My corner store lighter drops to the blackened heath where thousands of charred worms lay. I pick it up and flick it until my censer lights and I close my eyes as the fumes fill me with a better world.
Baas looks up from his twelve hammers, trying to assess a body count from the different colors of hair sticking to the claws. “You know that kills you, right?”
“It kills them faster.”
Twelve hammers later, we’re only three houses deep, but they’re good fat houses full of evil and I do not think many more will have to burn or be sealed up.
“Oh baby, baby,” I say, eyeing multitudinous upskirts from the legally dead bitches crawling on the roofs. The heavy drape of rough peasant skirts and the necro-menstrual airing of bourgeoisie silks, it all tempers my spirit and hardens my soul like a good vaccine. My cuirass is tight and boiled around me and my Astraltune Stereopack is strapped underneath feeding up to fluffy masses of reedmace packed in used pot pie tins around my ears, playing Glory, the Extended Audiohymnal of St. Brittany, Spear of the Almogavars, Sublime of Armorica. Life is good.
We near the residence of the wormcoat rector. Rotting cocks dangle from the trees, blending with the rotten fruit.
“That one’s bigger than you,” Baas says.
“It’s postmortem bloating,” I say, pissed the fuck off, rubbing my sword with Vaseline.
Rame holds the paper to the headlight of his Vespa. “Your report.”
I squat in the dark to the other side of the scooter, chiseling crud from my censer. “Yes?”
“Can you please stop referring to things as ‘blackened heaths’?”
“I take the best judgment of each biome I can—”
“There was no heather. Not even scrub.”
“I thought I saw a bit of—”
“It was a forest. A taiga, if you just referred to the helpful chart on page 3. Near the very start of the booklet.”
“I thought it was just front matter.”
“It all matters.”
I spray-paint the idol black until the huge colorful eyes are hidden. I sniff the fumes to make sure they’re concentrated enough. Well one thing comes to another and, give me a sign, God, and I’ll stop jerking off. Just give me a sign and my hand springs off and I’ll dip it in the water of the spring dip it in molten silver. Give me a sign. Give me a sign.
Even through the walls of the shed I can hear the torture-tent, and the holes which vent the sounds of the catacombs adapted into tunnels where heretics can be the worms they worship. I think of the racks turning like God’s own dynamo, stretching their souls into the right shape, intercepted through each pop and crackle of joints, longer and longer, longed-for and stronger, to the peak of bursting—
My hand dips in silver, my own, burning like Tremain, but I’m still taut, still stretched, airways keening with chlorofluorocarbon. In a whisper of aerosol, one more time baby, one more time.
Back at camp playing Mario on a Super Famicom (Sacramental Edition), the cracked Bakelite centerpiece of the rec hall. I beat the level and me and the boys all grin at the best part, when you get to see the souls of the enemies Mario defeated writhing in eternal torment along a cathode-mosaic road of judgment. I make a Goomba wear the sanbenito and we clap.
I spread out the wanted poster, all yellow paper, his naked chest in woodcut. “This fucking guy.”
“Seriously,” Baas says.
“He’s been doing so many goddamn schisms. It’s like Swiss cheese out there.”
“That’s holes,” Rame corrects.
Baas nods along. “Schisms is like, slicing it open.”
“I always slice my Swiss cheese.”
I stare at the wanted poster, crumpled and creased and spotted with rain. They really need to start laminating these. But the words, in brutal Blackletter, are easy enough to read.
Heretic, Rouser, Unshriver, Vermiformicator
Baas hands me a shot of gunpowder. “Ready?”
“God, I bet his ass is so unorthodox and heretical.”
“His ass. Like get his ass. His ass better not come around. The colloquial his ass.”
“Oh. Right.” Baas picks up the wanted poster and holds it to the fire, the corner curling with char. He looks back. “Have you committed him to memory?”
“I think so.”
The tombstones are dug up like the teeth from the soldier I saw disrupted in the potter’s field half a mile back.
“This is the place,” I say.
Baas says, “Could be coffin-clappers, pendant-pushers, necklace-nabbers, thumb-cutters, bolt-boys—”
“Money is their god. But their god is the devil.”
Rame balks. “We don’t have the remit for temporal crime. I’m not getting sued by another alderman—”
“What if they were funding heresy with the fenced funds?”
“We need something actionable, dicks-in-the-trees actionable—”
“Up there. Soft now.”
Valkyries dance amid the tombstones, laying dolls in the cavities of disemboweled graves. Bury us, their children plead, so we can breathe.
I detach the safety on my sword and expose an inch, milk-white under the lunar hell. When a doll is buried, it calls worms from miles around, and those worms gather to form the body, annelids annealed.
Then I see the flaw in the apparition. “This already happened. The valkyries are in town by now.”
Baas says, “RIP.”
Rame kicks the dirt. “And look here, the loose earth through which the worms tailored their whelps.”
“A false imagining.”
“Put here to rob us of reality.”
“Here is only a man. And I see him now, by the glint of his spyglass, in that small church tower.”
The bridge is burnt, so we wade through the river. My armor is soaked heavy. I remove my breast-leather, my christened lamellar, leaving a covering of reinforced cloth underneath. My sword arm feels lightened and loose.
I look to Baas and Rame. “Kill anyone you find. I’ll hit the steeple.”
His heresoid form catches the triple moonlight from every angle. Bastard lines run down his ribs. His hair is like milk with a little butter mixed in.
I flick the gas station lighter, kindling my censer. “God told me to fuck your bitch worm magic.”
He says, “My magic comes from the sun that bounces off the bone mounds of the moon. The same sun that gave you that tan.”
I cup fumes from the censer and feel more capable of violence than ever before.
“The moonlight falls clean as water but I find the bones in it, their coordinates, to call the worms by.”
Before him, a deacon, deadless, weaves threads of fress like Daedalus, crafting an imp organ to call worms of earth and air. I see them now, vitreous preter-images, castings of phantom grease pulsating like aerial membranes. But they will not real if the song does not complete.
The deacon rises to defend his master. I swing my censer and it ropes heavy in the air to bash in the rotting jaw, no blood, only ash spilled like a cigarette holder, and fumes flooding the already enclosed space. Inhalants empower my tongue. “You tricked them.”
“Shitty kinda life, being dead.”
“You would live too, longer than you should. If you saw my face in the needle prick of your clenched pupil, through the dimming milk enclosing you like hard fog into a complete and final separation from all things, you would beg too. Beg to feel the grass once more between your toes, to feel the sun a minute longer, even only as warm cheese feels it, if you could say the words which pack your lungs, to those you love. There is so much that is left undone, at the final moment.”
“You rape their soul a second before paradise.”
“Is paradise close at hand?”
I draw my sword. “At the other side of this small pill.”
He stands there, staring at a sickle on a barrel, dark with grass or blood. It is a little too far from him.
I come closer. “Will you fight?”
“If I did, I would die.”
“Then, like your dead followers, you can beg me for another five minutes of the grass between your toes.”
“Burn his ass. Cut his feet off.”
“Shut up,” the assayer says, sticking a needle into Aubrey’s middle toe. “We’re doing this by the book.”
The torture-tent captures the heat of our exertions. The brazier makes it feel like a hot air balloon. I twiddle my sword, feeling like I wasted all that time polishing it.
“You’re fidgeting more than he is,” Rame says to me, filling out forms with a bad pen which keeps running.
I turn suddenly. “I need to check the spray paint supplies.”
Rattle rattle shake shake kssssssh, I blacken the heath manually, watch ladybugs slow under my spray, become still and immortalized like the scarab. I wonder if I will be posted to the sand next, far south, to safeguard the oasis which were the tears of the God so long ago, or some say the preserved seed of the prophet in keeping for a time when day does not end and moons do not torment us. Each moon is the remaining eye of a spider which has been vanquished five times before. I wonder if I will see one extinguished in my lifetime? I sniff at the black-painted ground and yes, I think I see it now, this gladdening vision, catechized in coughing.
When I come back, my censer is outside and on its side, tickling the grass with embers. Aubrey emerges from the torture-tent, no needles in his toes, but the sound of them in someone’s face.
I stand there, enjoying the smell of burning heather.
“You’re very self-possessed,” he says.
“No, someone else did that for me.”
I lift my wrist where the devil, I think, came into me.
“The wrist is only the secondary appendage,” he says.
I feel trepidation, in spite of myself. “It entered elsewhere?”
“Where does it hurt the most?”
I hunch over, stabbed invisibly. “It’s not so bad.”
“If you keep kinking up the pain, it’ll keep gathering in secondary appendages.”
I button my jacket to the highest part of the collar.
“Are you protecting your throat or your heart?”
“I protect the church of the God which is entrusted to my breast.”
“The primary appendage will hurt always in the night, no matter how perfectly you perform the day.”
I grip the handle of my sword like a tiller. A tide of fire comes toward us, fueled by the tent and its many oils.
Aubrey continues. “It has two heads, as the added adder, as the desert beast sheltering alike on the cool and burnt part of the stone. Shivering in the shade even as you sear in the sun. You are that bifurcated lizard.”
He moves with pain, lacerated and burnt in the small and varied places where truth is extracted. But they did not put him to the wheel or the hammer yet. His bones are dangerously unbroken.
I step away from the fire, managing the distance between us, unsure which way he intends to take this. I don’t want to be so close he catches me with whatever cheap sharpness he holds behind his back, nor so far he can flee. The bill for this burning will be very high, and his head is the only coin I can pay it with.
“You are blackened around here,” he says, gesturing to my nose and mouth. “Does the smell of Hell excite you?”
“It is the air you were meant to breathe.”
“Even if I was bit by some devil, it doesn’t mean I can’t be useful.”
“If they knew, they would hurt you.”
“In the armory, they don’t know which sword is stolen. They only know that the sword is sharp and can cut through evil. Is that so wrong?”
“What happens when the owner of that sword comes calling?”
I expose my blade and a reflection of fire shimmers along the steel, a salamander’s tongue. The grass twists like paper around my boots, his bare feet. I mutter, “Now that’s a blackened heath.”
Smoke covers him and I hold my sword ready. It clears and he is closer, orbiting upwind, eyes clear with sin. He holds the theophoric dagger from the torturer’s table, indented, for the sake of branding, with the names of the God in the old vertical script, and for this reason it is long and thin and a little hot.
I feint and he doesn’t blink, only sinks back slightly, his abdomen flattening, his musculature in lunar relief.
“Why don’t you wear a fucking shirt?”
“Hell is hot.”
“I’ll give you a look at it.” I jab again, coming just short.
“Aren’t you warm in that?”
I wipe sweat from my brow. “My armor protects me.”
“From all the arrows and swords and shit. From falling rocks and bees and primates.”
Smoke rolls between us. As it clears, I swing my sword and the tip of it leaves a red necklace undone across his naked chest, loose pearls of blood rolling and my buried urchin’s instinct to pocket them flashes. Every church felt like a cathedral at that age.
He ripostes in the time it takes to see that childhood street, in that second of smallness, too weak to wield this sword. I find my grip but his tip finds my heart.
“Is that where it hurts?”
I touch the slit in my soft armor. It whispers with smoke. “Yes. I think I see what you mean now.” I drop to the heath, not blackened here, only a tarnished teal.
He shields his face against a lash of flame as the camp kitchen catches. “Is your loneliness killing you now?”
I draw my pistols from under the concealing folds of my jacket. “I must confess. I still believe.”
He doesn’t flinch. “That bridge was burnt.”
“You had to cross the river.”
I fire each pistol, one after the other, resigned and quick, knowing the damp powder will stay silent. My head drops forward, shoulder blades burning, the last brace left to me. “Without my wings I feel so small.”
“You saw them too?”
“I think so. I was very young.”
“I think we had a different reaction to the same thing.”
“How else would someone respond to this pure and whole and complete calling?” The whisper of feathers, even now.
“Everyone I know who thought of themselves as an angel is dead.” He orbits me again, passing into my blind spot. “It’s an unlucky name. An unlucky vision to endure. Like a curse.”
“I mutilate the image in my head. I draw a circle through each atom. I fill the eyes with flies.”
“You made them devils.”
The fire reaches the black paint I sprayed earlier, doubling the fumes. I sniff it from the eye level of an ant. My blood throngs the stalks of grass. I see tiny people paddling as if through the swamp of Hell.
“You’re dying,” he says.
I reach for my sword, my arm stretching so long it seems to no longer belong to me, pricked by grass tall and sharp as steeples. These secondary appendages always weaken in the end.
Spiraling around a woodcut blackness.
He grasps my shoulders, his hands burning even through the pteryges, the leather strips protecting me, these false feathers. “Do you want to feel the sun?”
My heart pours out and my eyelids flutter, struggling to stay open.
“It comes up soon. It would be a shame to miss it.”
My face is hard, something like rage, unable to let itself break, like the Bakelite in the rec hall or the Astraltune that absorbed the blow from a dead man’s fist, breaking into black shards and releasing batteries that tumbled cold down my legs. Tiny pistillates still encrust my ears.
I drop my face to the soil to hide it from him, clear worms burrowing through the black grass. “If there’s nothing missing in my life, then why do these tears come at night?”
His mouth comes close, and the breath from it disturbs the pistillates, I feel them dancing. The devil inside his chest, which I saw strain so vividly from the first time I saw him, sticks its tongue to catch the small dead flowers which, when packed together, form a spike at the tip of rushes.
“Would you be my valkyrie?”
Like the wet powder, I cannot respond, for I have passed through a second river, much redder than the first. Milk or the moon passes over my vision, opaque as my mother’s eyes which drew the angels like kittens to lap it up, dipping their proboscises.
A white, hard dome, something spraying it black from the inside. Total stillness. Total rectitude. Where each secondary appendage was, only wire remains. Signal inert, unconducted, disconnected, silent and pure and alone.
I reach and nothing happens. The dome is black.
I am the small hard ball in the can which rattles.
The dome is black.
I try to shake so I can feel even the sides of the can.
The dome is black.
The signal is this: so much is left undone.
The hole in my heart begins to hurt again. I look down to see his finger inside it, plugging it up. The sun hits the edge of the earth, unshaken by any tremolo of blood, the drum in my chest finally still. Only his song, soft through the flute of my artery.
“One more time.”