Horror & Dark Fantasy




On the Origin of Specie

In the tower where the tax collectors go, I am taken blindfolded up steps and through passages and through interminable pauses in open spaces, myself stumbling and held upright through a firm grip on my upper arm. In those pauses, and sometimes in passing while we move, the master of that grip speaks to others, their fellow bailiffs. The content of these exchanges is indistinct to me, a mumbling burr that I can only distinguish from other noises as the recognizably unnatural rhythm of human speech. My other senses have muffled themselves in solidarity with my vision. My hands, tied behind my back, are cold and stiff and unfeeling. My bare skin is cold. The naked soles of my feet are chilled on rough stone.

Finally, my eyes are freed to a dark room. The first thing I do is retch, as if I’d been gagged. I fall to my knees and feel my hands being freed. The first thing I see as my eyes adjust to the near-dark is a circular trapdoor set in the stone floor before me, and though I’ve never seen it before, I know from rumour that it leads to the oubliette where money and traitors and deviants and tax resisters go to die. This is the heart of the terror of this tower, its greatest monstrosity, feared in thirteen cities and across the hinterland. My blood would chill if it were not already frozen. I am resigned, perhaps, because of course I knew this is how it would end for me.

When the bailiff puts me in the hole, they don’t taunt me. They don’t speak to me at all. Their movements are slow and solemn, or perhaps distracted with the concerns of their own lives. Perhaps they have family at home, a child who studies poorly, a spouse whose lovemaking has dulled, a household whose budget is oh so close to becoming unbalanced. Or perhaps they are thinking about work, about the records that they will have to update in a moment, concerning myself, my debts, and my disposition.

They don’t slam the trapdoor shut on me. It’s worse somehow that it closes gently. I can hear bolts falling into place, and I am returned to absolute darkness. That brief experience of near-dark in the room above begins to seem like the memory of a sunny day.

• • • •

The hole is narrow: an uneven circle less than two feet across, tight across the shoulders. The hole is eternal: I have already been here for—days, I decide, since I’ve slept and awoken, and in the absence of the sun my body is my only clock. The hole is of uncertain depth. I’ve not yet heard a coin clatter, except to ring off our heads or bounce off the walls, which are noises of transition, necessarily intermediate, never final. I have listened carefully for the rolling, ringing clatter and silence that would signal a coming to rest somewhere in the depths, but I only hear the echoing expectation of that sound in my head, which I keep shaking to clear it. I will not confuse anticipation with memory. I will not.

I’m still not far below the trapdoor—if I peer directly upwards I imagine that I can make out the grain of its wood, even in total darkness. There is empty space beneath my feet. My hands and feet bleed sometimes from holding myself up. They’ve been skinned by friction, bruised by bad landings. My right ankle hurts the most. I stuck it out at a bad angle as I came out of a dream of being buried alive, screaming, and in that waking nightmare darkness I think I fractured a bone. The hole is too narrow for me to bend down and feel it, or to raise my knee high enough. My feet and my head now exist in different worlds. I have come to terms with this.

Prisoners’ chatter and raving has it that the hole is bottomless. I don’t know how many of them there are below me. Their stammering, broken voices rise from the darkness under my feet. The deeper they seem to be, the less reliable their reports—those are people who have starved for weeks in total darkness, hallucinating and febrile. They verbalize their sick dreams in a constant, echoing mutter that fills up the oubliette like black water. They offer endless chains of causality for how they ended up here, what they did to incur punishment, whether they now repent or still justify. They never stop explaining.

Sometimes I shout down to them to shut up, and they do, for a little while. My voice is the strongest because I’m the newest prisoner, nearest the top. That makes me special. Whenever the tax collectors open the trapdoor to empty more coins the light hits my face like a blow, smashing tears out of my eyes. I dread the day they bring in the next prisoner and somebody’s sweaty body blocks that painful light from me.

Why hasn’t this happened yet? Perhaps they’re waiting until I grow weaker and slip farther down so that there’s more room. Or perhaps they just haven’t processed the next prisoner yet, and at some point someone will suddenly land on my shoulders and push me down.

That makes me think I remember feeling something soft beneath my feet when I was first put in here by the bailiffs, but then it fell away just as quickly—so quickly and silently that I’m not sure it even happened or whether it’s a fantasy that I just conjured—and I slipped down several feet before I jammed my feet and fists sideways against the stone to halt my descent, scrabbling desperately for holds. Every time I fall asleep this happens again, but I’ve become more practiced at staying half-awake. At some points the hole grows a little narrower, like an embrace of stone, and it’s almost possible to rest.

I try climbing upward again, painful as it is with my ankle. I make a little progress, pulling myself up with my arms, fingers scraping in the dark to find a crack or lip big enough to get a grip on. I spend a long time becoming intimately familiar with my small territory, the particular interstices and surfaces of dry stone, the cracks and ridges, the juts and depressions, so that I can navigate it. Here, this is the rock with what feels like a narrow nose, and this dimple beneath it that could be lips. I shall call it the Face. I cup it in my hands, I fall in love with it. After a moment of hesitation I lean in for a kiss. The lips are dry, then wet. East of the Face is a very thin undulating ridge: the Serpent, who pursues the Face. To the west of the Face is a smooth and evil plane. If I rotate myself a little—a difficult process, first I press myself back and feel with my feet to the side, and in this way move in a slow arc by fractions of a degree—to the deep south-east of the Face is a crack that I can jam my toes into and rest my weight a little. Of course that’s the bad ankle, so I can’t put my whole weight on it, but still I name it the Blessing. I firm up my grip on the Serpent and push myself backwards so that I’m jammed tight against the stone behind me. I discover a small lip of stone near my ass and try to rest on it, for all that it doesn’t protrude more than an inch. I decide to call it the Chair. Perhaps this can be home. Perhaps if I hold here long enough the Serpent will catch the Face. No, I should prevent that. I tighten my grip on the Serpent with one hand and cup the Face’s cheek in the other, holding them apart.

But then the tax collectors open the trapdoor again—I look up at the sound, involuntarily—and the blinding light and a torrent of metal coins hit me at the same time. I lose my grip. I choke on coins, spitting, and slide down even farther than I had been. When the darkness returns and the coins are gone, except for one still caught between my teeth, I feel around for my familiar territory and can’t recognize it. How far have I fallen? These are foreign rocks, all my mapped handholds and footholds gone. My beloved Face is lost. I mourn the comfort of the Chair. I even miss the fucking Serpent, even with how much it made my fingernails hurt. I try not to think about the lost Blessing at all; it would make me weep. I can no longer articulate that foot, which is hot and radiating pain like a sun, and I am forced to lift up my knee, thigh burning, and jam my entire shin against the stone to hold myself in place. I can feel the skin peeling slowly as I slip.

I won’t name features of the stone any more, I decide. It hurts too much to lose them. My new holds are anonymous. They beg to become familiar to me, but I am resolute. I harden my heart; I turn my face away.

Jammed into immobility with both feet and one hand, I take the coin out of my mouth and try to feel its surface with my fingertips, but my fingers are too raw for those subtleties. I don’t recognize its denomination. It seems bigger than any coins used to be when I refused to pay the war tax. Perhaps the currency has changed in the world. Perhaps I’ve withered and become smaller. How long have I been here?

A voice rises, a grey rasp so frail and indistinct that it must come from a prisoner on the very verge of death, or at the very farthest depth, or both. Whoever they are, they whisper a heresy that the rest of us immediately and viscerally reject. All our fantasies of escape center on the trapdoor above: we talk about how we will climb up and break out when the tax collectors next open up. The proposal currently ascendant in the discourse is a surprise attack, with an overwhelming swarm of rebelling prisoners crawling out of the pit, slapping aside the baskets of coins before they can be dropped on us, overpowering the bailiffs through numbers.

But this will not work because we are too weak and too isolated, the voice insists with maddening certainty. Instead, they claim there is another way out at the bottom of the hole, not the top. The hole is not bottomless; there is an exit. The oubliette doesn’t begin in the cellar of the tax collector’s tower but at its top. If we survive until we reach the bottom, they say, we will be able to exit at ground level. We will have served our sentence.

Other voices deny this claim and mock the heretical voice. We will drown in specie first, they all agree. This is the consensus eschatology, in the hole.

• • • •

All my dreams are waking dreams now. I can never truly sleep without being held to the grindstone, for dreams of falling. In my dreams I see the sun. In my dreams I think of myself in the sun, refusing to pay, obsessively explaining myself.

It was a simple choice, I thought. It was simple, for all that I complicated it. I am supposed to regret it now, here in my defeat, here in my punishment. I had already heard of the hole: we all had. The rumours of the tower were everywhere. The tax collectors were everywhere, and their threats and warnings were clear. I knew what was coming the whole time: I cannot claim ignorance.

Every year that the civil war dragged on, more taxes sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. Every year that the war went on, the more grandiosely ambitious the names of the taxes became, the greater their demands. Three per cent on every transaction for the Nation-Building Tax. Four per cent for the Peace and Reconciliation Duty. Five per cent for the Reunification and Reconstruction Levy.

The nation cannot be built through war, I said when I held back three per cent as I paid for my bread.

You can’t reconcile through more war, I said when I paid ninety-six per cent of the value of my bus fare.

It is impossible to use war to reunify or reconstruct that which is being separated and destroyed through war, I said, as I withheld one-twentieth of the price of my phone bill.

I don’t know whether it was these petty withholdings or whether it was my attempts to explain why that led to my arrest. I could not stop myself from saying why, from attempting, and usually failing, to rally others to a cause I could not even properly justify.

My phone bill was from making calls to explain why the war taxes were an abomination: after everyone I knew had either heard me out or hung up on me, I took to dialing random numbers.

My bus fare was spent in travelling to meetings and explaining why. At some of those meetings, especially at first, I was a paid speaker, but as this became more difficult I would simply walk into gatherings and speak until I was dragged out. I spoke to activists and politicians. I spoke at rallies, at festivals, at weddings.

My bread was—well, my bread was to stay alive, so that I could explain being alive in wartime when others are dying. It seemed selfish to me, to hoard life and safety this way. That was the only debt I acknowledged. I was trying to pay it back.

I was told many times that my refusal to pay was foolish and a waste of activism and energy, and indeed it was. I was told many times that my refusal was pointless and perhaps even counterproductive, and indeed it was. I was told many times that the war could not be ended this way, because this is not how money works. I was told that I don’t understand money, or taxes, or any part of the unholy grammarye of monetary policy or fiscal policy. And that, too, is true. The government did not and does not require the coin of the south to prosecute the war in the north: the government is the issuer of currency, father and mother of coin, both source and definer of value, and—being willing to inflate that currency as far as necessary, being willing to accept any price for victory—cannot be starved of funds.

I understood that I did not understand. In not understanding, I believed. And what I believed, and what I would say again and again, was this: if they don’t need to raise the money for the war through taxes, then the only reason to tax us is to entangle us in moral complicity. This is not about money: this is about blood money.

They issue the very coin that we have to pay back to them, and they do this for the wider distribution of culpability in sin, I would say, and that’s when people would usually hang up on me. Distance makes it easier to disengage. When I was there, speaking in person up on a stage, I would have a little longer to make my case.

They are building a massive network of responsibility, I would argue, to distribute the load of enormity’s consequences, to diffuse the weight of the crimes they commit behind the veil of war. Think of all the newly-minted coin that leaves the tower, I would urge. All that currency being put into circulation: think of how through the war taxes a share of it always finds its way back to the tower, now bearing the imprint of a million intervening hands, every last one bloodied by that touch.

This is about hell, I would say, and this is the part where security would arrive to remove me from the stage while I shouted that war taxes were about who goes to hell for the war, and for how many lifetimes.

I learned to shout quickly, in a loud, even tone, to succinctly elucidate the hierarchy of the thirty-seven hells, their severities and austerities, their designated citizenry, even as I was dragged away by my arms and legs.

I would enunciate clearly, even as I screamed as loud as my lungs could bear: who is destined for hell? It’s not just the soldiers who held the weapons, not just the generals that gave the orders, not just the presidents who set the policies, not just the voters who voted for the ideology, but everyone—absolutely everyone who paid three per cent, four per cent, five per cent.

We are all complicit, everyone who lived while others died. The wages of so much death is a share in sin for us all. They hope to shorten their own infinite sentences in hell by taking us all with them.

By the time I got to that part, I was usually out of earshot of whatever crowd I had been speaking to. By then I would be on the street outside, lying heaped in the street where I had been thrown, squinting in the sun, voice reduced to a croak. Those last lines usually came out in a hoarse mutter. Even I didn’t truly want to hear it.

• • • •

Dislodged from my perch of waking dreams by feet abruptly landing on my shoulders, I slip farther down and scramble to arrest my slide before it becomes a fall.

I am meant to regret, now that I hurt. Pain is meant to harrow me, to humble me. It does, but they don’t understand that I was already humbled. Hell is not the hole, though the hole is hell—the tower is hell, the hinterlands are hell, the thirteen cities are hell. We were all already there. I do not regret, even in extremis. I am a fool who understands nothing, but I understand myself. My conscience is stained beyond repair, but at least this pain I know I deserve. Brought so low, falling so far, I am home.

I allow myself to slip down. In the end I choose it. It’s easy: all I have to do is to stop holding myself up. It feels like dropping a burden.

The pain crescendos as the weight of my body drags me down through the hole. With the hole’s narrowing I lose my skin first, and for a while I am lubricated by the last of my body’s fluids. My desiccated bones break to allow myself to pass through gaps that grow narrower still. But the pain fades. I have lost track of my sense of my own body. I can’t feel my limbs. I no longer see occasions of flaring light above me, though I don’t know if that’s because of uncounted intervening bodies between me and the trapdoor, or whether I’ve become unable to raise my head at all, or whether I’ve lost my sight. I no longer hear coins clattering about me or feel that torrent of metal, but that could be because my surface is insensate, or because the stream of coins is never-ending now and has become invisible through overfamiliarity. But I no longer feel bruised and broken and stuck, meat trapped in stone. I feel supple and liquid. I pour down the hole, streaming and flowing, moving faster and faster. If I land, I think I will splash, not shatter. But perhaps that voice of old was right, and I will simply flow out of a door at the bottom of the tower, tinkling silver like a stream.

I raise my own voice to reiterate this theory up the hole, but I can’t tell if I’m speaking or not.

• • • •

I’m rushing, rushing.

Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera is a writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His work has appeared in Black Static, Liminal Stories, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, among others. He blogs occasionally at vajra.me and is @_vajra on Twitter.