My friend Austin’s distress was apparent to me before I even reached our table. His twitchy mannerisms and his mask of worry troubled me a great deal, since I knew the tragedies he’d recently endured. He was stationed in the corner, where the only light source was the dwarfish lamp on the table. This meek, fever-yellow glow made every furrow in Austin’s brow seem gorge-deep and hazed his flesh in a ghoulish pallor. I extended my hand. “Happy Christmas,” I said, hoping that my somewhat saccharine tone might lift Austin’s spirits. He gave my hand a limp shake and bade me to sit. “What are you drinking tonight?”
“Nothing,” Austin replied.
I ordered a pint of pale for myself and nagged Austin jovially until he finally caved and requested some Darjeeling. Through the mounted speakers, tabla drums tapped as rapidly as rainfall. I found myself bobbing my head to the rhythm. Austin, by contrast, seemed pained by the music. He screwed up his face and pressed his fingers into his ears.
“Should I ask them to turn down the volume?” I asked. Austin shook his head. “Are you feeling ill?”
“No” he returned. “Something . . . something’s happened . . .”
Austin reached for his coat, which was hanging next to a framed painting of triple-eyed Shiva dancing raptly while he obliterates the world. From the inside pocket Austin produced a slim item.
“I found this lying in the centre of my living room when I got home from work this afternoon.” He slid the item across the table.
A Tarot card. Card XVI, The Tower. The colourful illustration depicted a pair of figures falling headlong from an ominous keep whose summit was ablaze from the kiss of dead-white lightning bolts.
“I haven’t used my deck in years, Elliot. It’s a message”—he now spoke sotto voce—“a message from my cousin.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“My cousin’s been dead for years.”
The waiter’s timing was impeccable; his request for my dinner order gave me a few seconds to absorb the shock of my friend’s statement. I was woefully unfamiliar with Indian fare, having chosen to have my and Austin’s annual pre-Christmas dinner at The Lotus Room only to appease my friend’s growing interest in Eastern Mysticism. Yoga, I knew, had been one of the few pursuits he’d taken up in recent months that seemed to bring him any pleasure. I was extremely relieved that Austin undertook a discipline in order to cope rather than crawling inside a bottle—something that, if there is any truth to genetic disposition, was a sharp possibility.
I glanced over the menu and on impulse requested curried goat and another pint of pale ale. Austin asked only for saffron rice.
Once our area was again free of intruders I told Austin that he was obviously mistaken. “That card could have been lying around your room for months and just got kicked to the middle of the room. I wouldn’t take it too seriously.”
He was massaging his ears again. I then noticed how heavily he was perspiring. “It’s him,” Austin said, “no question.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“The Tower,” he rasped. “Only he and I knew what it means. No one else.”
“And what does it mean?”
He laughed, but more from exasperation or resignation than mirth. “A long story . . .”
At my request, Austin then told me his tale.
“It won’t come as any surprise to you that I used to spend as much time as I could out of my folks’ house,” he began. Having listened to Austin’s occasional intimations about his mother’s rampant alcoholism and his father’s old-world ornery nature, I was able to acknowledge this sincerely. “My mother’s sister and her husband were really surrogate parents to me. Every summer, as soon as school was finished, they would invite me to stay on their farm for as long as I wanted, which was usually the whole summer. I don’t think I’m being too blindly nostalgic when I say that their farm was a true sanctuary for me. I think it was the year my cousin and I both turned thirteen that things began to change. That summer I only spent a few weeks on the farm, then the summer after that; just one week. Then I stopped going altogether.”
“What changed?” I asked.
Austin raised his fingers to pause so that he could cradle his head in his hands.
“Maybe we should get you to a doctor,” I suggested.
“No,” he said, his voice meek and breathless, “it’s passing. It comes in waves.”
“The noise. It’s the same thing that plagued my cousin. That’s what changed that summer, since you asked. When we were twelve or thirteen, my cousin began to suffer from terrible earaches and migraines. My aunt and uncle, as you can imagine, took him for every kind of test imaginable. It took a team of specialists to finally guess that his problem was an acute form of somatic tinnitus.”
“A ringing in the ears.”
“Precisely. I gather the clinicians opted for somatic tinnitus because they couldn’t find the problem area in the actual ear, so they assumed that the problem was somewhere else in my cousin’s head or neck. It became steadily worse as he got older. He tried moving to Calgary to attend university, but it was a disaster. He collapsed on campus one morning. After that he promptly dropped out of school and moved back to his parents’ farmhouse in the country. He took his own life there two years later.”
I cleared my throat to crack a long silence. “Forgive me, Austin, but I’m not really seeing what any of this has to do with you feeling out of sorts tonight because you found an old Tarot card.”
He exhaled sharply. “That final summer, the last time I went out to my cousin’s farm, he told me that he’d heard something on the roof of the old silo, late at night.”
“What did he hear?”
“The Word of God, he said. He said he’d taken the Word inside him and had taught himself how to speak it. And then that last night . . . he proved it to me . . .” He shook his head suddenly, as if breaking a trance. I prodded for more details, but all Austin said was that he simply had to go back there.
“To your cousin’s farm?”
“Why, for God’s sake?”
“I think he’s trying to tell me something with the Tower card. I think he’s trying to get me back to that old silo.”
A proposal, or rather a gesture of goodwill, leapt into my head, but rather than offer it straightaway I found myself wrestling with the notion, unsure whether or not I wanted to commit myself.
One look at Austin’s mounting anguish inspired me to ask if he would like me to accompany him on the trip.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t want to drive out there after dinner or anything like that. Tomorrow is Saturday. Why don’t I pick you up at around nine?”
“The village is nearly a three-hour drive from here, even if traffic’s kind,” he advised me.
I told Austin he could consider the trip my Yuletide gift to him.
Austin almost smiled at this. Almost.
• • • •
The next morning’s sun brought much brilliance, but no warmth. I left my house just after eight and the streets were already bustling. The growing throngs of holiday shoppers made me glad for Austin’s and my exodus from the city.
When my first few knocks on his townhouse door went unanswered I feared that my friend had overslept, but when he finally did manage to get to the door and open it, it was obvious that he hadn’t slept a wink. Dressed only in his housecoat, Austin requested I give him a moment to get cleaned up, encouraging me to sit in the dank cube that served as a living room while he went down the hall to shower and shave.
There was only the suggestion of a sofa beneath a mountain of twisted laundry, so I opted to stand.
Mingling with the room’s dominant smell of a dirty furnace was the sickly-sweet perfume of incense. An end table stood in the far corner, draped in green silk and bracing a lone white taper in a brass base, a brazier, and a framed photograph of Liz holding a newborn William. The picture’s background was undulating drapes of white gossamer. I remember when Austin had taken these photos of his much-adored wife and their infant son. At the time, the background had suggested purity, renewal. Seeing it now, framed within a black border, it was but a reminder of the pallor-pale face I’d seen reposing, and the second casket that sat next to it, no larger than a hope chest.
Austin emerged from the washroom with surprising suddenness. He handed me a sheet bearing what looked to be awfully scrawled directions before donning his coat.
“Let’s go,” was all he said.
The attempted cheer of the decorations that crowded store windows and bulged around the streetlight poles failed to pierce the morose mood within the cab of my car. Austin and I chatted intermittently about nothing in particular, and I wondered how I would survive this marathon trek with so lugubrious a passenger.
But as the city gave way to the town, and the town to a quilt of snow-padded rural expanse, I felt myself relaxing slightly, but not totally: Austin’s reluctance to have even a polite chat tensed the atmosphere in the car.
The sky was beginning to darken, portending snow. I flicked on the headlights, sighed, and allowed for the mum tension for as long as I could. Eventually the pressure became unbearable, so I deliberately decided to detonate the bomb we’d both let go on ticking between us for too long.
“Can I ask you something?”
“How have you been doing, with everything I mean?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Yes, actually, it is. But I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think Tarot cards or play-forts from your childhood are the issue here. Don’t you think you feel the way you do because you are still raw from a massive loss? I mean, Christmastime can be one of the worst times for people in pain. I think you should talk about the accident, Austin, because as far as I’m concerned, that is what’s really tearing you up inside, not anything supernatural.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Elliot,” he mumbled.
“No, I’m afraid you’re the one who’s not seeing things clearly. That car accident tore your life out by the roots. You lost Liz, the woman you loved more than life. And you lost William, your only son.”
My gaze flickered between the road ahead of me and trying to gauge Austin’s reaction; but no reaction came. I inhaled slowly and deliberately cushioned my tone:
“Look, I’m not going to pretend for one moment that I can relate to what you’ve been put through. Your loss is . . . well, it’s almost unthinkable. And maybe that’s why you’ve not been able to face it. Yoga isn’t going to heal your wounds.”
Austin remained stoic. “Turn right here,” he said.
A few moments later, the property from which my friend had drawn what might be the only august memories of his youth slouched into my field of vision. Its house and barn looked every bit as grey and spent as a pair of elephants nestling down to expire on their chosen burial grounds. A few stray splints of wood indicated where a fence had been back in the time when the land was worthy of distinguishing. Bales of soggy hay sat in loose lumps upon the dirty snow of the field. The barn door hung open, advertising the depressing absence of livestock.
I slowed the car and looked at Austin, who appeared to be holding his breath. He ran a hand over his bristly face, muttering something that sounded like “God.”
I turned my head and knew precisely what had mesmerized my friend.
Whether the silo had always cast off the glamour of a castle keep or whether it had been modified over the years I of course couldn’t say, but its presence was incongruous—a high Gothic set piece in an otherwise agrarian environment.
He lowered his hand and began fishing through the pocket of his pea coat. He held up the Tower card. The similarity between its image and the structure before us was strong enough to make Austin laugh, but not smile.
“I’m going in.” Austin’s tone was uncharacteristically steely. “You can stay in the car if you want.”
“Shouldn’t you check at the house, see if anyone’s home?”
“The property’s abandoned,” he said before exiting the car.
I watched, mute and, admittedly, timid, as Austin stepped between two crooked fence posts, long deprived of their wires, and undertook the trepid journey into his yesterdays. My fists tightened on the steering wheel as a sickening feeling overcame me, as though my gullet had suddenly been lined with grease. Intellectually I knew that Austin should be fetched back from his quest, but a strange obstruction had moved between my better judgment and my will-to-action.
My sense of unease was devoid of reason; a vague funk of disquiet. Seeing Austin stepping across the barren cropland made me regret ever carrying him out here to face his old ghosts.
Nothing good would come of this. Nothing.
At last my hand found the door handle. But before I’d even opened the door I saw Austin drop.
I stumbled out of the car and bolted across the field. The wind lashed cold and fierce. Snow swirled about me like stirred gravel. As I neared Austin I discovered that he hadn’t passed out; he was curled into a foetal position, snow collecting on his hair and in the creases of his clothes. Not until I crouched to help him up did I see how agony had mangled his face.
I uttered a few consoling words and scooped him up off the earth. His legs were rag-doll-limp and he weighed much more than I’d expected.
“Don’t listen!” Austin cried. ”Don’t listen!” He was pushing against me, butting me like a bull, shouting all the while. ”Focus on me! Just listen to me! Get to the car! Run! Go!”
Austin’s incessant shouting and the roar of the wind must have been muting whatever it was that Austin had been so afraid I’d hear. We reached the road and piled back into the car. No sooner had I started the engine when Austin snapped on the stereo and spun the volume dial to its limit. A blast of voices transformed the cab of my car into Babel. I slammed it into reverse and began to drive. I peered out in the hope of seeing whoever had startled Austin so, but the figure appeared to be gone.
Austin must have calculated that I’d placed a safe enough distance between ourselves and the old farm, for he finally reduced the stereo’s volume to the point where I could hear the music—ironically, a children’s choir singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
“What the hell happened back there?” I asked. I was so shaken that driving was taxing.
“I heard it again . . .”
“The Word. The one that made everything change that last summer. My cousin and I . . . we heard something inside the silo.”
“To me, it was just sounded like a buzzing insect. It came and then it went. It startled me, but my cousin swore he heard a word being spoken.”
“I know, I know. A word, right? It’s nothing. But if only you could have seen how it affected him. It ruined him. A mere beat of time shaped his entire life. That was when his tinnitus began. He started hearing things constantly.
“That last summer I went out to their farm, I realized that something was really wrong with my cousin, that his illness was only part of it.
“That final day he took me up into the silo, saying that he had something to show me. He was like a kid on Christmas. He couldn’t wait to get me up to the silo’s roof. Once we were there he ordered me to be quiet and listen. He kept asking me if I could hear it. But I couldn’t hear anything at all, just regular noises from the farm below. My cousin looked really disappointed and bragged that he could hear the Word of God, the one that had been used to make humanity live, the Word that makes the clay dance, as my cousin said. Of course I didn’t believe him and turned to leave. And that’s when he did it.”
Austin’s eyes were welling up. “He said something, the Word. It sounded like gibberish to me . . . but it changed him. Changed him right before my eyes . . . ”
I went to press him further, but Austin cut me off.
“He changed right in front of me . . . His face . . . it stretched into something big and fluid. Extra arms came sprouting out of his neck . . .
“I ran. I went tearing down the ladder inside the silo and all the way back to the farmhouse. I insisted that my aunt drive me home that day. I refused to stay there. She kept asking me what had happened, but I refused to tell her. I just had to leave.
“My cousin came sauntering into the farmhouse, calm as can be. His body had gone back to normal. He didn’t say a word. I remember it like it was yesterday. He just walked into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of milk and then just stood at the counter and drank. He winked at me and then went off to his room.
“Before you ask, Elliot, the reason why all this is happening now is because of a stupid mistake I made. After Liz . . . after the accident, I started meditating. I thought it might be good for me, a way to quiet the storm inside my head. My instructor told me that the best way to do this was to chant and focus on the ‘Om’ mantra. It’s said that this is the word that created the universe. Things started out okay, but then a few weeks ago, I heard it . . . the thunders . . . It felt exactly how my cousin used to describe them; like a rumble that shakes your core. I think these thunders and the Tarot card are my cousin’s attempt to get me back to that silo roof.”
“For what purpose?”
“To bring Liz back to life . . .”
There was nothing else I could say.
I don’t remember driving home, though I know we made it there, because I do carry vivid memories of Austin exiting my car and going up the snow-dusted steps of his townhouse. He did not look back.
When I made it back to my apartment I fell asleep right away. I slept long and deeply. My mind was likely trying to place as great a void as possible between me and the shock I’d experienced.
The next day, as I sat sipping coffee in my kitchen, I felt compelled to call Austin but at the same time did not want to. I simply did not want to know.
That afternoon I received a cursory email from him, telling me that “everything was okay now” and that I “shouldn’t trouble my head about anything.” In the last line he wished me a merry Christmas.
Hindsight makes the suspect nature of that email painfully clear, but at the time I used Austin’s confirmation of his wellbeing as a shield to cower behind. I neither called nor visited him. I avoided the coffee shops and stores I knew he frequented. I actually managed to convince myself that I was simply following my friend’s advice—my head remained untroubled by him.
A full year lapsed. It took the holidays, with their insidious manipulation of emotion, to inspire me to contact Austin again. I sent him a text message in early December, suggesting that we catch up over dinner. When my query received no reply I tried to call. His number was no longer in service.
Any number of life changes could have uprooted Austin. For all I knew, the bank that employed him could have relocated him to another city, indeed to an altogether different province. He could have fallen in love, moved into new quarters with his latest paramour.
On my way home from work one evening, I opted to exhaust the last possibility and drop by Austin’s building. I could see from the street that the windows of his apartment were dark.
I was not surprised that my knocking was futile.
Returning to my car, I saw the woman in Austin’s window. Her complexion looked almost spectral against the cave-blackness of the room behind her. She faced the street, her expression emotionless. She was dressed in a short-sleeved dress that was unseasonable, given the cold snap that had recently struck.
My initial thought was that Austin must have moved and that I’d probably woken the new tenant from an evening nap.
I hadn’t noticed the young boy that stood beside her, clutching her hand with its tiny fingers. He was towheaded and cute. I found myself smiling.
The mother had led the boy away from the window before the revelation erupted within me. I froze, my mind reeling to determine whether I had actually seen what I had seen, who I had seen in that pool of black glass.
It was Liz. The more I reflected on the features of her face, her size, the colour of her hair, the more my doubt dissipated. I was certain that the woman I’d seen was Austin’s late wife. The young boy at her side could only have been William; the child now at least a year older than when his infant body had been blasted through a windshield upon impact.
I slumped behind the steering wheel of my car and remained there in a grey trance, neither puzzling out what I’d seen nor planning my next move in the game. I simply sat, thoughtless as a doll, until the frigid temperature roused me enough to start the engine and drive off.
I saw the sun crawl up the following morning, watched it through my living room window. I called in sick for work and waited until a decent hour approached for me to go back to the townhouse. By then I had almost convinced myself that the woman I’d seen was assuredly not Liz, any more than the toddler by her side had been Austin’s son grown to his appropriate age. All that was required was confirmation. If I could just see the woman in stark daylight I knew that all the vagaries of shadow and distance and fatigue, the ones my imagination had moulded into the echo of a dead woman, would be swept away.
It was a few minutes past nine when I veered onto Austin’s street.
The sight of police cruisers and a coroner’s vehicle parked before the townhouse with its door wide open stunned me. I parked down the street and jogged back to join the small congregation of gawkers at the base of Austin’s front stoop. Yellow tape was strewn across the townhouse entrance like Christmas tinsel. I asked if anyone knew what was happening. I was afraid that Austin had been hurt, or worse.
The details I was given by one of the onlooking neighbours was worse; far more than I could have fathomed.
If I knew Austin, an old man told me, I’d best tell the police. They were questioning everybody.
I slipped away from the scene and began to drive, grateful for the length and solitude of the trip because it allowed me time to sort my thoughts.
I found my way to the village with little difficulty, but got turned around on the country lanes and back roads. I squinted through the naked wood of the wintertime trees until I finally spotted the hint of the silo, which immediately became my beacon, luring me to the neglected property where my instincts told me Austin had to be. I’d known him too long to fully believe what I’d been told at the scene of the travesty. Given his anguished life circumstances these past few years, I owed him, if nothing else, a non-judgmental ear, a party that afforded him the opportunity to plead his innocence, or to explain how he’d come to be implicated in such a crime.
The daylight had begun to ashen with premature dusk by the time I finally reached the property.
The candles that sat guttering in the kitchen window were the first detail I noticed after I parked my car on the winding driveway. They glimmered like a dozen tiny suns attempting to illuminate the wormhole that was the decrepit farmhouse.
My concern over Austin’s fate must have muzzled whatever anxieties I was harbouring, for I marched up to the house with a deliberate stride.
When no one responded to my rapping, I tested the door myself and found it unlocked.
Dust lay thick upon the foyer’s toppled chairs. The warped floorboards were carpeted in the gaudy colours of flung junk mail. I peered through the nearest archway, observing what I presumed to be a room as vacant as it was dark.
I began feeling my way toward the swinging door where I could discern a glimmer of amber light billowing beneath the door. It stained the black floor with a suggestion of light.
But before I’d managed to push the door open someone puffed the candles out. I caught a whiff of melted wax that reminded me of birthday parties. Across the narrow kitchen, wicks smouldered like freshly cut wires. Then their tiny pinheads of light shrivelled up.
Still, there was enough of the moon leaking through the window to reveal the feminine form that was seated in the corner.
Neither of us spoke, and from what I was able to hear, I seemed to be the only one breathing; or at least breathing heavily. I swallowed but hadn’t enough saliva. My voice, when I finally decided to speak, was raspy, faint:
I felt a keen pain in my hands and discovered that I had dug my nails deep into the soft meat of my palms.
“Elliott . . .”
The voice was warbled and thick, like a phonograph spinning at an improper speed. It had the faint remnant of Liz’s tone, but there was a second voice wedged in there as well—Austin’s.
The woman in the corner slumped further down in her perch. Something plopped down upon the floor.
At first I thought the electric-purple glow blossoming in the corner was the flame of a novelty candle, perhaps an electric bulb. But the source of the light was the woman’s head. The pulsating glimmer moved across her face in ripples and waves, gauzing her features into something indistinct, or something in a state of flux.
A whitish jelly began to leak from the woman’s nostrils and the sockets of her fluttering eyes.
A strangled voice uttered “Help . . . me . . .” before the head caved in upon itself.
The shock of what I was seeing, or believed I was seeing, pressed me back against the wall. I pressed my palms against the grubby wallpaper and tried to exorcise the vision by squinting, by shaking my head to and fro, by crying out “No!” But the woman, now mute and mouthless, continued to smoulder within the cumulus of deep purple light.
When the stench of extinction crowded my nostrils and my tongue, I choked and doubled over to retch. I felt my way out of the kitchen, along the foyer, and back into the chill night.
If in fact it was still nighttime.
I was blinded by an eruption of light, so immediate and harsh that I feared it would eat through my eyelids. I shielded my face with my arms, but just as quickly as it had come, the light regressed, slinking back to a concentrated source: the silo.
At the tower’s summit there hovered a great orb of swirling purple, veined with searing lines of white. It pulsed and spun, and each flex emitted a cacophony of sounds. Some of these noises had all the rumble and bellow of August thunderheads; others shared the trill of young girls laughing.
I could see a figure standing just below the babbling sphere. It was holding something above its head, hoisting it like an offering. Something small.
The figure had to be Austin.
Every step I took toward the silo increased the volume and the intensity of the noises. I kept my head down and my hands clamped against the sides of my head and as I entered the silo.
The aged brick that composed the tower’s shell rattled, chunks of it raining down. I made my way to the ladder and began my ascent, watching as some of the wooden rungs were shaken loose, their binding nails spat out. Collapse was the only thing on my mind, and for a beat I actually paused, wondering if my friend was worth my life.
I never gave myself time to answer, at least not intellectually. Instinct pushed me up the final rungs.
Expecting to be met with great resistance, I bashed at the trapdoor in the ceiling with all the force I could muster and was shocked when it flipped open with ease.
I crawled up, my head turned downward. The noise was a blasting wind, the force of which pinned me to the rooftop.
My voice, human and puny as it was, must have startled whatever presence was there, for the light shrank more still. I looked up to see Austin turning to face me.
The light was slinking back into his gaping mouth.
It swam over his tongue like fish in a bowl. Austin’s expression was emotionless, as if caging this babbling light inside his skull was as natural as drawing air.
The bundle in his arms was not a child. Not any longer. It was now as ruined as the woman in the kitchen.
“Austin . . .” I gasped, “the police . . . they found out.”
He shut his mouth and swallowed, and just like that the light went out, the chorus fell silent.
“It’s no good . . .” he belched. “I can’t make it last.”
I lifted my hands, a gesture of passivity. “Austin . . . why? You kidnapped all those women . . . those kids. The police can’t even identify them, they’re so mangled. Why would you do this?”
Austin tipped the mess he’d been cradling over the rim of the silo wall. The child would not have felt the impact after its fall.
That was all my friend could manage. The sobs that tore out of him were so genuine that they were, in some ways, even more powerful than the babble of the purple light.
“I can’t . . . I can’t be without them, Elliott . . . I need them!”
I crouched down to where Austin had crumpled. The air was cold and held the reek of roofing tar. I put my hand on Austin’s shoulder.
“I just wanted to use it, use the Word my cousin and I heard up here that summer. My cousin couldn’t handle it; the Word ended up killing him. But I just thought . . . I just thought if I could talk their flesh in just the right way, if could speak the vessels into resembling them, I could get them back. That’s all I wanted, to feel my wife again . . . to hold my little boy . . .”
“I know, Austin . . . but it’s over. You understand me? It’s over.”
Austin told me no. “It can’t end. As much as I’d like to believe you, it can’t end because I can’t end!”
He turned his arms over, exposing the wide rips in his wrists. Like auxiliary mouths, the wounds stretched as Austin moved his arms. Not a single drop of blood escaped the would-be-fatal gashes.
“After I failed with the first woman, trying to talk her into Liz’s form, I tried to end it, Elliot. I was prepared to take the chance that I might join them in the hereafter. But it was already too late. I’d strayed too far from the scheme of things. I’m damned, Elliot. All I can do is keep on. I have to see it through in the hope that the Word will work.”
“You’re a wanted man,” I said. “You’ll be an immortal in a cell.”
“I need more time.”
“But it won’t be Liz, Austin. Even if you can get a body to look like her, it won’t be her, and you know it.”
Austin knitted his fingers and pressed them against his brow.
“I want out, Elliott . . .”
We talked more, and all the while a lone image haunted me: that of Austin, who had already endured more than most men could bear, being trapped inside a concrete cell; a deathless man whose body was already a prison, trapped further still. Like Job, Austin seemed born to suffer.
My suggestion for a possible solution struck me early in our conversation, but I spent a long while weighing its merits, its implications and its dangers for hours before I finally uttered:
“Teach me the Word, Austin.”
He peered at me, as if trying to discover whether I was mocking him or had taken leave of my senses.
“Tell me,” I repeated. “The police can’t find someone who isn’t here anymore, not really. And you . . . well, it’s not ideal, but maybe you can keep searching for Liz. She won’t need a vessel if you don’t have one either.”
Austin thought for a long and silent spell before shaking his head. “No, it won’t work. It will never . . . ”
“Then give me an alternative.”
Of course, there was none.
Austin crawled down through the trapdoor.
We hunched in the cobwebbed coldness of the silo’s loft. The carpet of grain and blown snow looked a thousand miles beneath us. I took in a deep breath. Austin shut his eyes, opened his mouth.
I had expected a sound—not a word in my native tongue, but something that at least sounded. But the Word did not sound—it pushed and blinded and burned.
The purplish light I’d seen in the sphere was now a dense ultraviolet blast that pushed into me, like a phallus puncturing a maidenhead. The air was pressed from my lungs; an electric heat fused my bones.
There was a swelling, a great mushroom cloud moving up my spine that threatened to shatter my head if I didn’t vent its lethal pressure.
I opened my mouth to howl, to give voice to what I was enduring.
What came vomiting out was a serpentine finger of purple light.
It left my mouth and shot knowingly, hungrily for Austin.
And oh how eagerly it went to work on him.
I toppled back as Austin was lifted, weightless as a windborne feather, into the electric cloud.
His flesh was the first to come apart, unravelling in an intricate grid, like threads, a skeleton of skin.
The blood must have evaporated the instant the Word kissed it, for Austin’s transmutation from body to light was tidy and swift; a process that had honed itself over countless eons. Bits of light spat off the whole like globules of sperm, they landed on the loft platform, trying to infuse life into the long-dead wood.
If bliss can be known by something bodiless, there was much of it in the light’s task of turning Austin into a protean Thing, an evolution I observed until my own lights went out.
That night I shovelled up the slop that had once been two human beings and buried it in the field.
• • • •
I still keep my townhouse in the city, my job, the veneer of a banal life. But the majority of my time is spent here. I keep the property up as best I can, if only to show any passersby that the house is indeed inhabited. I need to avoid anyone squatting in the house, the barn, and most importantly, the silo.
Last spring I re-tarred the silo’s roof and patched any holes in the mortar. The storm of purple light that lurks within is now all but invisible to the world.
I visit Austin frequently and have grown accustomed to the babbling chorus and the gooey sound of churning flesh. There are numerous faces in the violet light, but any resemblance to Austin’s or Liz’s or Will’s is, I fear, pure projection on my part. Occasionally I can lull myself into believing that my poor friend has achieved some type of reunion in that primordial soup, but I’ve come to appreciate that gazing into the visible Word is like studying a vast inkblot: what one sees is what one impresses upon it.
My body ages, but I know that death is no more an option for me than it was for Austin. I hope one day to find another who is willing to take over my role as guardian. But I fear the only option left for me is to try and find a way—likely in vain—to turn the Word upon myself.
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