Follow the Devil / Follow the Light

Part Eight: Corpse Delivery

This is part seven of Follow the Devil/Follow the Light. Read all the previous parts here.

Corpse Delivery

 

In a rare display of ecumenicism, most theologians affirm that demons cannot die. Immortality forbids it. What is less well known, however, is that demons reside on an ontological spectrum, a degenerative gradient of being. Among humans, consciousness lends itself to various states of agency and volition. The lull between “sleep” and “awake” is residence unto itself, and the daydream has its own zip code. The same can be said of the fallen angels and the dimensions they inhabit. “I rebel, therefore I am,” a proverb of existential solidarity among the damned.[1]

Morte Magari had worked tirelessly to achieve its present form. The body allowed it to roam at will in search of victims like Joe Muggeridge, offered seniority among minor devils, kept Magari free from the waterless places,[2] and liberated it from the “middle class” of oppression and possession. A demon could spend millennia tapping on walls, lurking as a pair of eyes in the mildew of basements, impersonating dead saints in abandoned monasteries, or tormenting patients in hospital wards before reaching a higher plateau of consciousness. The mere thought of it brought a howl to Magari’s lungs. The Skin’s prophecy was most unwelcome.

Someone (the roll of potential candidates burgeoned by the day) wanted Magari dead. Not sincerely dead like mortals, but constrained, diminished to a life not worth living. The day job of Ameba. The social life of Plankton. The tedious reproduction of single-celled Protozoa. The possibilities were legion. Terrorism was the preferred method of choice. The more violent the better.

Colonel Ipos was relieved from command of thirty-six regiments, goose plucked, and pitched from the southern battlement of Hell’s Hadrian Wall. Mephistopheles was drawn and quartered by jealous brothers after his wild success with Dr. Faustus.[3] Furcas was reduced to ash in a Wicker Man. And the demons still used hushed tones when The Tragedy of Ornius the Destroyer was raised in impolite conversation.

Morte Magari had no desire for this brand of infamy. Such demons were a punchline at The Devil’s Piss and Canker and Abscess routinely mocked their names over the airways for shits and giggles. It was the worst sort of humiliation for a demon of Magari’s standing. It would not be endured.

The demon watched as Catlyn Gruit was stolen away by two seraphim from the Zoological Emporium. Magari had sung baritone in the celestial choir and knew them both by name. Choir boys. Wankers. None of this was going as planned. Magari had expected Joe to trip up by now, whiff the ball at bat, but no, he’d outsmarted both the Abacus and The Order of Avarice on the very first try. Equally perplexing was the fact that Joe’s virtues were seemingly inspired by The Weltschmerz rather than beaten under the twin villains of dread and despair. There had been no great catastrophe, no faux pas severe enough to force her hand into play.

No matter. They were now less than a mile from the marquee and The Worm King would be waiting. Standard transport. Corpse included. Joe’s final labor would take them to the Sea of Pandemonium. The Violent Against Beauty.

“Men and women float on a dead sea,” Magari said aloud. “All drown but cannot drown. Pandemonium. Your sister among them.”

Magari had watched the twins those many years ago. Watched their innocence with envy. For years it had plotted, bided its time to perch on Joe Muggeridge’s IKEA kitchen table and piss on the floor. And finally, the boy had become sufficient bait for the demon’s ungodly scheme. By the horned brow of Lucifer, by the twenty-three Elders of Avernus Mobile, Morte Magari would have her for its meat.

“O taste and see that Nora Muggeridge is good.”[4]

* * *

“At this point, we’re just trying to keep him comfortable.”

The nurse wrote illegible notes on a dry erase board mounted to the wall, refilled the Styrofoam cup with ice, and walked out. Joe hated the nurse and his stupid neon slippers. He hated room 421 on the fourth floor of Providence Regional Cancer Partnership Center in Everett, Washington. He hated driving up and down I-5 with Wendy to visit Dad from Issaquah. But most of all, Joe hated pancreatic cancer.

Joe sat on a hard plastic chair next to his father’s bed with a hardback copy of the third Harry Potter slung over one knee. Wendy Muggeridge held Paul’s hand in a posture of prayer. A suitcase was in the corner next to a bag of half-eaten fast food and a coffee tumbler. The heart monitor began to beep at irregular intervals, daring Wendy and Joe to lose hope. Mother and son sat in the helpless knowledge that if anything was going to happen, it would happen soon.

Cancer had taken the breathing soul of Paul Muggeridge and replaced it with a husk. The flush of health had left his face. Like an anemic tent frame, the skeleton intimated a vitality that had departed weeks ago. Joe could no longer see the father that carried both twins upstairs on his back before bedtime, or the carpenter that built a tree fort in the backyard. Wendy could no longer see the grinning husband who hauled in the Christmas tree through the front door each year and into the living room, or the lover who brought her coffee in bed every morning. Paul’s chemotherapy had left a living shadow, but even cenotaphs have shadows, and Wendy and Joe Muggeridge were determined to honor the husband/father they had once known.

“Lord, let your servant depart in peace as you have promised.” Wendy opened her eyes with a tender pause to look at Joe. “You’re my best,” she said.

“I know,” Joe said, recalling their trip to Espresso Paradiso when the news arrived via post.

At that moment, Paul Muggeridge opened his mouth wide enough to speak a single word of his own. From some impossible region of his psyche, he found the strength to bring two syllables up from his oxygen drenched lungs, past the lulling morphine haze of his mind, and into the atmosphere of room 421.

“Nora?”

He said her name like a question.

He said her name as though she had just entered the room to stand next to him.

And then, everything that was Paul Muggeridge left that room for good.

* * *

“Two hundred twenty-nine. Two thirty. Two thirty-one.” The Worm King was counting bats as they flew above his head. And not just any bats. Lycanarian Bats. One of only two species native to the realm. He was so preoccupied with his numbers that he failed to notice an enormous root obstructing the path he had followed for nearly an hour. It caught the wheelbarrow with enough force to send one of the handles deep into The Worm King’s gut.

“By Baphomet!” he cursed. The corpse in the wheelbarrow, draped in a maroon tarp, jostled about like bloated gelatin. The body’s legs protruded out the front end. The right hand was missing, a hastily orchestrated “midnight snack” for one of The Worm King’s pets. The torso itself was a deception, a gutted shell for the illegal IED The Worm King had devised in secret. He had measured the ammonium nitrate, soldered the remote detonator wiring by hand, carefully aligned the blasting caps, and then stuffed the corpse until it was nothing more than a demolition scarecrow. To the untrained eye, the body was merely another corpse The Worm King delivered to the various blood rituals and magick incantations of Hell. The Worm King was an accomplished tailor, and the cosmetic work was convincing enough to hide the stitches.

CODA’s library project back at the Tours had constrained his mission. Fortunately, he’d done enough for a day’s labor, devised excuses, and would return to work as soon as the deed was done. Magari’s contract, rendered in Joe’s blood, was legally binding. Anything of that sort took precedence over the menial exercises CODA assigned on a whim.

“Magari!” The Worm King seethed. “I … will … have … my … vengeance,” he said, rocking the wheelbarrow back and forth with every word. Mud splattered against his shins until he finally gained enough momentum to get the front wheel up and over the root. A mile to go and he’d be at the marquee.

HEAVEN KNOWS.

ANYTHING GOES.

He’d always liked the Great American Songbook, the decadence of the Jazz Age, and the endless procession of Gatsbys who wore their tragedy like a pompadour into the gaudy chateaus and tennis clubs of Hell. The Worm King had been meticulous in his plot, but it was too early for champagne. The device had been constructed without incident, Mordecai’s prying inquisitions had been kept at bay, the corpse had yielded with a single blow to the head, and Magari suspected nothing. Success was a given, so long as the boy didn’t get in the way. Everything was aligned and on schedule. An old show tune dredged itself from the mildew of his memory. The Worm King began to sing to himself as the wheelbarrowed corpse inched down the crooked path.

In olden days a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking

Now, heaven knows

Anything goes.

Good authors, too, who once knew better words

Now only use four letter-words

Writing prose

Anything goes.[5]

Flatland

 

The pain began to subside as soon as Catlyn Gruit vanished from sight. Joe ventured to remove his hand from the Mouth of Mammon and encountered no resistance. He expected a gruesome sight, hand reduced to hamburger, an invalid stump, but apart from a blister on the palm and swelling to rival a beet, it was fine. Howling to the touch, but otherwise intact.

The massive airship retracted its hose in a hissy fit, emitted a rasping admission of defeat, and immediately began to lose altitude above the plaza. Joe felt the vessel’s threat arc in a slow nosedive toward him. Banners went limp. One of the calcified bone plates dislodged itself from the hull to pulverize an iron cage far below.

The Order of Avarice scattered like billiard balls, save the priest, whose ordination compelled him to don the plague mask a second time, mount the altar, and receive his god with open arms.

“You have caused great disharmony within the Mind of Mammon,” the priest said, his voice constrained by the mask. “You have disordered the order of his appetite. Prepare for his judgement!”

Joe left the priest to his death wish and dashed from the altar toward the east avenue of the ZOOLOGICAL EMPORIUM. The priest’s ceremonial dagger whizzed past his head. The ciborium missed its target as well. The host of solidus coins hit cobblestone.

“Come back here,” the priest commanded, but his words were hollow, defrocked in the aftermath of Joe’s heroism. Morte Magari, equally unnerved by the threat of the airship, joined Joe’s footrace down the street. Prisoners on either side of the avenue shook the bars of their cages in desperation. Joe played Lot’s wife and looked back to prepare himself for the eventual impact of the ship. He was also curious if the priest was truly committed to martyrdom. The priest remained a fixed mark upon the alter. No agnosticism there.

The VR victims cried out in dismay as the welded copper pipes snapped from the falling airship. The pipes fell like flagpoles and clanged against the metal cages of the Emporium’s avenues. Some, but not all, of the victims attempted to abandon their enslavement. They intuitively pressed the release button on the back of their headsets, climbed free of the trench, and managed to escape the imminent catastrophe.

“You sure know how to make an impression,” Magari panted.

“That was for Catlyn,” Joe replied, struggling to keep his sprint.

“The marquee and Flatland. Up ahead. Mile or so,” Magari said between drags of oxygen. They reached the outer brick wall of the EMPORIUM and cleared the gate when the living airship collided into the plaza, blew its brains out in a metallic blast of bone, steel, and smoke. There were fireworks to rival a zeppelin, incendiary cocktails of fire and ash, as Joe and the demon were chased down the avenue by a concussive shock wave. It caught their heels in time to throw them airborne a good ten feet. They landed face down in the dirt, shaken but unscathed.

“I did it,” Joe said as he rolled onto his back.

“Are you kidding?” Magari quipped with a groan. “You just gave CODA a field day.”

* * *

Many a cartographer has tried and failed to commit Hell’s latitude and longitude to a map. The Mathers-Bailey expedition of 1911 was ambushed in the field. Multiple attempts to chart the topography via astral projection were thwarted by psionic Elementals. The United States military even invited a delegation of peyote and LSD enthusiasts from the University of Oregon to perform a drug-induced geological survey of Gehenna at the infamous Area 51 facility in southern Nevada. Code-name: “Persephone Tripping.” Your tax dollars at work. Such efforts were all but abandoned in the twenty-first century as the inhabitants of Earth faced a political and ecological hell of their very own.

What can be said with certainty is that Hell is a plagiarist. There’s nothing the Creator has made that Hell’s denizens don’t feel obliged to steal. The persistent irony, however, is that such efforts only reinforce the splendor of the genuine article. Artificial pancake syrup is no match for the Sugar Maple forests of Vermont, grape juice is never wine, margarine is not butter, and that sodium enriched mystery meat is a gastronomical affront to grilled steak. And yet, we choose the counterfeit, the fake substitute, sometimes by necessity, often by choice, each and every day.

Hell was replete with forests, streams, mountains, and valleys, but they wore their illusion like the depression of fake flowers. It was worse than a void, this perennial reminder of the “real.” Imagine for a moment the near-verdant near-blossom that daily confronts the damned. Imagine further the lost potential of apples for strudel, the atmospheric chill that awakens snow, or the slant of light after rain that gives rise to a rainbow. All such hopeful intimations departed. Existence, but never entelechy, as far as the eye could see.

The ridge where Joe and Magari had first emerged from the cave loomed from the north over the volcanic valley with its marquee and sprawl of waste. Due west was the forest with its Abacus and ZOOLOGICAL EMPORIUM. A desert, vast and largely uninhabited save for an industrial district and rumors of wandering jinn, occupied the east. To the south, the Sea of Pandemonium. Tartarus below. And above, the insurmountable firmament with its black star. There were other regions, including the capital of DIS and the Market of Souls, but they would take lifetimes beyond the life of Joe Muggeridge to explore.

The marquee was a reliable beacon, a curio, one of six informal trading posts used for corpse delivery. The Worm King had arrived moments ago, peckish and sore after four hours of pushing his way through the mire. He dropped both handles of the wheelbarrow with heedless indifference as soon as the front wheel hit the towering steel post of the marquee. He had tried all sorts of diversions to pass the time: counting footsteps, guesstimating the number of pomegranates that hung in rot along the path, finding the median average of rusty creaks and squeaks per quarter mile that emanated from the wheelbarrow. A zero-sum game. He wondered if this didn’t explain his obsessive fixation with Magari’s demise, or the incendiary math hidden within the confines of a corpse. Now there were some meaningful numbers. Vengeance squared.

The human caravans Joe and Magari had witnessed from the ridge had left by now, their trinkets and trash strewn about below the florescent light of the marquee. The Worm King glanced over the goods like eyes in a thrift store, mildly interested, but noncommittal. He should have been more alert as he stopped to examine a pair of garden shears next to a busted coffee machine. Morte Magari and Joe Muggeridge descended into the valley from the west and had managed to evade his notice. The Worm King flinched, rookie mistake, when the unnerving voice of Morte Magari sounded directly behind him.

“Stopped raining humans I see.”

“Er … yes, ” The Worm King replied, startled. He spun around to place a hand on one of the wheelbarrow handles. “Busy day for recombobulation I suppose.” He shot a glance to the east.

“You have the body?” Magari asked. There was no pretense of a formal greeting.

“You know I’m good for it.” The Worm King said with a tap of his hand on the handle.

“As specified in the contract?”

“This body is so fresh I wouldn’t be surprised if it granted you access to his magisterial throne before your first paddle stroke in Pandemonium.”

“And you will depart as soon as I obtain a written signature?”

The Worm King made a derisive “X” in the air. “Our law-abiding Puritan,” he said with a nod to Joe.

“You’re not here to speak to him.” Magari hissed a flash of tongue.

The Worm King knew in an instant that Magari’s abduction plan had been compromised like the others. He could tell by the curl of Magari’s lip, the impatience of its right foot, and the simple fact that, well, the boy lived. Magari was on defense, holding out for some miraculous mishap before the final buzzer. Brilliant, he thought. Wizard.

“Now finish the transaction and be gone.”

“Have you a pen Mr. Stickler?” The Worm King asked belligerently. The foreknowledge of Magari’s doom, the endgame stitched into the corpse’s innards was assurance enough for The Worm King’s lack of inhibition. One hundred eighty minutes from now, he thought to himself. Maybe two hundred. No more than two hundred forty. And Morte Magari would be no more.

Have you a pen Mr. Stickler?” Magari repeated in a mocking tone. The demon produced one with a slight of hand only to thrust the contract and pen toward The Worm King’s face. “Sign and off with you, you sophomoric excuse for a delivery boy. And why the wheelbarrow? Ever think to upgrade to at least a wagon or maybe a rusty pickup? That would suit you. Nothing penetrates that worm ridden head of yours. Now scurry back to that cathedral of yours and stack a few more books for CODA … you Little Cherub.”

The Worm King went hot, felt the pulse along the sides of his neck quicken.

Keep it together, he thought. So close. The Worm King took a deep breath, snatched the contract and pen from Magari, and used the tarp as a table to sign his Hancock. “And there it is,” he said. “Nothing a Little Cherub wouldn’t do.”

“That’s the subservient spirit!” Magari exclaimed, missing the irony. It snatched back the contract as the pen dissolved to mist in The Worm King’s left hand.

“We come at last to your third and final labor,” Magari said. “The Sea of Pandemonium. The Violent Against Beauty.”

“It’s the one from my vision back at the apartment.” Joe couldn’t believe it. Revulsion married curiosity. The wheelbarrow was identical to the one he had seen in his lucid dream. “Who was he?” Joe inquired.

“In life? One of the anonymous dead,” The Worm King offered. “Casualty of the Great War, I think. Wasn’t any trouble to harvest. I’d hear him yell about Somme, the barrel of his Lebel burning after too many rounds, and the smell of the trench as he made big shadows outside the Tours along with the others. Not that it matters.”

“It matters to someone,” Joe retorted.

“Not anymore.”

“Indeed,” Magari interjected, steering the conversation away from the corpse. “And he’s yours to helm.”

“To this sea you’re talking about?” Joe asked.

“South to the Sea of Pandemonium. Yes. You’ll receive further instruction there.”

“Well,” The Worm King interrupted, “I best vanish. Never wise to keep CODA waiting.”

“You do that,” Magari replied with a frosty dismissal. The Worm King puffed out his chest like a general and gave the official salute to his comrade.

“Hail, Lord Satan, Beelzebub Sovereign and Radiant Light Bearer.”

“Hail, Lord Satan, Beelzebub Sovereign blah … blah … blah. Be gone!” Magari cursed. Contract settled, the two parties split like an amicable divorce to hike their separate ways. Or so it seemed. Magari, Joe, and their dead companion headed south. But as The Worm King began the slog north, away from the marquee, up the high ridge to the cave entrance and down its gullet to the Tours, he made motion to double back when he was certain Magari wouldn’t notice. Morte Magari. Verity of his hate. Villain of a beating black heart. He’d follow them all the way. Witness the bloodsport like an avid spectator, detonator in hand. Strike a blow for Little Cherubs everywhere.

Sic semper tyrannis.[6]

* * *

Joe labored behind the wheelbarrow as Magari managed a leisurely stroll. They had ascended a steep southern incline, a natural demarcation between the marquee with its waste and the commanding marsh that now stretched before them, when Magari decided to run commentary.

“Hell Major. Flatland. The Valley of Hinnom, where our Lord enacted his fortunate fall. Stripped of his beatific rank, he fell like a meteor, blazed across the divine hostility of space with a light of his very own. He landed here, that great morning star, smacked the earth with enough seismic force to draw up mountain ranges and the high ridge we stood on beyond the marquee. It was a day of great calamity for all confederate angels, but it also left us dead to heaven’s demands, unmoored in our agency, a headspace to call our own.

“You can still see the crater. There,” Magari pointed, “as near a grave as he’ll ever know.” The pit was the marsh’s only landmark. A mortar blast. A lunar cavity. The surrounding mire itself was a harrowed tract of soil that opened southward toward a vast gray sea. There were shards of bone, marrow sucked, and scattered about like shells during low tide. There were broken skulls planted about in the black earth like stones. It was a potter’s field. A lifeless Iowa. A readymade antithesis to the spiral of evergreens, salmon waterways, jagged mountain peaks, and crustacean tide pools that Joe called home.

Joe set the wheelbarrow and corpse down at the top of the hill. He could hear the crash of waves, the persistent negotiation of white noise between land and sea. There were no Bosch-like cauldrons of boiling blood on these shores. No heretics on racks. Nothing to occupy a sadist looking for a good time. All evil doers had departed. Hitler, for one, was nowhere to be seen, and not a single pedophilic priest or televangelist was on hand for demons to force feed the bitter gall of their exploitation and grift. The visible isolines of judgment and justice that Joe had come to expect from Hell’s geography were notably absent.

“This is the big show? The main event?” Joe inquired.

“Yes,” the demon said. “Disappointed?”

“It’s unremarkable.” Joe ventured to say more but came up short.

“What were you expecting?”

“More spectacle, I guess.”

“Life is a flatland. A missive in blank.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“It doesn’t matter. Entropy believes that. The bodies that fertilize the cemetery you pass on the way to work echo the same refrain as the valley before you: “In the midst of life, we are in death.”[7]

“Strange that I even give a damn,” Joe replied.

“That is the human nature. Giving a damn, as you say, got you this far.”

“And why should that be?”

“You are haunted by the memory of Eden.”

“Go on.”

“You can’t help yourself. Hope is the canker sore you can’t stop tonguing.”

“You bet I have hope,” Joe replied angrily. “Those are people back there,” he said with a look behind him. “Living people. And if there’s nothing I can do about it, if this journey is just some sham morality play with no hope for them, no hope for me, no hope for a dead father, no hope for Nora, then I’m done,” he said. “I’d just as soon join the ranks of the dead.”

Magari paused, sincerely contemplating what Joe had just said. “The Weltschmerz has nothing to do with morality. And certainly nothing to do with play. Everything before you (and everything behind) is merely the good, the right, and the beautiful in absentia.”

“It’s still unjust.”

“And who do you blame?”

“God.”

“The one you don’t believe in?”

“Yes. That God.”

“And what if I told you this divinity of yours, the one you don’t believe in, has nothing to do with this place?”

“I’d call you a liar.”

“Me? Morte Magari? Your consummate guide? Your misplaced desire manifest? Your inviolate, incarnate vice?”

“Yes, a liar.”

“Then you stay in Hell until you know it’s true.”

“Which part?” Joe asked.

Wine Dark Sea

 

“Home,” the demon said. They descended the ridge, slogged across the arduous fen with its Luciferian crater, and stood on the banks of a windswept sea. Water and sky coalesced into various shades of gray: sometimes the matte of sheet rock, sometimes the cable static of channel three, sometimes the complexion of a whale. Sounds rose from the aerated soil like drowning insects as siphons of methane bubbled up to the surface. The smell of peat moss and seaweed hung in the air as Joe watched waves rake small pebbles out with the tide only to fling them back against the beach like low grade munitions of shot.

“What do you mean, home?” Joe asked.

“All life begins in the sea. After the weapon-weather of paradise, we found ourselves in Pandemonium, renegade without a life jacket. Those that didn’t manage to crawl up onto these shores contented themselves out there in the depths, welcomed the blindness of anglerfish, probed the sea floor like squid. We all reeked of brine and shellfish in the early days of the Aftermath. Survived as best we could. I’ll never forget how we scavenged about for wood and rubbish to keep the beach fires going. Oh, we danced like happy heathens. We scrawled obscenities in the sand. We named each and every one of our grievances to a dumb sky.

“And this is the place?” Joe asked. “The final sequence of The Weltschmerz?”

“The Violent Against Beauty. Yes,” Magari affirmed. They watched the sea pummel the shore: an ecological churn of beer suds, cadavers, blanched sea life, and Icarian birds. Fish scales floated on the surface like cinders. Pale fish, eyes no longer sea-nymph enchanted, hung in a dead current.

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”[8]

“The Shadow knows,” Joe finished.

“I didn’t expect you to catch that one.”

“My dad collected Old Time Radio when I was a kid,” Joe replied.

“Good man, Paul Muggeridge.”

“Yes, he was,” Joe said. “He was a very good man.”

“Well, don’t expect to find him out there as well,” Magari chastened with a glance out to sea. “That wasn’t part of the deal.”

“Nora doesn’t belong out there either.”

“How are you so sure?”

“It’s the only thing I’m sure about anymore.”

An incoming wave now rose high enough along the shoreline to drown Joe’s sneakers. The frigid water caught his breath by surprise, hit ankles like a string of ice cubes down the spine. He took his frustration out on the wheelbarrow, rocked its weight in corpse back and forth until he was able to clear it from the sand where it had begun to sink.

“Believe what you like. We wait for Charon the Folk Singer,” Magari directed.

“Folk singer? And what then?”

“We sail this mute friend of ours southward. Offer sacrifice before one of the Indwelling Thrones. Survive, and a reunion with Nora is certain. Corpse for corpse. Eye for eye. Tit for tat.”

“Indwelling Thrones?”

“Don’t you like surprises?”

“Not anymore. Not from you. I’m only surprised we got this far.”

“Are you now? I hear love lands you humans in places far more dire than what you’ve had to endure. Recall the myth of Orpheus, the felo de se of Dido, or, if you prefer a vision of storge: the vengeful fury of Electra and Orestes. The heart has its reasons that Reason knows not of.”[9]

As soon as Magari uttered these words a rowboat, five meters long, appeared amid the gray succession of waves. A mining lantern hung from the bow of the vessel, the sputtering light from its candle all but negligible. The weathered hull was a crust of barnacles. A fizz of sea foam. At the stern, a heavyset hunchback of a man sang weary blues with an acoustic guitar. Water sloshed about in the sound hole of the instrument as strings salted to rust. Eager strumming had stripped varnish from the mahogany grain as sea mollusks clung to the body and headstock. Charon the Folk Singer had abandoned any pretense of navigation, set oars to oar locks, and trusted the warp and weft of the tide to bring him safely to shore. Joe could just make out Charon’s lyrics above the surf.

All kinds of people, wanna change the world

But I’m not, one of them.

All kinds of people, wanna rule the world

But I’m not, one of them.

 

They take our conscience in the morning,

They condescend in the afternoon,

Call the hell they’ve made a heaven,

Judgement Day is coming soon.

 

All kinds of people, wanna change the world

But I’m not, one of them.

All kinds of people, wanna rule the world

But I’m not, one of them.

 

They feign outrage in the morning,

They rally troops in the afternoon,

Speak for God against the sinners,

Judgement Day is coming soon.

 

Charon ended the final verse as the vessel washed ashore. Setting down the guitar, he hoisted a black anchor up from his feet and chucked it onto the beach like a careless chore.

“Quite the song,” Joe said as he and Magari helped pull the craft further aground.

“Only song I’ve got left,” Charon replied. “Got stuck out there taking a few souls to their kingdom come. Had to finally commend them to the sea and turn back. Quite a tempest when you hit ten fathoms, and then, well, it’s pandemonium any way you set rudder. You two ready? Says on the invoice you’re hauling corpse. That right? We might get lucky, find a smooth patch to sail through if there’s nothing irregular.” He produced a sopping invoice from his back pocket, wrung it out with a fist, and opened it to scrutiny.

“You’re late,” Magari chided.

“Late my ass,” Charon said without breaking his gaze from the receipt. “You see the weather out there?”

Charon the Folk Singer was blind in one eye, the socket lidless and wrinkled to a peach pit. Red suspenders held up a pair of rolled trousers. No shoes. No shirt. Salt and pepper hair was pulled back to form a bun. He retrieved a flask from beneath the bench he was sitting on and took a swig only to issue a violent hacking cough. A scattering of maritime maps, astrological charts, a nineteenth century diving helmet, and a copper oxygen tank were at his feet. A formidable whaling harpoon rested its menace to his immediate right.

“That’s no excuse.”

“Like to see you try,” came the retort as Charon put away the flask. He looked over at the corpse and wheelbarrow. “Says I received payment a fortnight ago. Need to see your invoice number to verify authenticity. Where exactly are we taking this departed friend of yours?”

“South,” Magari replied curtly.

“Care to be more specific?”

“South.”

“Gotcha. Covert. Have to charge extra then.”

“You would bamboozle!”

“I don’t make the rules Magari. I only enforce them. You’re welcome to register a complaint with CODA,” Charon said like a salesclerk.

“Well at least help me with the wheelbarrow and corpse if you’re going to nickel and dime this one,” Magari said.

Charon was instantly compliant. He knew when to press his luck and when to call the deal. Fortune smiled as the three of them hoisted the cumbersome barrow over the prow to rest its weight across two of the rowboat’s four broad benches. Joe and Magari climbed aboard when they were satisfied the wheelbarrow was secure.

“How are we supposed to get out there?” Joe asked with a motion seaward. Charon produced a catatonic tuning whistle from his pocket, incanted a few primitive syllables, and blew the Devil’s chord in tritone. There arose a frantic agitation of sand beneath the boat as hundreds of white crustaceans slowly lifted the hull into the air. An army of claws skitter-scratched the rowboat toward the sea until it was deep enough for Charon’s broad shoulders to remove oars from their locks, the biceps of his arms like great hams, and row the boat out beyond the surf.

“South then?” he asked between oar strokes.

“That is correct,” Magari replied.

“Well, get comfortable lads. There’s a whole lot of south to cover in that general direction.” The wind asserted itself the further they strayed from shore. Joe looked at the corpse from the bench where he was sitting and worried he might see the famine of its face peek out from beneath the tarp, inquire after the time, ask for a beverage, monologue. Stay right where you are, he thought, as a northeasterly wind whipped and fluttered the tarp every which way.

They had been at sea for several hours when a great williwaw brewed up from the same shore where they had embarked. The sea went wine dark, unleashed its vim and vigor against the rowboat, slapped the prow, and threatened to take it under in a diluvian squall.

“Same cloudburst I run into with the others,” Charon remarked. He worked the oars to keep the boat topside, strained as the sky opened a torrent above their heads.

The advent of rain prompted Magari to produce a music box, the size of a tea cake. The box was constructed of gunmetal steel with a tiny handle machined from brass. An intricate depiction of the Kraken from Norwegian lore was embossed on the lid. Magari slowly cranked the handle with its thumb and index finger until dulcet chimes sang from the steel comb and revolving cylinder of pins. A fine mist emerged from four tiny exhaust valves positioned along the box’s side paneling.

“What are you doing?” Charon screeched. “Is that what I think it is?!”

“A Summoning?” Magari said, careful to maintain a steady rhythm with the crank. “Yes.” Delicate bells rang out amid the bellows of the sea.

“Out here? Dash it all! No way I’d grant passage if I’d known your plot. Your reckless diabolism has gone too far this time. Madness. Madness, I say!”

“Madness to some. Expedience to others.”

“Find another psychopomp then,” Charon shot back. “I have no interest in being capsized, devoured, and sloshed about in an underwater belly this night.” He returned oars to locks and retrieved the diving helmet and oxygen tank from the bowed floor of the boat. “I don’t care what you’re paying. Indwelling Thrones are an abomination even for my blood … especially with the boy,” he snapped, pointing at Joe. “What are you thinking?”

Charon placed the helmet over his head, slung the tank across his back, and stood to starboard, ready to disembark as soon as the diving apparatus was secure. The sea itself began to brood and boil as though some immense displacement was taking place fathoms deep. The rowboat now began to follow the ominous spiral of a whirlpool.

Charon struggled to adjust the helmet as Magari nimbly stepped across the benches toward him. There were two leather straps to be fastened under his arms, another for the waist, and a mechanism one turned to ensure the flow of oxygen. “You know, Joe,” Magari said with bravado, “there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who do, and those who get through.” It then pushed Charon violently overboard, death by water, headfirst into the sea. “And you forgot your harpoon!” Magari shouted after him, hurling the spear straight into the maelstrom.

“What was that for?” Joe screamed, outraged by the demon’s cruelty.

“He’s dead freight where we’re going. Look. Look!” Magari exclaimed with a swoon. “It swims in a singular dominion, chooses us to catch a glimpse of its terrible aspect and aquatic eye. See the undulation of dorsal and the snap of caudal to set typhoons to shore. Marvel at the locomotion that propels such injurious intent. Look at the light it wields and disperses, a constellation of white blemishes to rival Sirius on the inky slate of its back. LEVIATHAN has answered the Summoning!”

Joe could only begin to appreciate the scale of the colossus that swam far below. It dwarfed the sea itself: three hundred cubits of living “ark” to rival Noah’s cruising yacht. An offspring of Pisces in panorama.

And then Joe watched LEVIATHAN turn, propel itself with astonishing momentum toward the surface, the tentacled maw open wide enough to devour an entire city block, subsume a mile of salt water, and welcome a circumference of thirty meters down the yawning canal of a tar-lined gullet.

Beauty is a coy mistress. Joe had seen her over the years hold a child’s hand in a deserted parking lot, help an elderly woman get comfortable by a bay window to watch birds, wear no makeup (because what is makeup really?) at a tech convention for dilettantes and wannabes, walk barefoot in the park. He had taken her for granted. Forgotten her name. Promised and then neglected to text her back. And now she had abandoned Joe completely. Scrubbed her address from the hard drive of his brain. Packed her bags for good. The Sea of Pandemonium, the Violent Against Beauty, made no provision for her charms.

LEVIATHAN rose with vertical intent toward the rowboat, ascended like a nautical god, devised an abysmal current of its own, drank Pandemonium by the league in great gulps, forsook the whale roads of its nature, agitated the pelagic into a bubbling broth until it finally breached the surface. It didn’t matter that Charon’s remaining crew were an infinitesimal speck for a target. Up, up from the depths of its apotheosis, LEVIATHAN swallowed them whole.

 

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COMMENTS


One response to “Follow the Devil / Follow the Light”

  1. Stephen Waggoner says:

    SWALLOWED THEM WHOLE!?!?

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