin and tattered, – probably orphan. Our shop was decorated for Christmas and whiffed like a fairy tale. I was standing inside watching the boy, invisible in all those festive lights.
But what if, this boy, peeping into the windows of someone else’s lives was me?
I rearranged my neatly done grey curls automatically and carefully landed on the edge of my usual bench. It was important not to get too comfortable. And there were two reasons for that. The first one was that in such cases a gentleman would soon appear, an elderly one or not so experienced, but always fine-looking, and try having the most boring talk about his young days. Secondly, by sitting like this I never let myself forget that I am here for a short while only. A hard wooden seat eagerly dug into my shrunken buttocks, preventing me from dissolving into the miracle around me by waspishly reminding me about my totally wonderless reality.
I was seventy-five, but people thought I was not more than sixty. Yet I saw every day that I lived in the merciless mirror. Those years, that evaded the eyes of the others, were hiding in my eyes and in the barely noticeable tremor of my long fingers. They could not tuck away from me though.
I inhaled deeply until my skin crept, clearing my mind and started doing what I came for – absorbing the holiday that made its home here, at the same time vivifying the ghosts my life was full of.
The city park that took over the large hill was flowing down to the embankment from one side and making a sharp dive to the amusement park from the other. My crow’s nest was right in the middle of the latter.
I turned my head left, where a bright dome of the mini circus was sprawled. Acrobats had been giving regular performances there two seasons in a row. And Serge stood before me in all his gloss and splendor. Amazingly handsome in his elegant suit and shiny shoes, he reached out his hand covered with a white glove, inviting me to dance. A waltz started playing somewhere in the distance. I almost gave him my hand too, but then pulled it back and shook my head. No. It was not a time for dancing: “Please, step aside, dear Serge. It is not your day today”.
I moved my eyes to the right, to where the line of omnifarious tents was broken with a blood-sun stain of a magician trailer, and Paul stepped out of coal-black shadows. Graceless, short, tastelessly dressed and oblivious, he was the love of my life. He never got to know it, being rapt with the immense expanse of his outstanding mind. My heart stopped aching some time ago, what remained was a light cloud of melancholy and regret. And sometimes something would move in my stomach. But the moment I stayed still and tried to listen, it faded.
For a couple of seconds we looked into each other’s eyes, but the moment I lifted my hand to greet him, he disappeared. Well, I have come not for him anyway.
I turned a little bit more to the right to have a better view of the antique caramel carousel. Why caramel? Because of its color and form. It looked like a sister to a gingerbread house. I wanted to come closer and have a bite, or at least lick it to see if it was true. But I did not dare.
It was late. There were only a few kids on the carousel. And among laughter, colorful lights, loud music, and perpetual motion, I saw a girl. Bright red, like the tail of the fiery mare – Dawn, fresh like a first snowdrop, wearing a yellow dress with flounces and cozy jumper. She was laughing, with her head thrown back, holding to the mane of the rainbow horse, taking her far-far away, which is not so far in reality. She was a beautiful adult there, loving and loved, easily flittering around and singing the song of happiness.
I waited till the carousel stopped, the girl came down from it and the horse danced alone into this faerie place. And the girl?
The girl stood up from the rigid bench, rearranged her grey curls with a habitual gesture and slowly went to where no one was waiting for her – home.
We live by fusing with the outside,
We die by losing ourselves.
We reach the ever strangest places
While searching for a piece of sense.
We spatter souls in vain, we swear
It never-ever crossed our minds
That anger, laziness and lucre
Would leave forever stains that blinds.
We brake against the inner illwill,
We give away to judge us rights,
We’re shatters, pieces, scraps and smithers
Of kids, who had no mirror-frights.
There seemed to be no end to funerals. White vertical flags were running high here and there. And the music, the incessant terrible music, which made him wanted to die himself, howled and clanked all over the area since even before the dawn until the very night.
Something strange was happening. For all his life he had never observed such a number of successive funerals. He was starting to feel uncomfortable. Even the sun, sensing something wrong, decided to add its mark to the gloomy picture of recent days: instead of marvelous tender dawns that had been brightening up every morning since he had moved to a high-rise four-story building, for the last three weeks the bright red ball would roll on the grey canvas of the sky professing morning to become yellow in the day time and to fall over the horizon as a red stone in the evening.
Closed windows were a small help either from brain-rattling sounds, or from all-pervasive dust. The dust was everywhere: stripes in the doorways, layers on window frames and a curved grid, invisible-until-you-walked-on-it layer on the floor, and a colorless powder on the cobwebs woven by industrious spiders in hard-to-reach places. He thought that a couple more dust specs and it would cover all his world.
He was too lazy to wash the room every day and rarer thorough cleaning was never enough. After one day he could draw pictures with his fingers on the table and he had to change his pants every time he sat on the balcony chair. In fact, it was not a balcony, but a wide, open corridor leading to the apartments from the stairs. The separate personal balconies were a luxury here and were to be found only in the hotels designed for Europeans or elite condos.
Turning away from the dusty thoughts, Frank looked into the mirror. He looked at himself from one side, and then from the other, eyeing his heavy body with displeasure, made a face when he saw a new wrinkle at his not-at-all-a-young face, and, having thrown a deliberately youthful shirt over his shoulders, left the house.
The evening was near. He felt fresh during the twilight of the couple of hours before the sun set, especially if he managed to get an hour or two nap after a late lunch. There were very few customers lately, much less that he could have imagined in the most pessimistic scenarios, so most days there was nothing to prevent him from napping. It was difficult to admit that if the situation continued, he would have to leave this hospitable-inhospitable country of the red dust and move to one of slightly more developed regions, where an experienced – very experienced – veterinarian would not be left without work. Pension, which he earned after thirty years of service in the zoos of America, was categorically not enough for a decent living.
It was too early to go to “the Zone” and, having reached the river, Frank slowed his pace and moved towards Pubstreet. He loved the embankment of Siem Reap: large trees created a shady alley on both banks of the river carrying not only its turbid waters, but the same name as the city as well; cozy small shops along the road, a neat pavement and a French quarter plodding side by side with it would carry him away to another era when Cambodia was a part of French Indochina. Walking here, he would imagine the exotic splendor of that time. He would shake his head, looking around at the ruins that surrounded him now and would regret the greatness a white man lost and the ensuing decline of the whole world.
Undoubtedly, nowadays you could find big and small islets of prosperity in any country: luxury hotels, rich palaces, high buildings tickling the blue belly of the sky, expensive cars, well-groomed women sparkling with artificial teeth and natural diamonds – but all of these were personal shards of what once was a national heritage. In modern society, however, many people did not possess a personal identity, not to speak of a national one.
Frank sighed heavily and once again asked himself: why not move to Sihanoukville? Fresher air, better climate, a sea that softened any sorrows and took away depressing thoughts – the atmosphere there was much more suitable for an aging gentleman. He smiled crookedly, waved his hand, as if scaring away melancholy, and turned right to face the center of the night life – to the street with pubs, restaurants and tiny stores with strange clothes and expensive souvenirs that were planted at every step.
This evening he was looking for hoarse conversations, friendly pats on the shoulders, a tart beer and a delicious meal, so he headed to the Laundry Bar. Cozy atmosphere and good live music attracted a lot of people there, and after eight or nine in the evening it was impossible to have a conversation inside, but now it was too early and the bar was almost empty, except for the sofas in the furthest corner, where three of his old acquaintances were lounging.
“Frank, my friend!” Benoit rose to meet him. Frank had twofold feelings toward this wiry Frenchman: on the one hand, his openness and friendliness, that at first seemed fake but proved to be sincere, was buying his affection; on the other hand, something would make Frank sarcastic and prickly to his friend whenever he could. It was probably envy. Benoit was handsome and looked much younger than most of his peers, including Frank. Moreover, the French guy was not stupid and managed to earn himself a small fortune, which he was spending now to his pleasure without having to think about work of any kind.
Always-frowning Thimeo, who was sitting behind Benoit, was born in France too, but according to his looks, his ancestors were obviously from the Far East and no one considered him French in their clique. They would sometimes call him Arab behind his back. Thimeo was twice younger than any of them. An unfortunate love story made him flee to the end of the world, where he had been drowning his grief with alcohol, distracting himself with amphetamines for six months now, hoping that weed smoke and countless easygoing local girls would blur the pain eventually. For all that, he managed to always remain extremely serious and looked as if he was not sitting in a bar with friends, but was preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly with an important report.
The third one was John, or Jack, sometimes his testimony differed. A shady guy, he was claimed that he was an American, but his accent would periodically switch to British, Australian or some other unknown accent. It didn’t really bother anyone here. On the contrary, this fact added to John’s charms. Frank called him John-Jack so as not to be mistaken. John-Jack was a huge child and obviously has been fond of bodybuilding in his youth. However, he still worked on his body shape and never missed a chance to demonstrate it by wearing tight T-shirts. Molded muscles, skinny jeans and always-present t-shirts were a stark contrast to his not-at-all-young face that was distinctly chewed by life.
“You are right on time,” Benoit said, smiling broadly. “These two spent two hours straight trying to prove to me that all women are venal, there is no love left in the world and the versatile singers continue to praise it as it is the most effective means of manipulating men and, by this, a popular merchandise.”
“Don’t you agree?” Frank asked, sitting down and beckoning the waiter.
“Of course not!” Benoit’s long fingers picked up a cigarette from a pack and sent it into a vise of even white teeth. “Each of us feels the need for love because it is a part of our nature. But it is an age of consumerism now and we have the same attitude to everything: we only think about getting what we want without giving anything in return. And it is not about women at all. It applies to everyone, regardless of gender.
“And I say women are to blame for everything!” Thimeo pursed his lips in an offended manner, as if it was he, who was interrupted. “All of them, starting from school, choose guys with money. You need to have rich parents or work your ass off to entertain her, buy her jewelry and clothes, and pay for her salads which cost as much as an iPhone. And what do you get in return? Beautiful, but always displeased face, monotonous sex and constant scandals? And if you can’t give them what they want, you will be easily replaced with someone who can. Prostitution is much more honest. You get exactly what you pay for, no more, no less. And most importantly – no brain draining.”
This speech was clearly rehearsed before. Frank thought that Thimeo had repeatedly convinced himself with these words. Benoit, whom Thimeo interrupted, only smiled condescendingly, showing without words what he thought about the young man’s tirade.
“The boy is right.” John-Jack leaned back, throwing his strong hand on the back of the chair. Excessive tanning did not hide, but on the contrary, emphasized the wrinkles on his face, making his desperate attempts to look young even more ridiculous. “Look what is going on all over the world: feminism steps on the man’s dignity with its steel high heels. It is no longer about equal rights, but about inequality in women’s favor! It’s like a minority dictatorship, where any disagreement is perceived as discrimination and an attempt on the rights of its representative! You are not only no longer able to express your opinion, but even the care you show the so-called ‘weak’ gender can be regarded as an insult. And what remains for men who are constantly rejected?”
All this Frank listened to half-heartedly, studying the menu. Finally, he decided to order his favorite French style meat and only then looked up. The trio was looking at him expectantly.
“I agree with all of you.” Frank said, narrowing his eyes cunningly, and took a sip of beer brought by the prompt waiter.
“How is that?” It was so nice to look at Benoit’s stretched-out face.
“Yes-yes, with everyone and no one at the same time.” Frank made a theatrical pause to enjoy the effect, then continued. “Take Thimeo. You say, women are to blame for everything, they demand this, they demand that, they want money and a beautiful life. On the one hand, you are absolutely right, it is like this, but on the other hand, women give us what we deserve in return. Money? Ugh. What else are you ready to offer? What can a young lad offer to a girl? Protection, care, loyalty, love? What, apart from satisfying your lust and raising your own status due to the pretty girlfriend you wanted to get? And what were you willing to give her in return?” Dumbfounded Thimeo became even more serious, if that was even possible. Frank nodded to himself. “Equal exchange, I believe.”
“Let’s switch to Benoit.” The Frenchman nodded as if approving Frank’s words. “As I said, I agree that people forgot how to give and think only about how to satisfy their wants as soon as possible. At the same time, who is to blame for the fact that modern men do not appreciate a woman, do not see her inner beauty, do not know how to court her and be there for her? Women, of course! Mothers, who are raising future men to be momma’s boys, choking them with their concern, raking up all the problems of their romps and dissolving every single cloud over the heads of their sweet over-grown children with their hands; girls, who go to any extent just to be liked by boys, allowing rudeness, sometimes even beatings, giving their bodies and love for money and a drop of attention.” Benoit wanted to protest, but Frank stopped his friend with his hand and continued.
“And you, John-Jack, are right as well. From a protection of women’s rights feminism has turned into a farce. Women shout that we need to see personalities in them and at the same time make a sport out of striptease, walk half-naked on the streets, shake their bottoms considering this dancing, spend millions on their appearances and outfits – they do everything so that we could not see past silicone boobs and see their souls with all their weaknesses and inner beauty. But why does this happen? Because we, ourselves, run in fear shall we meet something more than just a pretty face, because otherwise we would have to grow and change, instead of remaining carefree children. We continue to play dolls using women and ignoring those who do not follow our rules.
Life is much easier than we think, but much more complicated than we would like it to be. Everything is interconnected, gentlemen, everything is interconnected.”
They argued heatedly after that speech, soon switching from beer to stronger drinks before going together to a popular disco – the Zone One, where they tried to take a poll among dancers, party girls and professional priestesses of love. As a result, this evening, like many others, ended for Frank in a motel room, where a local girl, in exchange for some money, allowed him to stop feeling old and useless for a time. For a very short time.
He reached home by grabbing the motor-taxi that had luckily turned up at this hour – walking along the dark streets was as reckless as bringing home a prostitute or an accidental acquaintance. Walking up to his floor, he did not hurry to the apartment, but sat down on a wooden carved bench, which stood in the corner of a small terrace, formed by a corridor that was a joint balcony for tenants at the same time. Having pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, Frank settled back and lit one. He was waiting.
From the place he was sitting he could see the small neighboring courtyard where the old wooden house stood. On stilts, as it should be. The wood from which it was made had turned black with age. The red-gold house of spirits, which stood near an open window of one of the rooms was a bright spot against the grayness of the pre-dawn hour.
Something jangled and, opening his eyes, Frank realized that he had almost fallen asleep. Only a filter and a handful of sprawling ash on the floor near his foot were left from the cigarette he had been holding in his hand. The man startled and looked down, to where there was a water pump in the yard. Near it, with the first rays of sun, as always, appeared She, and neither the pitiful semblance of a faded dawn, nor the melancholy music that started playing again could muffle her beauty.
Long black hair lifted up, showing her swarthy hands and soft, sloping shoulders. Her short figure was wrapped in a simple red and yellow sarong, fashioned like a dress. A pretty face shone with a smile – it was literally emanating femininity, gentleness and kindness.
He didn’t know her name, how old she was, whether she was married or living with her parents. Sometimes he had nothing in mind but to meet her. But he couldn’t. He did not dare even to think of offering her his beaten, wretched, cynical, indecent love. And he was afraid, feared to his bone that if he knew her better, this miracle would go away, like all the other tales and wonders in his life did.
And yet, wherever he was caught by the night, every morning he was here, on this bench to, at least for a couple of minutes, emerge from the stuffiness of the familiar world and plunge into the ringing freshness of her purity, to become a little brighter himself and to be able to smile, facing the new gloomy day with challenge and hope in his face.
Emptiness. The emptiness was enveloping, lulling and persuading him not to open his eyes, but he stretched out his legs, heavily lifted his aching shoulders and unstuck his eyelids.
Dreams left Frank completely about seven years ago. Now at night he was left alone with the hungry abyss that sneaked inside him, unnoticed after the divorce with Mary and leaving the States. He was almost sure he had stopped loving his wife before he signed the papers and was looking forward to ending their annoying cohabitation, but getting a divorce did not bring him the expected relief. That day confusion and emptiness rooted in his soul, the existence of which he always questioned.
He would understand his own reaction if they had kids. But there were no children as well as love, and still the emptiness came. Real to an extent. He had been having a thought that if he was to make an x-ray of his chest, it would be spotless black from his neck down.
Sometimes Frank wanted to become emptiness too because it, in its turn, could become anything else any second. But he remained being Frank, and emptiness didn’t seem to have any desire to become anything else as well.
Bare feet slapping against the floor, he made his stumbling way to the kitchen, sheltered in the tiny corridor immediately at the entrance, put a kettle on the fire and only then went to wash his face. Delicious Mondulkiri with a chocolate smell was a pleasant surprise when he first stepped on the red ground of Cambodia. Coffee was brought here by the French. It was grown in the north, boiled in cute small kettles and drunk with condensed milk.
Having drawn in the morning dose of sweet vivacity, he glanced at his watch and realized that it was far from morning. It was noon. There were no clients today, so Frank decided to read first and then, in order to relax, visit an exhibition dedicated to Angkor Wat, which was held in a small park, to the right of the embankment. Doubtful entertainment, of course, but it would be something fresh in an endless series of bars and discos. Siem Reap did not often indulge his guests with a choice.
Picking up the book, he sat down in an armchair by the window, fidgeted to get comfortable and began to read. For the third month he had been thumbing Hemingway’s story “The Old Man and the Sea”. With a good book time flies imperceptibly, but some vague irritation prevented Frank from concentrating. He felt that he was that fisherman, and a huge fish were his dreams, which he was losing to the sea of life. And, knowing the end of the story, he subconsciously had been stopping himself from getting to the finale. It was his favorite book once.
This time he read only a couple of pages. He marked the right place with another invitation to one of the numerous local weddings and, hastily dressed, left the house. He wanted to drop in at a café to have a snack on the way to the exhibition. The places with good cooks were not affordable for him to eat every day, so he tried to eat at home in the day time to save money for a tasty dinner. Frank’s evenings usually started with sunset and continued till sunrise, that’s why he preferred to have a thorough meal this time of day, so that he had enough strength for a long time. Today he was not in the mood to cook at all and it was still far from sunset.
Having eaten a couple of fried eggs with toast in a small clean café, he slowly moved to the Royal Park.
Frank thought he would see a small respectful audience consisting mostly of elderly barangs, as the white foreigners were called in Cambodia, strolling arm in arm with their Khmer wives. But it was obvious he was mistaken even before he reached the place. The small park was crowded with people: in addition to those he expected to see, there were multicultural youth, three groups of Korean tourists, the local beau monde and even a few European-looking families with children. “Must be crazy Russians,” he thought. It was a rare thing that someone else except them would bring kids to the Third World’s countries.
He was moving from the edge to the center and was surprised to find Benoit, John-Jack and Thimeo halfway through the display. His friends were actively discussing something and drinking beer on the fountain’s brink. They were not at all looking at the stands with photos and did not notice him as well. Frank thought that they were too fresh, giving that he was the one that left first yesterday. He moved towards them to find out what they have been doing here, when suddenly he saw an elderly man and involuntarily froze.
About ten years older than Frank was, a little bit stooped, he was dressed in cheap but neat clothes and dragging some absolutely ridiculous bag on wheels behind him, having clasped his hands on his back. With small steps and a meaningless smile on his face, the man was walking around from one group to another, peering over the shoulders, often blinking and nodding, interjecting in random conversations for a moment to immediately move on, not paying any attention to surprised looks that were following him all his way.
Older Europeans was not a surprise to anyone in the South-East Asia for a long time now. Fit and relaxed like Benoit, still young in their bodies, but old in their souls like Thimeo, hiding from themselves as John-Jack, lost and having nowhere to go to as Frank – all of them were looking for the warmth they were getting from the local hot sun and some easy-virtue southern women.
This man made Frank forget about everything. The hazy-at-first sense was getting stronger and spreading across his consciousness, filling him completely. He felt like he was looking at himself: a miserable witness of someone else’s life, eating scraps that had fallen to him from another’s feast. He had long had no feelings of his own, no plans, no ideas and only a stubborn ephemeral hope, and yet something incomprehensible had not let him see this.
Every day he would take time, energy, emotions from people around him, while repaying them with strained jokes, outdated life experience and little money – with all he had. But soon this would end too, the emptiness would swallow him completely, and he would become this old man begging or snatching a crumb of life here, a crumb there.
Frank stood still, not daring to move and break the cocoon of this mirage. It seemed that the earth was draining him of his last energy. Suddenly someone’s heavy hand lay on his shoulder:
“Hey, buddy, have you gone deaf or what?” John-Jack’s sonorous voice brought him back to reality. “We’ve been calling to you for a couple of minutes and you were standing like an icy statue! What the…” The big man faltered seeing the eyes of his friend turning to him.
“Are you OK, Frank?” Thimeo and Benoit, who approached them, asked in chorus.
Having rubbed his eyes, Frank shook himself like a dog, pulled a smile on his face and said, “I’m ok, guys.” He peered around looking for the old man in the crowd, but he was nowhere to be seen. “I must have gotten overheated. Let’s go to the shade.”
As they walked to the shady alley, Benoit ran to the tents with drinks and brought him a bottle of cold water. Frank drank it and grunted, looking into his friends’ worried faces.
“Why look so scared? One can’t get a little bit too thoughtful without getting buried! I’ll survive all of you!” The three looked at each other in embarrassment, watching as Frank squeezed fun from himself.
That evening everything was as usual: dinner, bar, dancing, a parody of love. Men are not inclined to dramatize and if a friend says “everything is fine”, then everything is fine. So everyone quickly forgot about the incident and enjoyed themselves. Benoit dazzled girls with his smile, Thimeo looked condescendingly as those around him, John-Jack was flexing his muscles, and Frank was being funny.
In the morning, climbing the stairs, Frank did not see the delicate colors of a beautiful dawn that covered the sky with pink kisses. He passed by his favorite bench without even looking back. And he did not see the anguish on the face of Her, who was waiting to see him every morning with a silly ephemeral hope for something incomprehensible.
Funeral music was playing somewhere nearby again. Very loud. As if defying the living. But it did not irritate Frank anymore. He surrendered. He became the emptiness.
The smoked sky hung low, leaving only a small space between clouds of smog spreading high and the scorched ground. In the midst of chaos that the subsiding disaster left after itself, stood a hill on the top of which the darkness grew thicker, gaining volume and taking the form of a massive dog. The color deepened and the silhouette came to life, growing rough pelt that was darker than the pitch-black background. Only white teeth tore apart the gloom that absorbed everything, – Anubis was smiling.
He had many names: Inpu, Upuaut, Duamutef, Bran, Emma-O, Hermes, Yama, Garmr, Sholotl, Simurgh, Simargl, Sarama… Some of them were so ancient they were totally forgotten. Others were never spoken or even known to people. He himself preferred to stay nameless, but when it was inevitable, he would remember how the ancient Greeks called him. He always loved the sound and depth of their language. This name matched him best, the sound of it sinking deep inside of him, merging with his essence and leaving an echo somewhere in the depth of his consciousness: A-nu-bis.
Even his eyes could not penetrate the murk far enough, but he knew that she was somewhere out there on the way to sunrise, stubbornly taking step after step towards her goal. Her long hair disheveled, her skirt beating her feet obeying the wind, tears running down her cheeks, drawing uneven lines on her tired dirty face. Her sincere and intent plea continued ringing in his head.
– You were heard. – He has been whispering to her every night while watching her sleep, but she did not believe herself. And sometimes, just for a moment, she would feel a burning desire to embrace and accept the oncoming inner madness as an escape from the outside madness; from the madness that was ripping apart the usual picture, smashing the whole world into smithereens, grinding reality with its implacable heartless jaws.
He was worshiped as God and Son of the Sun; he was feared as the Destroyer of Life and the Lord of the Sacred Land; he was called the Protector of Tombs and The One Who Knew Mysteries; he was appealed to as Guardian from the Enemies and The King of Justice; but only those were right who considered him the Messenger, the Executor of the Father’s Will and the Opener of the Ways.
– You were heard, child. And I came. –
When was it? Today, three days, a week, a month ago? The black clouds that spanned the whole sky destroyed time: the lightless world had frozen and then gone mute, losing the last crumbs of life.
What was pushing her to keep walking? What was making her wake up after a short full-of-nightmares sleep? What was stopping her from dying when everyone dear to her was dead? What was forcing her to continue living, when she had no reason to? Hope? No, rather the limitless stubbornness, which was her distinctive feature almost from birth.
As she trudged along the devastated grounds, she muttered to herself, “Well, I can understand the war erasing cities and countries from the face of the Earth, the global cataclysm, or whatever it was that happened, the death of millions of people, including my family, all the life disappearing in a glimpse of an eye. I can understand all of it, but the dog. Why did You take the dog away from me?”
She wanted to scream, but she had only enough strength for a husky whisper. The last time she had had a drink was three naps back, when they had found a bottle of water that was miraculously standing in the middle of the road on the edge of a huge crater, at the bottom of which she could barely distinguish crumpled car remains.
If not for the dog, who the girl called Scout, she would have perished the first day lost in the drainage labyrinth. How he happened to find her and where he had been leading her – she did not know. She did not even know if there still was a single place left to go. But they continued going somewhere. Scout had been finding food, shelters for their short rests and he has been choosing the route, taking her further away from the center of the city. During all this time they had never met a living human being, though they had stepped over bodies several times. At those moments she was very grateful for the never-ending night, which kindly covered the realities of her new world with its veil.
Finally they left the city behind. The conflagration in the forest ahead of them was gradually burning out. She had been scared staying so close to the fire, but she got used to trusting her companion, so she lay down near him behind the stump of a small one-storied house and instantly fell asleep. When she woke up, she did not find her shaggy friend next to her or anywhere within sight.
She waited for him for as long as she could manage. She had a nap twice, jerking at every sound. When she woke up for the second time, she understood that she had to stand up and go unless she wanted to die of thirst right where she was. Slowly putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to lift up too much ash in the air, she went up the hill that stood nearby. Several isolated fire sites gave her enough light to notice a clearing in the woods, a tree and fire-less piece of darkness in the distance. She could be lucky enough to find a lake or a lawn there, and maybe even other survivors. She started having a feeling that Scout has been leading her to that exact point.
The girl dropped one more glance at their last camp and moved forward.
– I showed you the way; you can do it yourself from now on.
Anubis stood there for a long time watching towards where she headed – the future voice of the united Terra, gaining strength with her every step to lead people to freedom.
The dawn was breaking.
Thank you for reading this story. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer?
The Smile of Anubis is a compilation of 5 short stories: Humanity Sweepstakes - tells a story of a standard human who was put to the test to check his humanity. It's a mix of drama and mystery. Smithers contains 3 short glimpses of three different lives and a conclusion that one might draw of them. It's a question and answer, it's a story of our inner kids that never grow up or grow old and how they see us. Phoenix is a science fiction story about a special boy that struggles with his own life and the mission that was put on him by others. Set in future, but speaking about any time one might live in. The Land of the Red Dust is a drama about a man who met his last chance in life and the choice he made. Set in Cambodia, nowadays. The Smile of Anubis is a metaphor of what probably each and every person encounters in his or her life. It tells a story of a girl whose life turned to ruins in the matter of seconds and what happened next.