+the priests and the flower girl+
That is the road to Heaven, my love,
and that is the road to Hell.
And that is the road to Faery,
where you and I must dwell.
-Thomas the Rhymer
Your best hope would be to de-personalize what follows
and not to look upon me as
or yourself as
Remember, we are both seekers of truth, and in this quest,
I am your friend, philosopher, and guide.
the sheep's game
(beware the false prophets)
Chains clinking, ice crunching with each step. Flowers crushed under the heels, beaten and strangled into the dirt. Dead. Happily, he thinks, giving a yellow-toothed smile to himself and flicking his cigarette. Days like this, they’re aching to die. Go down with smiles on their faces. The ashes, flames still flickering and sputtering in the mist, flutter through the air to join the flowers’ corpses.
The wind picks up, jostling the overgrown grass, the weeds, the un-pruned trees.
Across the yard, a porch swing gives an unsightly creak. Rosaries, one after another, shift, tinkling, crosses turning on their chains. One baby Jesus, two baby Jesus… There must be fifty, sixty, even, all different—wood, glass, dyed plastic, metal, colors, lots of colors—all with the dead god and the virgin. The cigarette trembles a bit.
A cell phone rings, seems out of place in the wind and the mist—too sharp, too defined to survive in the hazy pall. “Nice flower beds. Good-smelling. Dahlias, I think. Knew a girl named Dahlia once. Fun to step on.”
“If you’re done violating their horticulture, would you mind knocking?”
“’Fraid I can’t,” the loiterer says into the receiver, puffing a leisurely smoke ring into the mist. It floats, barely discernable in the gloom, mixing with the steam of his breath. (Ring of fire, unicorns on the clouds.) “They’ve got their deck all covered in crucifixes. I could melt if I get too close.” He’s too loud, too mean for the still air.
The voice on the other end fits in with the dead air and the fragments. It’s sick, weak and scratchy, like there’s a pack of nails burrowed in the throat. If it stopped talking, he would just assume it’d dropped dead, and would probably hang up on it. “Darrow.” The exasperation sounds more like one-lunged respiration. “You’re Father Alexius Foulon. The girl is Cora Quarles. Enter. Avoid contact. Tell the parents the exorcism will be performed next week. Pretend to be interested. Leave. Order is negotiable.”
“Have some respect. The name’s Nix.”
The man, now identified as one Nicias Darrow—falsely, yes, but at least one of his credit cards is titled such—drops the cigarette butt. One boot smothers the sputtering nicotine carcass into the dirt and the flowers with unnecessary force, leaving inch-deep furrows. “Perform the exorcism? Yes, sounds splendid. (Darrow, the cell phone interrupts.) I even brought a printout of the rites—here, see? Well, no you don’t, because you morons picked me up off the streets and dumped me off like trash, like usual. Now what does this say? (Darrow.) Ecce Crucem Domini, fugite, partes adversae? Is that an igh or an ey? Who cares: I can do what I want. Language is fluid, or so the wise, non-stuffy grammarians tend to say. (Darrow…) Ridiculous notions of the church—these religious folks, by God. Look at all the little Jesuses on their house. Isn’t that insulting to their own religion, their savior hung from their roof like a birdhouse or a wind chime? Maybe I’ll just sprinkle some sink water on her and be done with it, shall I? Or maybe holy wafers will make it all go away. No family doesn’t have Nilla Wafers in the pantry. I could use a few of those.”
“Darrow!” The admonition morphs into wet coughs, mucus sloshing and ribcage contracting.
“Oh, dear. I hope you didn’t lose a vital organ there.”
“Foulon will rip your tongue out.” He sounds serious about this, like Foulon is any different from the rest of them, like Foulon isn’t just another man who grinds through another day and returns home to an empty house (friends, family—still empty, all of it) to devour chips and ice cream by the bowl, as if filling the void his God claims with the tangible and unclean. Like Foulon gives a damn.
Nicias regrets that this conversation is not face-to-face. He imagines shuddering in mock horror and grinning his favorite broken-toothed grin—oh, the humanity, he would say, eyes thrown wide open, hands fluttering in distress, I’ll have to resort to mimery. But no, such antics are wasted on the mechanic, uncaring mouthpiece. Instead, he scuffs his boots over the few still-standing flowers and mashes them completely, then bunny-hops a few times, just to ensure there will be no resurrections.
After the silence has been prolonged to a sufficiently obnoxious length, he resumes conversation. “Foulon will not rip my tongue out. No one actually cares about these petty little diversions of yours. The pizza man didn’t care, that grocer didn’t care, the florist didn’t care, the cat breeder didn’t care—if they cared, they would have done the damned things themselves, then hung me from a pole by my pancreas for ruining their lives. But no, these people, these scapegoats that disappear oh so often, with such splendid inconvenience—they’re helpless. I am just the ghost who hijacks their lives for a few days, then fades into obscurity. And where are they, meanwhile? Under a microscope, still-beating heart bared to the air? Frolicking in the sun? Dead, made new by your little agency? Given new life, new time, more sand trickling into their hourglass—free, and as such, unquestioned?”
He’s pausing now, smiling palely into the mist. It’s a pity, really, that he’s not standing before the man with the power. More itches would be scratched if he were actually moving with the words.
Nicias chuckles, for the cell phone’s benefit. “Oh, no…” It is quiet, soft, a drawn out exhalation. “They couldn’t catch me if they even knew I existed.” Another laugh. “So who’s left? If not them, who? Certainly not me. Certainly not you. Can you even stand? You’re like a stack of collapsible bones—no skin, no muscles, just a human on a stick, with a voice-box screwed awkwardly into somewhere that wasn’t intended to be a throat. Worthless. Powerless.” (And yet with so many lives at his fingertips…)
He clicks off the cell phone right in the middle of the messenger’s first syllable, blows another smoke ring. One of the crucified Jesus figures drifts toward him, glaring as if judging him for his sins. Liar, its starved ribcage seems to say. And in front of my mother, too. Have you no shame?
He has been more… facetious… than usual. He does not make threats he will not keep, usually. Get in, make a bit of a ruckus, do what he’s told, and get out, was the intention. Nicias is a coward, on some level. And yet—now that he thinks the matter over.... He did mean it. On some level, he always means everything. He also has his reputation to uphold. And. Well. He’s always wanted to perform an exorcism.
They’re all sweat and grease and gunpowder, gruff voices, clattering dice, twitching fingers on the trigger. She’s just another one of them, a man in demeanor with bullets on the brain. But even with her face stained black with kohl, skin too light for her poorly-dyed hair and lips fastened round a beer bottle’s neck, she still cheats them out of their money and their rations like the suavest of poker faces.
“Lancre, your wager.”
She gives him a look, a wily, ironic look—grey eyes wide in faux naivety, eyebrows furrowed with confusion. Tugs on her body armor, sucks on the glass. Flashes a finger sequence. Raise. Seven sixes. Not a word from this one.
The guys (three men and another woman, really) elbow each other expertly, avoiding grenade pins and protective spikes. “Oho, she’s going for the big ones,” chortles the lieutenant to her right. “Must gotta coupla sixes under there.” Four rounds of moderate betting, and to them, she’s just another gambler with nervous tics and an over-attachment to her money. Pity for them, she’s got lies coursing through her veins, little hunchbacked hemo-goblins wrapping gnarled fingers around untruths and omissions.
Corporal Lancre just grins her empty-eyed, hollow-faced grin. If you say so, boys. Her silence says more than her twisted words. Poor bluffing, they think. Suckers, says the rush of blood to her twitching fingers. Her hand creeps towards the gun, overeager, trembling.
The three others, privates all, glance at each other from the corner of their eyes. The woman—Lancre doesn’t know her name, but she’s a large broad, handy for meatshielding, with enough of a glint in her eyes to be of use—lifts and replaces her own cup with a threatening glower.
Lancre looks from man to man, her grimy face blank save for the tooth-baring smile, skeletal and sunken. Her fingers twitch against the cup, against the snake eyes and the bluff within. She looks away from the threats of Medusa’s grimace, of the basilisk’s golden stare, lest her lies turn her to stone (for the giant’s eye rolled inward, and died of what it saw). There is poison under her skin.
“I’ll match,” says the lieutenant.
Lancre’s smile does not move.
Around them, the copter shudders, blades whirring for purchase against overzealous wind. “Lavender Tower sited,” crackles the intercom. Guns in hand, the gamblers are soldiers again, jaws set, hands curled. Lancre is flicking the cup over, smile stone cold and faded to gray. The lieutenant groans, grins, hands over two grenades and a handful of multi-colored rations stubs. She just slouches and nods, gun slung over her shoulder and hands in her pockets. Doesn’t even bother showing triumph in her expression. Easy prey. They should know better, by now—but they never learn. No one ever learns.
He turns. “Alllrighty. We’re headed down from the broadcasting rigs to the base of the tower. Eliminate all Kanto soldiers; prisoners are too much of a liability. Shoot them all to the ground. Try not to raze the place. Once the building is secure, force B’ll take the town.” Voice gruff, solid. He’ll do what has to be done, because it’s what he’s been told to do and he knows nothing else.
The soldiers are tense, silent, as they approach, not slamming their guns against the ground, not chanting. Lancre flips the dice over in her fingers, tapping her feet and twitching at the neck. This isn’t their usual fair, this midnight copter ambush in an active satellite surveillance field. It doesn’t feel right—stinks worse than the body odor and gun grease around her. But she’s flighty, and paranoid, and has been known to stick her nose in places that don’t actually exist, so she sits back and waits it out. A good (moral, pleasing, fit for the Good Book) soldier waits for the blood and the carcasses to float their way up to the river surface before he calls foul.
(But there’s a parasite in her bones, chomping at marrow, begging for blood.)
There is a hobo at their door.
Well, not a hobo. A priest. But he looks like a hobo. Oversized boots have grime crusted to their tongues, burrowing its way through each and every crevice, clinging to heavy heel-chains and ragged scarf-ends (and—good Lord—is that one of their dahlias on the heel?)… pale white hair frays out in physically impossible directions, as if twisted out of place by barbed wire and gum drops—there actually is something that looks like a gum drop in his left ear. It’s nothing short of disgusting, a walking mass of odd smells and dirt.
John Quarles gives his wife a confused look. “Uh, evening, Cardinal…”
“I’m a cardinal now, am I?” the man mutters off to the side. His breath reeks of smoke and cigarettes.
From his right hand dangles one of their rosaries, ripped from the eaves; from his nicotine-stained left, a Bible worn by something other than care. Something suspiciously like a handful of rocks.
“Well, are you going to let me in? By God, what are you people thinking, leaving a helpless old elector on your deck in the cold? How cruel, how unusual. I think I may just have to report you to good old JP II—here, give me a pen, so I can record this misdemeanor in the Bible and fax it on up to the Big Book, the Man, the pope.” Somewhere between “are you going to let me in” and “how cruel,” the dirty priest has pushed his way past the door. He now examines their sconces with a critical eye and a grimy, fingerless-glove-gloved finger. “Now this is unusual. Have you had them appraised? I rather like…” He licks the dust off his finger.
“Ah, if you don’t mind, I can direct you to the dining room—” Adelaide Quarles realizes that, for some odd reason, her peace offerings of nourishment are falling on otherwise occupied ears, but her fragile mind does not quite make the connections necessary to reach the appropriate conclusion. “I’ll just go get a hymnal, then,” she says vaguely, and wanders off.
John puts his face in his hands.
The priest unscrews the nearest sconce, lifts his robes to his chest, and sticks the sconce into the pocket of newly unveiled cargo pants. “Must have a holy lamp holder on hand. Just in case.” A pause. “I don’t suppose you have any sterling silver about? Or perhaps a BluRay player?” A longer pause. “No, then. I’ll just have the sconces.”
This is what I get, John thinks. This is what I get for living my life. This stagnant, pointless life. Didn’t go anywhere, didn’t do anything, and now—demented wife, braindead kid, clergymen sticking my lightbulbs down their pants. Karma’s all over the place. Wrong, it’s got it all backwards and inside out, condemning me for the Jews in the soap and the dead in the street—none of his responsibility, none of his fault. I couldn’t’ve done this much shit. Expression resigned, he resists the urge to slam his head against the wall.
He leads the priest to their dining room and points wordlessly to the China cabinet. Turns to call up the stairs. “Cora… It’s dinner time. Come meet the new priest.” This is what I get. (The priest’s footprints are in his carpeting, a mishmash of dirt outlines and dead flowers.) Miserable life. Crushed under a heel, bleeding from the neck. Suffocating.
Left hand goes around right wrist. Arms behind back, shoulder straight, eyes blank. We mustn’t show our failure.
The priest points at the table, then to the China cabinet. “You’re going to serve me on this flimsy kidsware? I want that bowl. It’s nicer.” He pouts, lightless eyes wide, grime-covered hand dirtying the white linens.
John’s hand tightens around his wrist. Another acid tripping excuse for religious authority, another quack who can’t do a thing for his daughter, who can’t pull the demons from his life any better than he can pronounce half a verse from his own Good Book. John would swear, but he’s been brought up too well. All he can do is stoop down and pick up a dahlia petal off the floor, drop it in a vase of long-dead flowers.
The wife returns. Her turtleneck hangs askew; she grasps a cookbook in one snag-nailed, shaking hand. “I found the hymns…” Vacant smile, blurry eyes.
The daughter flounces demurely down the stairs, wrists bound, muzzle fastened across her smile.
John’s face whitens.
This is what I get.
For the wages of sin, the girl whispers.
There are smoke and tears in the air.
Something’s exploded somewhere it shouldn’t, and she’s caught in the middle of it. Got a burn in the back of her throat and soot on her trigger finger. They’re headed the wrong direction—everything is backwards, inside out. Their tactics are falling apart, fragmenting into bits of refractive glass that catch only seconds of the story, looping time and space and never getting anywhere.
(Bullets spray by her shoulder and in a second she’s whipped around, got the soldier dead on the ground, bleeding at the feet of a tombstone. It’s all around them, the death, the mourning and the buried. The ghosts are hiding, but the death remains.)
The wrong side—they came in from the wrong side. “We’re in the wrong hall—they’ve got it blockaded. No way through. All of the holes’re burning, now. We’re trapped, damn you. There’s no getting out of this.” She hears a panic in her voice that no one else perceives; it’s in the way her vowels wobble, the end of her words rise to a higher pitch. They just hear static and calm, but she’s falling apart on the inside. Her cool crumbles as the fire burns the walls to ash.
There’s always been something about flame…
“The Grey Eminence’s got it covered,” crackles the earpiece.
Her back twitches into a shudder. Memories fill her head, full of fire and hate, of the stench of crisped flesh and singed fur smothering, of far-seeing eyes and teeth that know the taste of blood and bone far too well. Shakes herself out of it. “The hell is that doing here?”
“Master sent him. The Eminence’ll be coming out on your side in a few minutes. Stay put and pick off the blockades.”
“I’m not going anywhere near that thing.” Death trap—that’s what this is. Enemies on both sides, her army and the other, flames devouring the gaps between.
Her head fogs over; fear settles into her bones. It’s in her voice, now, and they can hear it, she knows. She’s fragmenting; she feels that predator’s smile ripping into her arm and her hands are shaking, her feet are stumbling, and then the wall explodes and she’s tumbling backwards into a tombstone. It shatters beneath her.
Box of bones—that’s what she’s in, that’s where she belongs. Rotting away in a box with the dead. (She’ll be there ‘til she dies.)
There’s too much fire, too much smoke, and all she can remember in her muddled mind is the sear of glass melting onto flesh. The dull ring of the explosion in her ears pushes all but a thickened silence and the flaming roar from her mind.
The stench of the dead is all around her, rising from rotten remains. The devil is in the fire, grin wide, teeth sharp. Steel and skin crumple around her. Her blood burns away her veins.
There is something of the Devil in this man.
“I have power here, in this place.” His voice is quiet. The parents say nothing—merely blink with their dull, human eyes. “Why?”
The child hisses. Yes, there is something wrong in this man, in his too-white hair, the shine of his eyes—and it’s there, in the steel of his voice. He knows too well the turning of the world.
He sits across from the child, fingers steepled, tangled in the stolen rosary, poking out from half-intact gloves. His eyes follow her movements, steady, sharp. Waiting. Jumping from hands to muzzle to ringleted blonde hair and back again, but never meeting her gaze.
Look at me.
His face tightens, and the child knows he has heard.
Look at me.
He reaches behind him, scratches a cascade of dirt out of his hair. Turns to the father. Blatant disregard. Deep within the child, something sneers. Feeble humans, always railing against their faith.
The priest resumes his jaw-flapping once again. (Something in him is begging for an excuse to hold his eyes away—don’t look down, as they say.) “Look at you. You’re pathetic. I bumble about, half-drunk and smelling of smoke, and you just let me barge my way on in. You greet me with a feast, give me your grandmother’s untouched China, scrape and grovel and practically kiss my boots on your knees. And why? For your precious daughter—who you’ve chained to the table and gagged like a dog. What child worth so much could be so horrible as that?”
The family is dreadfully silent.
All the while, he’s stuffing food in his face, spitting out around it. And he’s the only one—the others have learned to wait, to sit frozen with their spoons in hand until the child has had her fill. He would learn, in time.
“No child, that’s what. Which means that I’m either here because your child is not a child—doubtful, that—or because my predecessors have been abysmal failures. A far more likely scenario, considering that they’re priests.” He pauses, dragging his teeth along a stripped chicken leg. “Not that I’m not a priest.” His eyebrows twitch in a way that makes it seem he’s begging them to throw him out on his face. (He is the most dangerous of liars—the honest liar, the man who bears his lies on his face and never hides his deceit.)
“Ohhhh, yes…. I’m the holiest of men.” His words are slow, and his face twists into a soft, almost baleful smile. “The daughter, though. What’s she doing? Speaking in tongues? Avoiding garlic? Getting rashy in the sun?” A lazy hand flips the chicken bone into a flowerpot. “Wrong ailment, sorry.” He licks his fingers clean, one at a time, making suctioned pops that slap wetly in the air.
“Tongues, deep voices from the underworld, hellfire in her eyes, contortionist feats….” He leans forward, elbows on the table, face grave, spoon full of mashed potatoes weaving thoughtful circles in the air. “Or perhaps she merely failed a math test? Yes, I could see that warranting a full body-bind. But I suppose… I suppose that would hardly make you quite so desperate.”
An escapist, this one—always talking, never saying a word. Babbles on and on with his meaningless nothing that’s worth just as little of the scraps of food in his teeth. What he has carefully constructed to sound like an elaborate revealing of truth is, in fact, little more than floundering confusion. If he talks enough, perhaps he will find dry land. (What a big mouth you have, says the red-hooded girl to her grandmother.)
“Well?” the priest demands, fork pointing with entitlement.
The child smiles coldly. So predictable in his unpredictability, demanding an answer to a question never asked. (Why do you let me do this? something in him is screaming. Why don’t you stop me?)
The father’s only response is to unhook the muzzle.
And then the child is gorging herself, silverware forgotten, fingers prying meat from bone, face drowning in the mashed potatoes, hair unheeded, dragging through gravy and jam. The child’s hunger is ravenous, unrelenting—peas cling to her cheeks, saliva oozes down her neck, and still she devours, never taking a breath.
The mother hides her face away.
“No one can help our daughter.” The father’s voice breaks, but not with despair. He has lead one too many failures through his house—lived one too many nights with a demon whispering in his ear. All he has left is his anger.
“Yup.” The priest leans back to pat his stomach and release a throaty belch. “So why am I here?”
“We asked and we received.” The father says this with a quiet desperation, like it should mean something, then says it again: “We asked, and we received.”
There is no logic in this, no reason—yet there is truth, of a sort. It is broken, twisted, hidden behind layers of unmeaning and illogicalities, but it is there, bent as the priest’s lies.
“You can’t help our daughter. You don’t even want to. So what the hell are you doing here? Why did you come? Why in hell?” The father spits the word, face twisting, and the wife cringes away, deeper into her hands, farther from the truth.
“I am but a slave of the gods.” Except for those times they allow me to become one. “They sent me, and so I have come.” It rings true (but there are formaldehyde and lye in his voice).
The father’s face burns red; his hands clench, his mouth contorts as he prepares an undoubtedly scathing retort.
The child rolls her eyes. She has had enough of this, the petty squabbles of these humans. “Look at me,” the child demands again, and this time her command has the strength of her human voice behind it.
The priest has no choice. Their gazes meet. The child sees dark, dark eyes—blacker than Hell. And then everything is blank.