Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
It’s been three weeks, I know. Two Fridays ago I explained in detail the sheer volume of activity that had kept me from finishing my assignment, which was less about asking for forgiveness from the audience as it was about allowing me to forgive myself.
Last Friday I had just returned from a weeklong vacation to New York City, and despite my wishful thinking that I might get some writing done while in that city where so many writers had been inspired before, the fact is that whatever plans you make for any day in New York City will by necessity be pared down as the day goes on. It is a city of opportunities and options, is New York, and the only way you get anything done at all is through the brutal edit of your own desires.
This week I vowed to finish the overdue story, despite my continuing 8-5 day job, the additional work of testing and retooling CRISIS as we get closer to opening, and my taking on a freelance copywriting position with Marshall Creative Services that often sees me up until 1 in the morning writing articles on the real estate market. Next week I also hop back into Too Much Light for the first time since the beginning of January, I’ll begin the process of helping curate this year’s It Came From The Neo-Futurarium! “film festival,” continue to maintain the theater’s social media presence, manage gigs and tours, and sit on two strategic planning committees for the theater, one of which I just agreed to chair to take some of the pressure off of our development director. I’m revising a play of mine called Redeemers. I’m still going back to and making small inroads on the draft of Storming Heaven, Book Two. I’m writing a pair of ten-minute plays for my wife’s elementary school-age performance students.
All of this is to say–part of the reason I began this exercise was that I had too much time and too little stimulation, and that the act of keeping my brain so occupied was the best way to fight off the despair of joblessness. I still want to continue on with it but I have to be realistic. There may be just enough hours in a day but there certainly aren’t enough minutes in the hours.
The words I received three weeks past were hook, catamite, ruthless, velocipede, and pimpin’. Not all of the words were used but they all informed some aspect of the tale, as per my revised rules.
I’m not sure I like the story all that much, I should say, I find it a goofy execution of a high-concept idea, but a very prolific author whose work I greatly admire once told me and a room full of fans that one of the most important things a good writer ever does is finish. So I did.
I’ll take the first five words suggested to me, but at this point the most I can promise is one story a month, and I hesitate to use the word “promise.” Thanks to everybody who followed the effort this far.
* * * *
by Bilal Dardai
“I get it. You’re a vampire.”
Marcus looked up from his reading, a particularly grim tale of law and betrayal, at the girl who had sat down across the table from him. She was poetry to him; all beings had long ceased to appear as flesh to him and instead appeared as poetry. Her hair was brown, like dying leaves, her eyes were untouched forests. The sweater was woven strands of self-awareness, of a growing mastery of lust. She leaned forward over her arms.
“I’m not a vampire,” Marcus sighed. “I’m an albino.”
“Don’t you even,” she insisted. “Hamsters are albino. Rabbits are albino. Albino people, that’s not real.”
“Oh? But vampires, you’re saying.”
“It’s not just the skin and the eyes.” She pointed across the room. “There’s a photo on that wall over where I was sitting. With you in it. From 1924.”
His memory failed him. There was only so much space in the world in which to wander, after all, and although the likelihood had always been infinitesimal that he would be noticed returning, it had never been an impossibility. He peered past the girl.
“I don’t see it,” he said.
“It’s there. You’re there. You’re then.”
“Bring it over and let me look at it.”
“Sure thing. So you can slip past me with your vampire speed when I turn around? I wasn’t born yesterday, Dracula.”
“I’m not a vampire.”
“How?” Marcus smirked. “By not biting your throat? Done.”
“Look,” she said, settling into the chair. “I’m just curious. See?” She held up her empty hands. He saw them as silk on the surface of water. “No stakes, no crosses, no anything.”
He closed his book and gazed at her, measuring the span of her spirit with eyes accustomed to such examinations. She was, as she said, merely curious. She was bored, he surmised, perhaps impatiently waiting for a friend or erstwhile lover, and adventurous enough to approach strange, pale men with preposterous suggestions.
“Yes, curious, of course,” Marcus said. “Only curious. This would be the age we live in, where an evil thing lurking in the shadows is not immediately captured and slain but greeted and romanced, made kings. I know not whether I envy or pity this age.”
“So you are.”
“I’m not a vampire,” Marcus repeated.
“Then what are you?” she asked.
“Must I be a vampire? Could I not simply be a man who does not die?”
“Is that what you are?”
Her stare had become epic, eternal, the light of a full moon that had decided against waning. His fingertips ran over the leather spine of his book. She either would or would not believe him but neither perception held any real consequence.
“What is your name?” he asked her.
“Cathy,” she replied.
“Cathy,” he repeated, as if he’d been waiting for her all along, and then he began.
He had not been born an albino. That had come later.
Marcus had once been of olive skin and quiet gray eyes that danced in firelight, with black ringlets of hair that spilled out of his helmet. The legions of Gaius Marius had proven an ideal fit for men of Marcus’ temperament—curious, loyal, fiercely proud. He had taken to mastering weaponry with the same driven mind that had retained the farming skills of his fathers; a mind that was more keenly fixed on the task than on its results. Marcus knew that the seed went here and the earth went over it, that the sword went here and the shield behind it…the growth of the crop and the death of his enemy had at first been vague, faraway ideas, less tactile than the actions that caused them.
That had been at first. The days had passed into months and Marcus had repelled hordes of barbarians, had marched on villages and burned homes to the ground with the inhabitants still inside them. He had stood guard outside the tent of his general, and outside the chambers of decadent senators, indulging themselves with their catamites. This in the days before the notion of empire had taken hold, before the naked ambition had supplanted honor, had supplanted the gods themselves. In those days a man could be both dutiful soldier and individual citizen, and so Marcus had taken a wife, and he had built the beginnings of his house from the spoils of conquest.
He had arrived home one evening to find torchlight glowing from within the home, and the air rank with sweat and terror. Inside, he’d found a man he had never met before, pale as the dawn of winter, with a face of steep angles and bottomless crevasses. In one hand the man held a metal chain. In the other was a bloodstained knife, hours removed from the end of its work.
Marcus had not had to see the body. He had already known.
The man looked at Marcus with an alien sorrow on his face and spoke a word Marcus had not yet had the language to understand.
“What was the word?” Cathy asked.
“Revenge,” Marcus replied.
The pale man had died, immediately, on the point of Marcus’ sword, without making so much as a shift to evade. In days later, after the grief and rage had subsided, Marcus assumed that the man had been petrified with guilt over his actions, and had accepted his punishment as just.
Marcus had returned to the ranks, gaze fixed forward and blade swifter than before. He forgot his old life, drowned it in the noise of bronze and order, the simplicity of ruthlessness. Slowly, he convinced himself. There had never been such a man as had had love and so there was no man now to behold grief, to be driven mad with the nonsense of it all. He filled his armor and held his weapon, and beyond that Marcus was void.
Then he saw the man again.
He had been sitting under the shade of a pine, as the sun set behind him, watching the road. He had been waiting, clearly, for some time. His eyes held the wild wisdom of starvation and his hand held the same chain that he’d had the night he’d rent Marcus’ world in two.
Marcus had been both surprised and relieved to see the pale stranger again. Surprised, obviously, to see the man who he’d spit on his sword alive and well; relieved when the man lunged forward from the root of the pine with a pained, guttural cry. Marcus felt his heart beat as a man alive again, at the prospect of avenging his wife’s murder once more.
But Marcus was alone this evening, and exhausted, and unprepared for the ferocity of the attack from a man who had been docile, almost sacrificial, during their previous encounter. Within moments the chain had ripped the sword from Marcus’ hand, and moments later that chain brutally closed his throat. The world went white, then red, then black, and then the very notion of color disappeared entirely.
“But here you are now,” Cathy protested.
“Yes,” Marcus acknowledged.
“When I said you couldn’t die, you told me that wasn’t true.”
“It isn’t true,” Marcus insisted. “I died then. I’ve died several times since.”
“It was never permanent. It was always death.”
Marcus awoke the next morning in the shade of the same pine where his murderer had been waiting for him the evening before. His throat was unharmed, his sword still where it had been wrenched from his grip. The stranger was gone and the ground seemed undisturbed where the two of them had battled. He did not understand how he could be alive, and he reasoned that if anybody else had seen his body that they would not understand either. Marcus quickly made his way home, avoiding all other citizens, grabbed as many sesterces as he could muster and a handful of other small valuables, and then he fled into the mountains.
Years passed into decades and decades into centuries. Marcus discovered that his body had stopped aging, that all wounds and illnesses he suffered vanished by the following morning. His hunger and thirst would always dissipate, his body temperature would always level. His attempts at suicide had proved as temporary as his murder. From his lonely perch, Marcus perceived in the distance the fall of Rome, the rise of Christendom, the world moving along without him. He dared not return to civilization; it was evident to him that he had been cursed by gods, either his own or those of others, and he could bring only further misery to any he came into contact with.
He did not make the decision to leave; that decision was made for him. He awoke one morning to see the stranger’s silhouette looming over him. In his hand was the same chain, but in the dim light of the cave Marcus also perceived a sort of cruel hook attached to the end.
The stranger screamed, swung the chain, and Marcus awoke the following morning as if the deathblow had never arrived.
When he awoke, the man had been there again. Marcus felt the same rush of panic and adrenaline, and then the sharp metal was whistling through the air again, the pain, the silence, the final cough of his heart.
When Marcus awoke the following morning the process repeated. He was sure, at last, that he had reached what the Christians called hell. For a month he accepted the ritual; a few seconds of daylight followed by anger and agony, the brief forever of a darkness that could not be perceived as absence of light, because light had never before been present.
One morning Marcus awoke and the stranger was sitting before him, observing him quietly. The chain and the hook remained in his hands, but he seemed hesitant, somehow, as if the action of murdering Marcus was somehow unfamiliar to him. Marcus filled the vacuum with old instinct, grabbing his sword and dispatching the man as he’d done so many lifetimes ago.
When he awoke the next morning the body was gone and it was as if the stain on the rocks had never existed at all. Marcus knew very little of the laws of hell but he could not believe that a man damned had the power to destroy his tormentor. Marcus deduced that he had never been in hell, that the relationship he shared with the pale stranger had been forged in the world he knew already.
Marcus descended from the mountain and rejoined humanity. Cursed or no, alive or no, dead or no. His life was a riddle not only to be solved, but to be served, and at the core of his being Marcus had always remained loyal to such causes.
“Did you see him again?” Cathy asked.
“Many times,” Marcus replied. “We are both wanderers, he and I. His name changes each time. Last time we discovered each other on the streets of Glasgow and I beat him to death with a bicycle. Before that it was Delhi, where he ran me through with a ceremonial dagger. One evening in New Zealand we stalked each other with pistols, and it ended with a bullet apiece, mine in the heart and his in the eye.”
“This is what you do. You spend immortality killing each other.”
“You make it sound so petty.”
“But then every morning you wake up and whoever’s dead is alive.”
“And you start all over.”
“And it’s always been exactly like that?” Cathy asked.
“Two things change,” Marcus said.
“Firstly, over time I have adopted this pallor. It’s as though the act of such cavalier death has led my body to stop attempting a facsimile of life. However, every time I see him again, his body has grown less pale, more robust. And his mind has grown clearer.”
“Cool story,” Cathy said. “Not sure what it all means, but cool story. Look, I’m going to go back to my table now.”
“But I haven’t told you anything yet,” Marcus said.
“What do you mean?” Cathy asked.
“I haven’t told you the secret of it all.”
“There’s something more secret about this than two men killing each day in and day out for centuries?”
They met on the steps of the museum, on a mid-afternoon in the last days of summer. Marcus, paying only half attention to his reading, looked up at the source of the shadow and was unsurprised to find him there. He was rail-thin and sullen under a mess of straw-blond hair, and he wore his necktie as if planning to hang himself with it later. His eyes were lined with rings of cold madness.
“Hello, Marcus,” the man said.
“Hello,” Marcus replied. “What name should I use for you now?”
“What was the name you knew last?”
“Ah,” the man said. “Then today you shall know me as Jeremy.”
“Hello, Jeremy,” Marcus said. “How shall we proceed today?”
“We won’t,” Jeremy replied. “Today I’d just like to talk.”
“Here is fine.”
Jeremy sat down on the steps. He seemed to shiver despite the heat. Marcus eyed him suspiciously; by now his body assumed the tension of a coiled spring at the mere sight of the man.
“Let me ask you,” he said. “Have you ever asked me if I knew why we live like this?”
“I have,” Marcus replied.
“And what did I say to you?”
“You said that you’d already told me.”
“Hm. Yes. Yes, I would have said that.”
Jeremy was quiet for several seconds.
“I swore, you know, I swore an oath I would never tell you,” he said.
“To myself. To myself and whoever else listens.”
“It doesn’t matter. It won’t matter. I’m going to tell you now.”
“Then you do know.”
“Of course I do. I’m responsible.” Jeremy looked away. “A few thousand years from now I’m going to walk into my home and find you standing over the body of my son. You’ll be white and wild-eyed, holding a metal chain in one hand, and the last thing you say to me before I shoot you dead is ‘Ultio ultionis.’”
“Yes. That’s familiar to you, isn’t it?”
“It was you. My wife. Centuries ago. You said the same thing but in English.”
“I see. Yes, I imagine I will.”
“Did, you mean.”
“That as well,” Jeremy said.
“I don’t understand,” Marcus said.
“Of course you don’t. That’s why I’m here. You. Marcus. You were a soldier, long ago, correct?”
“A few thousand years from now, I am a scientist. And I have your body brought to me in a lab, to examine your strange bloodless complexion, and I discover you’re millennia old. Can you imagine. The discovery of that. A man has been alive for thousands of years and he has just killed my son. It was horrific and exhilarating all at once. I sought to know you better, Marcus.”
“What did you do?”
“I bent time to my will. I used a sample of your body and asked time to send me to your origin, so that I could see what kind of being you were before I ended you entirely. But I miscalculated. I had intended to travel back to you immediately but instead…instead I find I am traveling back one day at a time. My days no longer follow any linear path, they are all their own events stitched backwards with yours.”
“Then how can we still be alive?”
“We are still alive, Marcus, because we remember each other as alive. We are living forever in each other’s yesterdays. I remember you from your tomorrow and you remember me from mine, and the universe renews us each day to maintain that illusion. We do not die, Marcus, because we ceased to exist, long ago. And we are slowly passing each other, from one end of time to the other.”
Marcus stood; staggered backwards, feeling as if the world had fallen away beneath him.
“That’s not possible,” Marcus said.
“I have been traveling towards you, between you, past you, for over two thousand years now, Marcus, and I assure you that what we are has gone far beyond possible.”
“Why are…why would you tell me this?”
“Because in my tomorrow, the next time we meet you will not know anyhow. And because I’ve begun to understand, at last, that the human mind cannot withstand this duration of life. I’m going mad, Marcus. And I’m explaining this to you now because I still have enough faculty to understand that I’m going mad. By the time I finally reach my destination I’m sure that the only thing I will remember is that I owe you suffering.”
“Will no doubt be in the same position when at last you arrive at my home. But I will confess to you, Marcus, the thing I find most frightening. I fear that after I reach your wife and you reach my son and we are both avenged on the other, we will continue walking past. We will no longer be perceptible in each other’s lives but will remain there on the same plane. And one day, Marcus, we will reach the opposite ends of the fourth dimension, and we will find that time was tacked from one end to the other, like a tightrope at the circus. And I fear that when we arrive at these opposite ends, it will be our duties to unfasten time from its moorings, to let it snap and collapse back towards the center, to condense all of reality into the space of a fraction of a moment before it blinks out into never was. And there’s no longer anything we can do to stop it. We’re the last two pieces, the two kings, left on a chessboard, you and I, prohibited from ever moving close enough to one another to know victory or defeat. Forever. And that is my fault. And I am sorry.”
Jeremy stood, and began walking down the steps. He turned back to Marcus.
“The next time you see me I’ll have been calling myself Roderick. You slit my throat with a jagged piece of church glass. It is just as well. I would have done the same. Goodbye, Marcus. I have already seen you again.”
Jeremy walked away, leaving Marcus to hold himself up against the base of his own misconceptions.
“Weird,” Cathy said.
“Yes,” Marcus replied.
“This whole thing is weird.”
“You thought I was a vampire.”
“And if you’d just agreed with me I’d have been fine with that.”
“Then I apologize, Cathy, for not being the monster of your mind’s convenience.”
“Don’t be a diva. Nobody said you were a monster at all.”
“A few thousand years from now I am going to murder a man’s son because he murdered my wife because I murdered his son.”
“So you say.”
“So I was told by the boy’s father.”
“You’re not a monster, Marcus,” she said.
“I must be,” Marcus replied, “or else I’m not anything at all.”
“Jesus. I got grandparents that weren’t this sort of martyr. Look, let me buy you a drink.”
“Sure. Look, the way I see it, you were something in the past and you’re gonna be something else in the future. But right now all I see is a guy who needs to sit and have a drink with pleasant company. The pleasant company would be me. What do you say, Lestat? For now?”
Marcus saw her as light morning rain, incessant and undeniable.
“For now,” he agreed.