Half of me
It was a brisk winter morning by the lake the last time I met the demon.
He appeared as he always did: unexpected but with the subtle, foreboding twinge of cold twisting my stomach. Shivering, I pulled the heavy uwagi coat tighter over my kimono--the demon offered his Montbell down jacket. I declined.
Following the creaking bamboo grove on my left and keeping the demon between myself and the reflections of the orange sunrise over the lake to my right, we shuffled along the marked trail, our breath misting the air and mingling between us. With falling snow coating our tracks behind us, we walked a good hour in silence before his graveled voice carved through it.
"Do you still hate Japan, Naomi?"
Fear didn't grip me. Instead, my chest tightened with nervousness, my throat with shyness. I kept moving forward, one foot in this world and the other in the next. Snow danced in a breeze, powdering the slumbering pines, barren cherry and plum trees, and my wrinkled face, which began to match the paleness of the demon's own.
Folding his arms, he again broke our silence. "Japan has insulated coats, you know." He frowned. "You'll freeze out here in a kimono."
"I'm fine." I rubbed my hands together. Paper-thin and dappled with dark liver spots contrasting with my slightly lighter brown skin, they were numb to the cold. "I brought something to warm me up."
The demon sniffed; a sly smile parted his lips just enough to see one scraggly fang. "That's why I came."
"That's why you always come."
"Tell me again why you let me."
"You help me understand things."
"Is something troubling you?"
In a sense. But I wasn't ready to let him know that. Instead, I unwrapped a red furoshiki cloth and handed him something I had kept out of my world for so long: a piece of cornbread.
He snatched it and scarfed it down. "I haven't had this in years."
"Brings back memories, doesn't it?"
"I wish they sold these here."
"I'm baking it again because I finally understand what I am."
"Took you long enough."
"Do you remember how many times you tried to tell me?"
"I can't quite recall." His quiet smile said differently.
I bowed my head, clutching the furoshiki to my chest like armor. "Three times."
As snow gathered upon his hair of matted snakes, he listened to my memories float in the breath connecting us, the lake's rolling waves lapping away my words.
In the schoolyard
"Hey, Naomi. Hey! Wait up," the demon said, his high-pitched nasally voice needling into my ears. He sidled up to me, sniffing the hardened leather randoseru on my back like a stray dog.
"Got any left? Gimme some."
The demon liked cornbread. Throwing him a piece usually got rid of him. Rummaging through the cloth pouch hanging off my side to pick through the lunch I wasn't planning on eating anyway, I averted my eyes so I wouldn't have to look at the wriggling mass of worms piled atop his head and his inward-turning fangs. But mostly, to avoid looking into his fiery eyes or seeing his dark skin.
"Give it over, Naomi."
I fumbled out the entire cut of bread and handed it to him. Our hands brushed as he took it; the two tones of our skin briefly matched shades: chocolate-brown against a light bronze. The sun had shaded his, unlike mine, which had been dark since I was born. He could be as pale as a lily if he wanted to, but spending so much time out of the world he should have stayed in had tanned it.
My teeth ground together at the thought.
"Where do you get this bread anyway?"
"My mom makes it." I bowed my head and swiftly jogged toward the iron gate of the school.
Catching my sleeve, he forced me to face him. Crumbs dappled his shirt as he gobbled down the last of the bread. "Why're you leaving?"
Frustration pierced my throat hard enough to shove an answer through my clenched jaw: "Because I hate Japan."
"But you've never lived anywhere else."
"That's exactly it!" I bolted.
Reaching the front gate, I jerked it open just enough to slip through. Now I was free of stares, sniggers, classmates' nagging to stroke my curly hair, their giggles when I struggled with words and insistence that I wasn't one of them. Even though I was--sort of. My father is Japanese.
Well, they wouldn't "other" me anymore. Especially not Yui and her horrible group. For the rest of today at least.
Though the demon shouldn't have been able to leave the school grounds, he wiggled his way through the gate, grinning. Cornbread mash filled the gaps in his teeth. "Yui again?"
"Leave me alone."
Skipping ahead of me, he delighted in getting in my way and making my steps falter. "They get to you 'cause you let 'em, you know."
"I don't let them. They attack me."
"You're putting a target on yourself." He pointed to the woven Shinto omamori--talisman--hanging off my randoseru and then to the golden cross around my neck. "Two targets, really."
"Three if you count my skin." I buttoned up my top button to hide my mother's birthday gift.
"If you hide that you'll get teased more."
"It doesn't matter. I can't hide my skin."
The demon snort-laughed. "You could, you know, like a mummy."
"How do you ignore them? The stares and the name-calling, I mean."
The demon shrugged, his pointed shoulders bending skyward like two orange traffic cones. "I guess they don't bother me as much as they do you. The others don't see me as I am because I don't let them. That's all."
"Maybe they're blind," I said. "Or you are."
"I am, now!" He shut his eyes tight and stuck his arms straight out, shifting from foot to foot as he shuffled around me. Pointed nails on the end of his fingers swiped playfully at the air.
I turned and ran. He gave chase. Then I chased him. Then we chased dragonflies until we both collapsed from exhaustion beneath a huge stone torii gate leading to a shrine to Omi Hachiman--whoever that was.
Sweating, he sucked on my thermos while I caught my breath. Above me, a thick twisting rope--shimenawa--dangled between the gate's stone columns, and hanging off it, four strings of zig-zagging folded paper--shide--swayed in a breeze. Made of a strip of paper folded into several uniform rectangles that looked stuck together at the corners, the shide had a curious quadruple Z-shape. The rectangles seemed to fight against each other as the wind lifted the paper at the angles, but they didn't tear away.
"Praise and lies may be snakes and spies so find the clear path between them."
I cocked my head at the demon. "What?"
"You asked how I ignore bullies. That's what my Dad tells me to do."
Advice from Enma, the King of Hell, himself. "Does it help?"
"Sometimes." He handed my thermos back. "But it's easier if I just focus on me, you know?"
I didn't know, and his smirk told me he knew I didn't.
"Nao, you're so hung up on what you are, you can't see who you are. But we're sixth-graders now. Almost adults. We can't hide what we are, not to ourselves or others, so just be what you are and find who you are."
"I know what I am!"
"I dunno. I like butterflies and the color orange."
The demon laughed. "You're not saying it. It was hard for me to say 'it,' too. We're different, you and me. You gotta see that. My Dad told me I had a truth I couldn't embrace, and everything got better when I could. I mean, when I could embrace my truth, the difference between me and them, then people saw me for me."
"What does that mean?"
"Embrace? It's like a hug. You gotta give the thing you hate the most a big ol' hug. Or you know, you'll always be sad or angry or something."
What kind of demon was he, anyway? Hug the things you hate?
"Who do you hate right now," he asked.
"Yui." And there was no way I was going to give her a hug.
"She makes fun of me. Calls me 'burnt girl' and 'dirty.'"
"Because of your skin."
"Do you hate your skin?"
I nodded harder. "If I had skin color like everyone else--"
"You don't. And who gave you your skin?"
"My mother. She's not Japanese."
"Do you hate her?"
I folded my arms. It was her fault I was who I was.
But hate? Hate? Bunching the fabric of my collar, I clutched the golden cross I had hidden.
Mother knew me as well as she knew the color of her own skin--black, and two shades darker than mine. Her skin drew her away from America. She wanted to live in a world where she would have a clearly defined reason to be an outsider, not just because of her skin. She chose Japan and struggled with its language, culture, and ideals. But her struggles made her stronger. She said it would make me stronger, too.
I doubted that.
The demon frowned. "Do you, Nao? Do you hate her? You gotta say it if you do."
I toed the gravel underneath my feet. Whenever I had a problem, her smile was a warm tea on a cold morning, and her hugs tight. "I can't hate my mother." She gave three gifts to me, after all. Life. A cross, though Father didn't believe. And her skin. "I don't."
"Then you can't hate yourself. Because that would be like hating your mom."
"Did your father say that, too?"
The demon's grin became fire. "Yup. If you can't hug your skin, go hug your mother. I do. I give my dad loads of hugs."
I smirked at his casual admission of affection, but he just grinned harder.
"Embrace your truth, Nao."
"They'll still make fun of me."
"They still make fun of me. Because being different in Japan is like being a wolf in a flock of sheep. Except the sheep eat you." He gnashed his teeth and growled. Cornbread bits spotted the torii gate. "We are strong wolves, though, right? We can't let the sheep see that, or they'll get scared off. I don't want to be scary. There's nothing wrong with wolves living with sheep, you know."
"What if I want to be a sheep?"
"You can wear their wool if you want, but you'll look silly."
"Are you saying, 'just be myself?'" I wrinkled my nose at him. "Being yourself" didn't work here. Japan wasn't an American after-school special.
His eyes darkened as though insulted, but he just laughed. "No. That's stupid." He squinted his eyes up at the crooked paper shide above us. "If those paper things there were straight, they'd be boring, huh? But they're not. They're cool. They know they have to zig and zag, or people wouldn't think they're cool. And what if they were straight?"
"But they can't be straight. Shide aren't made that way."
"Right. And if they were, people would yell and scream to change them back. So why try changing what they are?" He stood and stretched. "Being crooked is cool. And if you try to fix yourself, people will see right through it. Got it? My dad says, 'Don't worry about being yourself.' You will be, even if you try not to be. People make fun of you if you try not to be you, right? But if you be what you are, that won't matter. First, you gotta know what you are."
"Your dad is pretty smart."
"He sure is. So you gotta know who you are. So who are you?"
"And what are you?"
I wrung my hands. "Half. Half-Japanese. Hāfu." I slurred out the English loanword with the thickest accent I could muster.
The demon's brows furrowed. "No, you're not. You're not half of anything because your mother wasn't born here. You are Japanese. Like me."
"The shide is Japanese because of the way it's folded. But it's still just paper." He shoved a pointed finger into my chest, striking my cross and making it dig into my skin. "You. Are. Japanese. A bit crooked, but that makes you cool, Nao."
He ran off, leaving me under the torii, embarrassment prickling my cheeks.
My wedding day
Cheeks stained black with running mascara, I stood in my street clothes between two chairs, glaring at the cursed garments I had to wear: an ivory white wedding dress with satin fixings and lace and an equally white kimono embroidered with nigh-invisible bleached cranes. They draped over the backs of each chair like the dead and gutted hides of a pure animal.
A heavy hand settled on my shoulder, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Furiously sniffling and rubbing my eyes, I turned, expecting my husband--only to be confronted by the demon, his lizardlike hands cradling a half-eaten cut of cornbread.
"You're not supposed to be here," I said.
"Relax." Then, as though sensing my disdain at his crime, he crammed another mouthful of bread into his gob. "Stole it off the catering cart. Want some?"
"No. Get out."
"I can't just leave a bride crying in her dressing room, Nao." He adjusted his bow-tie, adorning it with a smattering of crumbs. "Why aren't you dressed?"
Because seeing both dresses laid out before me reminded me of my split culture? Because I can't disappear into the white fabric of the dress nor wear the pasty white makeup the kimono requires without accenting my darker features? Because it feels like I have to choose one culture over the other? What would a demon know, anyway?
"I don't know." I sat on the floor, refusing to look at his pallid complexion and brows furrowing in infuriating confusion. "I guess it feels like I'm being forced to choose between two things that don't fully make sense and one thing I thought I was so sure of."
"It's tradition to wear multiple dresses."
"But why this dress?" An accusing finger directed at the western-style wedding dress pointed my ire.
"It's still a tradition, even between Japanese people who don't have the culture behind it. Didn't you pick it out yourself? Your husband is excited to see you in it, too, you know."
My eyes dropped to the floor where a twisting pattern of grey and red in the carpet seemed to suck my soul right into them. I could be there, between the patterns, pounding at teardrop bars, screaming, and nobody would hear me. Maybe it would be safer to lock myself away.
"Do you just want to wear the kimono?"
I shook my head. "It's not about the dresses. Am I doing right by myself, marrying a..." My eyes began to wet again. "A..."
The demon smiled. His teeth glistened as though drinking in my misery. "Another hāfu?" He laughed. "Uma wa umadzure--horses prefer the company of horses, Nao."
"Birds of a feather flock together," I translated into English, heat tipping my tongue. "That doesn't mean I can't think about everyone who would expect something like that from... someone like me. And be ashamed by it. Does that make me a horrible person?"
"No. Those thoughts really define you. A zigzagging paper shide, Japanese, in all respects."
I glanced at both dresses again; the demon cradled his head in one hand, sucking in a slow breath between the gap in his fangs.
"You're torn between two things," he said, "but not entirely. You speak your mother's language, but you know less of her country than your own. That makes you Japanese with a few perks."
"Does it?" I narrowed my eyes.
"Teenage mutant ninja what?"
I shrugged. "Kōga?"
"Turtles, Nao. Your mother would say that without a beat. But could she name all the ninja clans of Japan?"
"Japanese with a few perks." The demon winked at me then indicated the dresses. "Your husband wouldn't appreciate you doubting your marriage, you know."
"I wish I could walk confidently between two cultures as he does."
"So do it. You eat curry and rice, but you aren't Indian. You drive a Mercedes, but you aren't German. Cultures merge and cultures change. There's no shame in being a part of two different cultures. Nor choosing the best parts of several others to make them your own."
"Because struggling with the choice is what makes you, you, isn't it?"
"It gives me the chance to still be unsure. To still choose the path that's right for me."
"Nao, you don't have to choose anything. Just be you."
"What about your choice to live in your world or ours?"
"To hell with choosing in which world. I chose to live. You did, too, Nao."
I hugged myself, pulling on my sleeve to hide a ragged scar on one wrist.
The demon knelt by me and placed a soft hand over mine. "By forgiving our wrong choices and extending love to all will rid our mind of evil and thoughts of separation. It's not you against yourself, Nao. Or us against them."
"It feels like it is."
"It does, sometimes. Let them think their thoughts and live in their world. But shine your love upon them, anyway. Isn't that what your little man on the cross tells you to do? Shine into the darkness so that you may wake from dreaming a nightmare of life."
My cheeks again prickled with tears.
"I can stop this marriage if you desire. Right now, with a snap of my fingers." He held up his saw-toothed index finger. "If you need more time--"
"No," I shook my head, then stood and snatched up the wedding dress. "Getting married is the only thing I truly feel sure about. This one?"
The demon laughed, then picked up the kimono and draped it over my empty forearm. "The duality of life is in your arms, Nao. If you focus too hard, you will only see a single point."
The demon cleared his throat, his muffled footsteps in the snow slowing. "And the third meeting?"
"Right here. Right now. You, the cold, and the lake."
He glanced out toward the island in the center of the lake, where a spindly cherry tree craned upward, stretching its crooked trunk toward the sky, catching snowflakes. "So, you need me to help you understand one more thing."
"No. I need you to understand."
The demon cocked his head; snow crystals fluttered to his shoulder.
"I've had a hard time understanding what I am. It's given me great pain."
"A pain we both share, as you know."
I nodded. "Pain is like kintsugi, filling in the cracks of a broken bowl with gold, creating something altogether whole, but shattered on the inside."
"But more beautiful than before the bowl was broken in the first place. And stronger, too, Nao."
I smiled. "I guess you already understand."
"I might, but I'm not in your head, you know. All I know is that pain hurts, but how we deal with it becomes our inner strength. And we all deal with it differently. Because we're all different, no matter the color of our skin or where we were born and raised."
"We are against a world that holds hopelessness and hope, ignorance and knowledge, happiness and sorrow. Love and hate."
"Darkness and light." His gaze centered again on the cherry tree.
I stopped and tilted my head up, letting the falling snow melt on my face. "If I focus too much on one thing, like whether I am Japanese or American, or something else entirely, the pressure of all my other choices becomes too much to bear." I took the demon's hand in mine.
He squeezed tight. "Nao, you know I've always said--"
"Be both. But I can't. The choice of one or the other makes me, me. I understand, now. And I want you to as well. I don't have to be Japanese. I don't have to be American. Or both. Or neither. I can be Japanese. Or American. Or both. Or neither. I can always choose whenever I want, anytime I want. I don't have to be defined by what I am, because I can always change what that is."
"Are you avoiding choosing?"
"No. My choice is that I don't have one, and that makes me strong."
A grin gnarled up the demon's face.
"I hated Japan for so many years. Until I saw it as part of me, not as something to strive for. Or an adversary. That's why you and I are different. I am not bound by trying to live in two cultures or worlds at the same time. If I want fish for breakfast, I'm having fish. If someone chides me in English, I'll give them snark right back. If someone calls me foreign in my own land, I can just smile. Because I know what I can be. And that's ever-changing."
The demon's hand slipped out of mine, and his features melted from sharp and ragged, returning to the soft, confident tones of my husband. "Figuring this thing out they call hāfu is so difficult. I'm glad I could spend so many years with you working through what it means. But I must ask, what spurred your sudden answer, Nao?"
"Cornbread. For our grandchildren. I want them to know what they are before they start to question who they are. Because, ultimately, knowing who they are takes a lifetime. Knowing what they are shouldn't."
"And what will you tell them?"
"That they're beautiful. And that even if the blood flowing in them is different, they are Japanese." I winked at my husband. "With a few perks."
"I'll take those perks, too." He held out his hand for another piece of bread, which I gladly offered.
He paused, the cornbread halfway to his mouth, glancing at his white skin peeking out from underneath his down jacket sleeve. He pushed his sleeve back to reveal his skin and the faded, almost invisible scars crisscrossing his wrist, then scarfed down the bread.
"You'll catch a cold."
"Maybe. But I'm choosing not to hide anymore, either." He laughed. "It feels good to get rid of that demon, doesn't it?"
I laughed with him. "It'll be back when doubts creep up on me. Besides, everyone is married to their demons. Only ours can smile back."
Ink to reality
Writing confessions in my lunch hour:
the manuscripts that will never be blessed far.
Couldn't see the future for the past
honing my craft,
though it seems I'll need another draft.
Couldn't sway the suit-stoned man,
glaring at me with hope I had another plan.
Didn't know the static road,
right on the left, turn down and seek your mode.
Switch cracked and the numbers blacked,
Couldn't see the traffic
Creativity seemed to keep stagnant
Jump out and the fish still swim
Tried to get by on yet another whim.
Blunt-faced the critics swore
a shallow river flowed here once before.
Thirst ravages my quenched throat,
with bursts of drinking,
though there's no taste for my thinking.
Dusty lover says it's about time
to break the habit that never was mine.
Dredging songs to break a mold
Empty auditorium--back on the road.
No hits but they strike me back.
Rejection papers--love that stack--
spinning ravers help me stay afloat.
Pen warped as I write my style,
flowing loops of prose filled bile.
Speaking of quitting is a slighted wind,
so I must continue my blighted binge.
Magic ideas cast a torn dragnet...
I only ask to be buried with my reality;
Someday I'll see what's really me!
A beautiful finished project
I spent a month building a beautiful cabinet for our kitchen.
A month of sanding, sawing, and painting, repeating "measure twice, cut once" because my last project had finished after multiple trips to the hardware store for more wood.
And I was done.
I mounted it in the kitchen and asked my wife what she thought.
"Did you measure it correctly?"
My wife stretched out on tip-toes, fingers swiping just shy of the iron handle.
"Did you measure ME correctly?"
A couple gut punches to inspire
The white sheet over the professor's face
wiped all her life's work without a trace.
I asked what she had done
the police pointed to the gun.
Oh how far she had fallen from God's grace!
I gave the emaciated boy ham on rye
He took it with a tear in his eye.
After a single bite,
he gave up the fight.
And the rest became food for the flies.
Money buys the most absurd gifts
There once was a girl with money
Who bought herself a tub full of honey
The moment she stepped in,
and soaked up to her chin,
She realized it was anything but balmy.
What am I?
I lay here, discarded paper towels and bits of corrugated cardboard as my bed, my will to slip back into society sapped. With no roof above, my pockmarked skin browns in the sun.
Pulling strips of newspaper around myself, I tried to think back on the times when I had been happier--when I hadn't been so hollow--to see if I could scrounge up something of my former self.
You see, I had had a family. We were an inseparable bunch--sisters constantly bumping into each other and exchanging blows so much you'd think our parents would have sold us off to the farm.
But each scrape and bruise came from a place of love, and I cherished each scar.
A single man changed our entire life in an instant. At first, I thought I had been lucky to be chosen--my sisters, in fact, had been green with envy. But as soon as he ripped me away from my family, he changed. He became ravenous. Unconsolable. A man who lived for his voracious appetite, and not a single thing, including myself, could stop his violent hunger.
He tore through me, peeling away my self-worth bit by bit until I became nothing but skin and air. I had tried to cry out, tried to warn my family, but each cry had met his muffled grunts that demanded obedience.
After he had finished with me, he went for my sisters.
I opened my eyes.
I had survived somehow. He had taken my pride, my fullness of youth, my dignity. But stringy veins held me, and my skin, though withered, had toughed. Though I lie among refuse, I am not discarded.
One day, I will stand again.
What am I? (Answer below)
(answer: I am a banana peel.)
It began with a list and a picture.
Not a written list, as my wife and I were never that organized, but the way a ship would list to one side in a developing storm.
"He's a bit wall-eyed in one eye," my wife would say.
"Maybe it's just lazy. We'll get his eyes checked at his next appointment."
Sometimes these things correct themself. Maybe he has weak muscles.
Maybe I had no idea what I was talking about.
Often, things are diagnosed in fits of laughter.
And with cake, from time to time.
It was dark; a single candle produced a soft glow on my son's smiling chin.
As I glanced at the photo and cursed the autoflash for ruining the perfect moment with dust motes in focus and shades of gray, a glaring color made my finger hover over the delete button.
His funny eye was shining yellow.
I had heard of red eyes, but this struck me. I took another picture. And others. I borrowed an expensive digital camera. Flash on, flash off. By the time we had all finished our impromptu photo session, we all were seeing spots.
But only one spot mattered: that jaundiced spot that had replaced my son's black pupil.
Is it glaucoma? Cataracts? But he's the only one. A quick internet search turned up eye cancer, retinoblastoma, but then again, the internet IS cancer, so of course that's the solution it is predetermined to give.
I knew my son was one in a million (just like my other one), but the doctor narrowed it down a bit: he was one in one-hundred thousand.
But we had our answer: Coats Disease. It had a name--and that made us feel better, but not by much. It's a congenital disease with no cure, only procedures to lessen its effect. Worst case? He loses the eye. Best case? Almost total blindness. Almost. In that darkness, there lies the sliver of hope. So we began:
Four-day hospital visits.
Major surgery to remove his destroyed retina.
Glasses with a telescope lens.
Morning and night eyepatch therapy.
And now, three years later?
Can he see? Does he still need work done? Will the veins in his eyes continue to leak fluid?
Time will tell. He just turned four. His pupil is skewed to one side due to the surgeries. His eye is still listing, but not as pronounced.
The doctor shined a light in his eye the other day.
"I see yellow."
The doctor smiled. I smiled.
While he may not regain complete sight in his one eye, we were able to save it. I may not know what the future holds, I do know that the light at the end of the tunnel has a color.
And that color is yellow.
You do you
I once met a man who hated rhyme.
He said, "free verse is more sublime!"
I gave him a hug
and replied with a shrug:
"Whatever you like, dude, that's fine."
He moved as an unpredictable blur. His sweat dusted my face. A pungeant musk lingered stale in the stale. Shined dress shoes flit from back to front, back to front. A dragon tattoo covering his right arm mirrored his footwork: a fierce river, the dragon cascaded like a waterfall as his arms tensed and relaxed, throwing jab after playful jab. Eyes stared empty, expressionless, but emotive with calculated fierceness.
The waterfall ricchocheted against sinew. The dragon charged. Pain blinded me--my head rocked back. Blood gushed out my nose and down to my lips. The sharp taste of iron was a good appetizer to this feast.
I could take him. As my eyes came back into focus, I moved with him. His muscles under his skin were his tell. I became his doppelgangar, swaying with the dragon and looking for an opening. His mind was as sharp as his knuckles though, and he caught on to my tactic. His direction changed. Hands moved through stances, guards, and feints. Like a magician, his prestidigitation obscured intent.
The dragon surged forth in a right hook. I weaved and crouched then countered with a blow towards his jaw. This was my opening.
The tiny white hairs on my ear prickled as his fist brushed against them. He had missed. But that was his intent, I only found out after. His fist had only been a shadow to distract. Again, my vision flashed purple as his elbow collided hard with my temple. The dragon snaked downwards, taking my arm with it in a lock. My feet flipped skyward; the floor struck my cheek harder than he ever had.
I came to with him hovering over me.
“You done?” he asked. His eyes drooped, tired, as though the dragonfire had seared away with the end of the fight.
“Never,” I responded, and he hauled me to my feet. There was only one more week left, and I wasn’t anywhere close to being ready.
The Banks of the Great River
If the world we live in is a gateway to the beyond, and if all religions, past and present, are correct, we are in for a wondrous time indeed.
The cattails and reeds of the marsh by the Great River tickled my thighs as I scanned the muddy shores for bodies. The damned ferrymen never checked when people fell—or got tossed—overboard, leaving the bloated corpses for me to dredge up. Respect for the deceased seemed to be for the living.
Which made sense to me, really, being dead myself.
It's actually a pretty good afterlife. The banks defined peace, with an air of cool mint and warmth of Ra. Or Apollo, I suppose, depending on who you asked--or rather, when you asked.
I would have been content to linger here among the lightly lapping shore, but apparently loitering had become sinful at some point. Squinting against the sun, I scanned the riverbank, feigning interest in my immortal task.
A bright red power tie clashing against the soft brown and green tones of the marsh grasses caught my eye. Another of the ferrymen’s droppings. This one seemed to be a businessman in a fine-tailored suit: water-logged Italian if I wasn’t mistaken. That could be the suit or the person, and I made a silent bet with myself as to which it was.
Back to work. A smoke-filled sigh escaped through the part in my lips where a lit cigarette dangled. There never was a moment for deep contemplation or prayer when you were one of the lesser gods, if I could call myself one. I liked to think of myself that way, in any case. The Angel of Death! I was more a glorified janitor, really, than the fearful myth the people conjured in my image. And that image had suffered so much ever since I lost my flaming sword in a poker game with Brahma, the cheat.
Never play cards with a god that has four heads, that's what I say.
The crumpled gray suit in the reeds had seen better days. The man, as well. His stomach strained against an algae-covered dress shirt causing a broad tie with spots of black mold to list to one side. He looked like a bloated sack of old potatoes sprawled, spread-eagled, with one shoe balanced precariously on his big toe that bobbed in time with the waves. A scraggly mess of hair plugs, weeds, and muck had piled on his head and draped over his shoulders. The pockets were empty. Nice wristwatch, though.
Blowing out a long puff of tobacco smoke, I propped the man up on a nearby boulder and salvaged his shoe from the river before it floated downstream.
The man didn’t look so bad; maybe this one would pass for judgment. If not, I could probably slip him under the constant bickering of the gatekeepers--though the bureaucrat, Rhadamanthys, usually cast most of the refuse I dug up into the recycling center with a wave of his ledger and not much coin lining my pocket. One could assume that, from the general filth and pungent stench that permeated the corpses I found, most didn’t make it into the afterlife. That assumption would be mostly true.
Time to see if this soul was worth his weight. The easiest part of my job was the resurrections. It was surprising more people on Earth didn't figure it out, truth be told. Heck, a carpenter managed to do it on himself eons ago without any special training.
It was simply a matter of knowing about the ‘reset’ button that reanimated the body. This one would only need his sloppy vessel to get to the gates. After that, the matter was out of my hands. I shook the man’s shoulder as if rousing him from a deep sleep.
The man’s head lolled back as though on a well-oiled hinge.
Some people needed a jolt. I curled my hands around his neck, feeling for the small lump at the back of his head where the spine met the base of the skull. The Soulspot. My fingers buzzed with a charge, courtesy of Zeus--or Jupiter, depending on whom or when you asked.
I jammed my finger onto his Soulspot. A tiny snap of electrostatic singed hair, and I wrinkled my nose at the sharp smell.
With a gasp, the man twisted from my grip as he contorted and writhed. He rolled over and vomited a steady stream of black bile onto the riverbank, eyes churning from cloudy to nut-brown with each heave. He sat up, swiveling his head in every direction at once.
When I had first taken the mantle of Death, this part had been fun. I used to delight in frightening the newly deceased, complete with a big old skull mask and rusty scythe (it had been better with a sword on fire, truth be told). But that novelty had worn away with routine. Now I dreaded each awakening, sometimes wishing the Big Guy had put in a system to keep souls from losing their memories of this place after each reincarnation. It occasionally came up in council meetings, but his answer was always infuriating: “It’s all part of my plan.” It’d be nice if he let us know exactly what that was.
The man wobbled as he stood and bellowed, “Where am I? Where—what is… Goddamnit! Who the fuck stole my watch?”
It was good to let them blow off some steam first. I had tried to subdue the first hundred newly resurrected, and usually, we had fallen into the Great River and carried downstream. The gatekeepers, particularly Kepha, didn’t take too kindly to an unruly deceased and a janitor exchanging blows near the doorways to paradise. I had gotten an earful from the Anubis each time as well—and he was the rudest, most foul-mouthed god of all. Probably because he was so short.
The man continued to lash out, screaming at nobody in particular, until he collapsed into a wet, blubbering mess, wiping at his eyes. After he had said his Hail Mary’s and prayers to God, he looked up, as though expecting me to fill in the blanks in his memory. I extended my hand and took inventory of his life through our touch as I pulled him to his feet.
“My name is Jack Corvid,” I said with a casual smile.
The man nodded solemnly.
“You had a heart attack on East Main Street and passed away on your way to the hospital. This is the land of the dead.” Keep it simple, for they were simple people.
The man searched his pockets. The dead always seemed to do that first. Maybe they were trying to find themselves in the soggy lint that lined them. One time a man did manage to bring over a Swiss-army knife--I never knew the corkscrew could be a deadly weapon until he had taken a chunk out of me with it.
“I’m S… Samuel,” he stammered. “Gimme your damn phone. I need to call the hospital and my wife and…” His hands dipped into his pockets again, eyes fluttering, perhaps trying to choke back tears, even though that wouldn’t have made a difference either way since he was already sopping wet.
“Yes, I know. Samuel Johnson, the last name you owned.” I dragged on my cigarette and blew a cloud into his face, hoping it would add a dramatic effect to my words.
“What you had in life and what you accomplished doesn’t have any bearing in this world. What matters to us are the connections to others you’ve made, and what you’ve learned spiritually. Judging by your tailored suit, I would imagine you’ve made several great connections. I hope they were genuine. But I am not here to judge your transgressions. Only the gatekeepers can see your truth when they weigh your heart.”
Samuel’s eyes widened.
“Relax, Sam. Can I call you Sam? That’s just an expression. We’re not actually going to rip your heart out and put it on a scale. I mean, Anubis used to, but that was centuries ago. He’s not allowed to do that anymore--it traumatizes the dead.” Although it was pretty funny.
“Are… are you Death?”
“In the flesh... as it were. It’s just a job, Sam. No hard feelings.”
“A job?” Sam smoothed his lapels, water sloughed to the reeds.
“More like cleanup. Don’t worry. You don’t need to know the details unless you’re given work. Maybe you’ll take my job, and they’ll finally let me cross over.” I laughed into the breeze. That didn’t even happen when I dredged up a cannibal. It’s hard for the gods to recommend reincarnation for me when I have no soul to speak of. Well, not anymore. Just an empty vessel. "Unlikely, however, considering ‘Sam’ is your four-thousand, three-hundred and twelfth name. You seem to be going for the record. Some important lesson you haven’t learned yet?”
“Going for a record…” Sam repeated. “The record for what?”
“Reincarnation, of course. Your first name is Salim, and you were first born of thirteen, in the Kashaf Ud Basin in what you would know as Iran. Your current name is Samuel Johnson, third born of four, in the Houston area of the United States. Welcome back.”
Sam spluttered, denying my words, the reality around him, and eventually, his own existence. That would have pissed off a creator if they were in earshot. Shiva would have turned him to dust on sight. Yahweh, being only a creator, would have settled for something more vengeful and vindictive, or even, dare I say, creative. His revenge strategies made for great small talk at company get-togethers. Like when He gave platypuses venomous spikes on their feet to spite a group of tourists to Australia in the seventies. Yahweh had incredible foresight—though He mostly used it for pranks. His face on a bit of burnt toast, for example.
I followed the flow of the river as I tramped through the tall grasses—Sam followed close behind.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Where you need to go."
“Is this heaven?” Sam asked, his voice on the verge of cracking.
He certainly had low expectations. “We’re trudging through a stinking marsh and you’re wearing sloppy, soaked clothes. Is this your idea of paradise?”
“No, but I thought—”
"Fluffy clouds and angel choirs? Trust me, you don’t want a job in the choir. Unless you like long work hours and a sore throat.
“We’re going to the gatekeepers, who will judge you and proclaim your next destination. Probably another round of reincarnation, from the looks of it.” He hadn't been very exemplary while alive. I had done a quick check of his naughty-nice tally, part of his 'life file,' when we touched. It didn’t quite dip low enough to send him to the underworld, but it wasn’t anywhere near paradise levels.
“The… what? Gatekeepers? To judge me? What should I do?”
“Just be polite. Anything you could do to impress Anubis and Kepha has already passed. That was a pun, Sam. You need to laugh more.” I offered a grin.
Sam gripped his tie with the force of a thousand raging demons. “So… the land of the dead, then?”
The dead were always excessively slow to catch on. “Just follow me–oh, god damn it.”
He had paused to regard the water, though what he expected to find in its murky depths was beyond my own reasoning and ability to read his soul. Something about the river always fascinated the recently deceased, though I hoped he would snap out of his trance before I would be forced to drag him away from the shore.
“Have I been ferried across?”
“No. You fell off the boat. You're flotsam, Sam.” The dead always had a million damned questions. They never could accept what they saw with their own eyes—though that attitude was probably vestiges from their time on Earth. Blind faith went both ways.
I quickened my pace, and as luck would have it, he followed. The sooner I was rid of this one the sooner I could get back to ‘work’--smoking and picking up moldy wallets or shoes that had fallen off the boats. At least that was peaceful.
"Is this the River Styx?"
Sometimes it seemed the dead ran their mouths more than the living. Styx indeed. “I wish this was the River Styx. Good benefits. Cool cave, nice breeze, and no marsh grasses. There are several rivers—Phlegethon, Lethe, Acheron, Cocytus… each with their own ferrymen. You've landed in the Ganges.”
“I’ve never been to India, sir.”
Was that a joke? His sheepish smile told me it might have been, so I looked at him sidelong and gifted him a polite laugh. "‘Sir’ is a bit formal. Jack’s fine.”
He snapped off the end of a cattail and twirled it nervously in his fingers, shredding it to fluff as he walked and getting it all over his suit. "Have I chosen right?"
He meant religion. Here we go again. I bit down on my lip to stop a hailstorm of snark. "Faith isn't about being right or wrong."
"Sure, but... there is an answer. I followed the one true religion." Cattail seeds covered the front of his jacket as he tore the head to pieces. "I'm a Christian. A damned Christian, Jack!."
Damned indeed. "And you spent most of your time in a secular world. Once a year for Christmas isn't faith, Sam, it's insurance."
"But I went. And I prayed."
My eyes rolled before I could stop them. "Mostly for yourself, right?" Sam seemed to have been stuck somewhere between faithful and faithless, a spongy state still undefined because "faithmoderate" didn't quite roll off the tongue.
"But I'm no atheist."
"Their faith in the belief they don't have faith is stronger than you think."
"Yet their assuredness would have kept them from falling off the boat."
Sam's mouth twitched in anger. "What about cults? Surely--"
"Even some cultists have a form of faithfulness. If they wanted to believe in a flying spaghetti god, one of our own would eventually lay claim to having been that being. Or several would, and we would have an insurrection, which generally ended up with several gods sharing the role on certain days of the week."
He furrowed his brows, likely upset that we would give cults any credit at all. "That's ridiculous. Just what kind of man do you think I am? I'm not fucking dumb. False religions are--"
"Who are you to decide what's false or not? Look, it's not my job to debate religion with every vessel that comes to my shores." And it was infuriating--because it was all they ever babbled on about. Why couldn't an athlete who died making an amazing play wash up and brag about how great it felt to break his neck but win the game? That would make for a fun story to one-up someone with at a meeting. "Look around you, Sam. What do you think the gods want?"
"Loyalty. And I--"
"Faith, Sam. Just that. It doesn't matter what religion you signed up for, just that you believed in it, walked with it, and died with it. Life was for you to love. To make spiritual connections with others and live for your faith, whether you believed in any one god, a few of them, or none at all. And you were into spirituality for your own damned selfish reasons. You think any of the gods would have liked that?"
Tears wetting the corners of his eyes, he clamped his mouth shut--at last. Now maybe he would walk in silence.
After a few hours of trekking through the marsh, with Sam grunting after long introspective intervals but never quite forming thoughts into words, the docks before the cavern to the gates of the afterlife came into view over a dip in the path. A ferryman’s white paddle steamer had been secured to them with a thick barbed chain--Kharon's, from the look of the glistening red paddle off the backside. It contrasted badly with the rusty, moss-covered body of the rest of the skiff. He was probably inside the Cave of Judgement, trading bodies and banter with the gatekeepers—the worst brown-noser of all the ferrymen. Probably the only thing St. Peter and I had in common was our mutual distaste of Kharon and his personality that was best described as "loud."
Confronting the gatekeepers with Kharon flitting about their feet wasn’t going to score me any points with them. I had a few things to go over with Sam anyway, and with some luck, Kharon would be long gone by the time we entered the Cave.
Herding Sam under one of the docks where the water of the Ganges flowed to just a trickle, I halted our march by a rotten post and offered him a cigarette.
Sam stared at my offer, face contorting as though sorting through a logic puzzle that was missing half its pieces. "Sin stick?"
He declined anyway. His loss.
"I'm scared, Jack."
I smirked. Judging by his pulse and temperature, he was angry--not scared. Was he already using a narcissist's final ploy to tear at emotions to get his way? Sam hadn't learned anything during his time alive. Neither had Narcissus, either--and the mere thought of that old gazer made me queasy. "Are you truly scared, Sam? Or are you upset that you don't have control?"
With a volume rivaling Kharon's, his entire life story spilled out from his rotten mouth. Nothing he had done was his fault—something that wouldn’t sit well with the gatekeepers. The ‘path to the righteous’ was admitting your follies, or something. Though it wasn't my duty to be his confessional, I nevertheless snuck in suggestions of pious reflection, though each was met with a quick denial or excuse. The smell of death--a fruity stench of month-old raspberries, which is what you get when you let the god of wine, Bacchus, have a hand in creation at a drunken party--became more pungent the more he ran his mouth.
"You should tell your charge to save their breath in this place, Jack, or else you'll be dragging another empty vessel before the gatekeepers again." A heavy hand bore down on my shoulder and spun me around—Kharon. My skin crawled. The damned ferryman must have heard us from inside the Cave and come out to spread his greasy attitude all over my pep talk.
With a smile of muddy silk and a wreath of laurels that sat crooked on his head, covering his male-pattern baldness and bringing a sort of elegance to the wrinkled, reddish-brown tunic open to his naval, he cocked his shoulders back like he owned the Ganges and sauntered over to Sam. But not before squeezing my shoulder in a way to display his sculpted muscles.
“Wonderful! I see you’ve dug up my leftovers," he said, running a finger down Sam's cheek as he circled him like a wolf would a young shepherd. "What a fine bit of sacred refuse you have brought! I dare ask, Jack, if you think this man will put even a minuscule dent in your debt?”
God damn you, Kharon. “I don’t have a debt,” I lied.
Kharon faced Sam, licking his lips. “Tall and dark--if you didn’t have such a potbelly, you’d be Greek perfection, despite, or maybe because of, your sharp Roman nose.” He hung an arm around Sam’s shoulders. “Beautiful facial symmetry. I bet you had a gaggle of ladies pining after you. Men, too.” He laughed. “Don’t listen to Jack, Sam.” Kharon shoved a manicured finger toward me. “He’s using your soul as payment to get his own back. He's not even licensed!”
Kharon wouldn’t flinch at my stink eye, but I gave the ferryman the evilest I could anyway.
Sam ducked out of Kharon’s embrace and took a few steps back, a wild gaze darting to the both of us. Kharon’s grin widened along with Sam’s eyes. The ferryman wouldn't ever forgive me for that time I short-changed him at a company picnic--a petty transgression, but I had learned ever since that the gods and those under them ran the universe on petty grudges.
“Nothing’ll come of that one, you hear me?” Kharon belted out as he laughed his way to his skiff. “Sisyphus is going to love hearing about this. You’ll be paying your debt until the end of time, Jack!”
I kicked a stone into the river in Kharon’s general direction as the boat pulled away from the dock, then turned an eye to the jagged rocks rounding out the entrance to the Cave of Judgement. The gatekeepers were waiting, and the sooner I could get rid of Sam, the sooner I could get as far away from the docks as possible before Kharon’s next load.
“Are you going to sell my soul,” Sam blubbered.
Only if I can haggle a good price. “Let’s go.” Yanking Sam by his blazing cherry-red tie, I hauled him toward the Cave.
One more soul closer to freedom.