Darkness does not come gently to Chongjin. It doesn’t creep over the purpling hills and into the cracks, like back in Mexico City. It’s not Novosibirsk, where night falls like a cheap blanket, and you end up shivering even in the jaws of summer. There is no golden hour here, no photogenic streamers of twilight curling up through the flaking tenements, no calls of mothers to their children to find their way home. None of that, no. Over here, night is a sudden lead pipe to the back of the head. Breathe in while I’m turning a corner in one of the container crate shanty- towns ringing the city, still squinting into the desiccating crush of grimed daylight. Breathe out and everything goes black, a basement door slammed shut and nailed into place, right when I’d just managed to pick up the scent again. I try to relax, to give my senses some space to adjust, hoping the scattered doorframes of coal fires would be enough to illuminate the squeezing alleys with an ashen glow. But when my eyes keep drifting towards the poorly synched LED boards flickering to life, diffusing the maze of sheet metal and plywood into a limbo of dimly reflected Korean celebrities, I know it’s time to let the bike go before I smash myself into a wall. That’d be some future archaeologists wet dream, wouldn’t it? What’s this here stuffed between the rat skeletons, the packing peanuts and the inch-thick layer of feces? An Irishman having relations with a rental scooter? Surely there’s a prize for that.
I should have a plan to hide the bike away for later, but realistically, what were the chances it or I would be here again? So I hand the keys to an anonymous pair of outstretched hands and bowl the helmet down a septic drain. Without the wind and the visor I can really suck in a good bit of the world. The world immediately obliges back, crawling down my throat and up my nose before nesting in my paranasal attic. I take a few half-steps one way, then backwards again, spin half a clock. Calm down, try again. At least it’s not Nampo, no rusting helicopters constantly tumbling overhead, no roving bands of masked gunmen picking through the abandoned resorts for underprepared chaos-touristas. It’s actually still long enough for me to sort out the distinctive chemical trail from the sifting clouds of cooking oil, rotting garbage, drifts of methane. I lean west, there, closer, I can just about tongue the slot, when a trio of kids on ATVs scream past, each one carting a trailer piled high with corroded car batteries. The acid snaps at my membranes and immediately wipes the trail away. Well then. Fuck. Time to resign myself to an old fashioned hunt-and-peck.
Head down, micro-fiber scarf wrapped around my face, I barrel into the human smog of the open market. I get some strange looks, some defensive tugging at waistbands for a weapon, a phone, who cares. I’m not worried. Sometimes I believe I’m protected by the lingering halo of several decades of oppressive propriety, a shepherd still faintly recognized by the sheep. Or maybe I’m just another pale white asshole in a long line going back to the first sails that pricked their horizon. Either way, no one has the energy to bother with a foreigner sniffing around their blackened chickens and cisterns of baby formula.
It’s in the third row of makeshift tents, among a jungle of antiquated three-prong power cords, that I get another taste of it. I tug at my scarf. Barely there, just a few dozen molecules. Difficult to describe. Something like a pop of color, or a memory trapped in the back of your mouth. Just a hint, but more than enough to start pushing me back towards what I am. If you ask my employers, they’ll insist on labeling me a warrior, a samurai, their blessed servant of honor and virtue. Watch their faces and you’ll know it’s bullshit even as they say it, because what I really am is their dog, a bloodhound or a beagle, something low to the ground. That’s what they pay me to be, in cash and in life. Besides, from the scraps of history I’ve read on the subject, real samurai weren’t really known for their shoving through crowds and inconspicuously smelling the backs of stranger’s necks. And I’ve yet to find a museum with a woodcut of a samurai passed out in a filthy hotel room, bruised prostitutes weeping at his feet.
Soon I’ve caught another scent ribbon, purer this time, a solid synesthetic burst of lemon yellow. I ducked under the rubber tarp and there she is, a shriveled old woman peeking out from behind a stack of Batman t-shirts. Gentle cataracts, skin like onion paper. In the right light, she could have been one of my parishioners, back two lifetimes ago. Except … she stinks of it, packed into every wrinkle on her ancient face, balled up in her tear ducts, matted into her tightly knit hair. My anus clenches at the smell.
I stand in her cramped stall, filling what little space she had with my presence, my palms open between us as if to receive the rain. I withdraw the crucifix from the folds of my jacket and ask her one simple question, one of the few Korean phrases I’ve bothered to memorize, other than How Much and Like That and Get The Fuck Out Of My Face. But this one I know the best. I can say it in over a hundred different languages and dialects. It’s critical that I get it right every time, because this is how the Procedure starts.
“Do you believe?”
Back at the seminary, people always asked why the phrasing is so important. Why those exact words? The monk patiently explains the simulations, the models, the millions of A-B tests run against every personality type. He tells us, even if it seems too obvious, we know this is the right question, that it will open the door to grace almost every time. Then some cocky smart-ass, usually an American, invariably a Texan, inevitably raises his hands and says what about the times it don’t?
The monk sagely taps the Procedure and drags his finger to the bottom of the scroll.
Then, my child, you have permission to skip to the end.
The old woman doesn’t budge and I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those rare skips, but then her eyes suddenly widen as if I had just appeared out of thin air. A creaky grin sprouts from the wrinkles on her chin and she nods and the blue veins on her neck throb with life. I dangled the crucifix again in front of her face. No reaction. I make sure no one else can see us and with a magician flip of the wrist replace the crucifix with a porcelain cameo of Kim-Il Sung. She blinks at it, her thoughts stuttering again, then with a little sigh she shakes her head and disappears under the counter. My muscles instinctively tense, but all she dredges out is an ancient, dinged-up laptop. The hard drive lights flutter and photos start fading in and out of each other, tinted in false sepia. I don’t have to understand her words to know what she’s saying. This is my grandmother. This is our family farm. This is great-uncle whoever. This little girl, this is me, and I realize that she can’t be any more than thirty years old. This country ages its people with a rare furiousness. When I first crossed the abandoned border into the former DPRK, it was like walking into the pages of a dim fairy tale, and everyone I met was a ghost or a gnome.
She rubs her hands together and repeats the same invocation over and over again. Her fingers brush gently against a ceremonial bottle of wine and a bowl of steaming white rice. Ancestor worship. Not uncommon around these longitudes, just another variety of the sectarian froth that bubbled over the peninsula after the bloody pop of their totalitarian cork. Not that the particular flavor of faith makes a difference, not to me, certainly not to the Procedure. The only thing that matters is that it is unearned.
I break out my most benevolent smile and wave my hand in a circle, shrug my shoulders, point to her laptop. I show her my crucifix again, still warm. I pat my heart and in my best, mealy-mouthed translation, wonder aloud: Where Can I Get Some? She rewards me with a silly look, as if I was asking for directions to Neptune, and I’m already mentally preparing for another week in this shithole, sleeping in the corner of an abandoned shipping crate. Then she raises her finger and points over my head, out of the market, to the crystalline glow of the illuminated cranes clustered along the port. I raise my eyebrows, More Details Please? She taps the wine bottle, looks eastward again. I quickly duck under the tarp and make a tentative sniff towards the scab of supply warehouses and truck depots between us and the water. Nothing. Wait. On a feather of sea-wind, the hint of a memory. A glass of gin with a twist of lemon.
I thank her and bow deeply. She bows back, smiling, nearly giddy to have helped a fellow believer. The lines on her face melt away and I catch an idea of the girl she could have been. We appraise each other quietly. I’m counting the seconds in my head. The Procedure notes that the next step can be taken up to a minute later. I always wait that entire minute. I never start early.
Forty seconds. More ATVs roar by, accompanied by the jeers of youthful exuberance.
Fifty-two seconds. The woman gazes at the images on her laptop. I hear the rattle of her phlegm-drowning lungs. I smell the flush of sweat down her back. Love fills her body.
The hilt is out of my pocket and in my hand. In a microsecond, a needle pricks my thumb, scans my blood, and the Word scalds the air between us in milky light. She raises a single finger, as if to shush me. Then her finger is gone, her arm is gone, her guts spill out onto the ground and then those are gone as well. I step into the space where she just was and cross myself, an old habit, before smashing her laptop under my boot. The digital spirits of her family tree flicker away in a crackle of plastic and silicon.
At two-hundred seconds, when the explosives go off, I’m already making my way towards the blue-haloed lights of the port, trying to ignore the sudden caress of thermabaric heat, carrying maroon notes of smoldering rubber, charred meat. Ashes to ashes, yes, I know.
Feels like I’m getting close to the last node now. After this the region can be considered clean, officially. Then no more Procedures for a while, grounding away in my primal brainstem. They won’t give me a lot of time, maybe a few weeks. Still, more than enough. Better than it used to be, compared to the mayflies of my previous incarnations. Platinum card mercenaries are always on the clock, especially since those terrible decades when it all fell apart. Now I try to remember those razor days and it’s almost impossible, just a monochrome nightmare, out of focus. People don’t like to talk about the thousands of micro-conflicts that used to constantly flare across the globe, each one a potential pilot flame for the Big One. Was it that long ago when we woke up to the red horns of Revelations, when Armageddon was just another season around the bend? Jihad Summer, Rioters Fall, Nuclear Winter. What other conclusion could there be to the raging screams on video, the poisoned thicket of thorns that was once the Internet, the suicide cults, the drone bombings, the tainted milk, the shrill threat sirens, the inescapable tinnitus of the last days?
Of course someone always profits from grief, mostly freelancers like me who hustled themselves to the fattest wallet. First came the hypochondriac corporations desperate for a specific type of security. Private, untouchable, untraceable. Then came the industrial-military empires, followed by desperate nation states. Money gushed out of them in arterial rivers, bankrolling entire ecologies of drugs, sex, depravity. To be honest, probably no one walking in my particular circles ever gave a stray thought to God or Jesus or Mohammed. The idea of salvation was a joke; we already had our glory on Earth, and Hell would be just one more op.
Of course, that flavor of bleak cynicism is mass-market now, salting the fallow fields of internet video, social network statuses, online dating services, university lectures. But me and my mates were the originals long before the black bullets of rationality, before the Big Reveal. I can still remember where I was when it all came out. In the palatial bedroom of some wasted heiress, our skin flush with cocaine and champagne, and both our phones flashed with new texts. She slid a flat screen out from the wall and on every channel was some unshaven local health “expert” claiming that we were all victims of “a brilliantly ugly hoax on our very souls”. Stark graphics swept across the screen, explaining how the stuff was kind of like a hormone and kind of like an opiate. How it got into your blood and infected the brain in just the right spot, and then, bam! …instant faith. Molecules locked together, chemicals bonded with CGI sparks and blammo: religious belief instantly hotwired into neurons, magnified by twenty and left to simmer. They read us its true name, something with a glut of –assiums and –thyacides, but people love puns more than science, so it wasn’t long before everyone knew it better as John’s Water. Hit everyone’s brain a little differently, probably why it took so long to be noticed. The geniuses claimed that it must have been horribly complicated to manufacture and difficult to transport. Which I suppose speaks to the stubbornness of faith, since it only took a few years for chemical pollution to soak into every bloody tribe, schism, personality cult and church on the planet.
Sometimes I choke up a laugh when I’m lucid enough to see how much everything else changed since that day, yet I’m still working the same fucking angles. I’m holding back that exhausted little laugh right now, rubbing my eyes, trying not to spook the car rental guy. He definitely wouldn’t be the first to reach for the little red panic button.
“Everything ok?” he asks, manicured fingernails tapping the glass of his sales tablet to the grating rhythm of his gum-smacking cowboy droll. “Umm. There’s some complimentary coffee in the back. If you need some.”
I glare at him. You can feel these fuck-you bullets drilling into your forehead, right?
He blinks and spins around to the rack of keys. “Where are you off to today? Montana, you said?”
“Umm. There’s a bit of an extra deposit for that kind of mileage. Refundable on return, of course. How far in are you planning on going?”
“Lewistown.” Not quite but close enough.
He sets a set of keys on the counter and nods. “Beautiful country up there. Probably should stick to the highway though. 94 and 87. Been whispers of some bad news from the gaps.”
“Bad news?” I ask nonchalantly, even as the heavy red nodal links flash in my head.
“Used to be a lot of squatters corners for some of those hard-core Christian groups. You know, the God Hates Fags type?”
I grunt an affirmative. A lot of people assumed the red-faced screamers would have been the worst ones out there, but instead most of them simply faded away after John’s Water. Turns out that they worshiped money and pettiness over any kind of God, and most of their nodes ended in silent mansions littered with corpses boarded up in bedrooms, spent bullets, gold coins specked with crusted blood.
The rental guy leans in a bit, my keys in his fist like a totem. “Even worse now … cults,” he says under his breath. “Backwoods rumors. Men wearing deer heads. Women in white linen. Folks gone missing from their homes, from the street. Police aren’t talking, not that I’d expect them to. I have a second-cousin up there, says that it’s mostly young girls going missing. And, umm, I guess someone like you would stick out like a sore thumb, still, better to be safe than sorry. Right?”
Safe or sorry?
I yank the keys out from his grip. I could say that yesterday, while you were here eating a bagged lunch of bologna and watery mustard that I can still smell on his stained teeth, I was hugging the wall of a Chongjin warehouse. The building was crawling with bunny suits, all of them too busy filling hollowed-out cantaloupes with John’s Water to notice a ghost sneaking up behind them. And while you took a shit in the bathroom across the hall I unsheathed the Word of God and neatly decapitated all of them, save for one, the only one blessed with both an earpiece and a clipboard. Would you find it safe or sorry when I held up my blade to the cyclopic visor of a weeping young smuggler, forced him to show me on Google Maps all of the buyers and sellers he knew? Map out the nodes, I demanded. As he bawled and whimpered and pinched and zoomed, I mentally checked them off. Jakarta. Salvador. Berlin. Orlando. Karachi. Montana. Ah. All except one scrubbed clean, if not by me, then one of the other samurai dogs sniffing around the shipping lanes.
“Show me my car,” I say.
The bishops trust us with the Procedure because we’re trained to root out any node, no matter how obscure or unlikely. Find it, burn it, and follow every outward link and do the same to those nodes. The theory is that eventually we’ll find every dealer and user of John’s Water and cleanse it from the globe, like smallpox. Three cheers for optimism.
Cults. Americans. Fuck.
“Ah, here it is, don’t know how I missed it.”
The salesman gestures to a sedan the same shape and color as a bar of used hotel soap. It sits among two dozen nearly identical cars, each one differentiated from its brothers others by a minimal, almost subliminal, change in tincture, as if their palette had been chosen by a homeopathy practitioner. He holds out a clunky phone cam and inventories each little blemish, probably expecting me to memorize them as well. I try to look interested, even if it’s a pointless exercise. Most likely the car will turn up on the side of a back road, a blackened and mangled shell, if ever found at all.
“Nice phone,” I say.
He shrugs at my sarcasm. “Company issued. I don’t think you can even buy this thing anymore.”
“Hmmm.” That’s an interesting bit of synchronicity. Half-dozen nodes back, I tracked down a cabal of hard-core atheists turned evangelical nihilists. Despite their bravado and black revolvers, every one of those filthy blonde executives flinched before the light of the Word. There’s a reason no one goes to Norway anymore, or bothers with their phones.
Ah, nostalgia. That was back when my victims would fight back. Now we’re down to the old women and scraggly tree huggers. Three cheers for efficiency.
“Well, Mr. Effex, you certainly chose a good day for a drive.” The rental guy wipes a bit of dust off the dash as he notes the mileage. “Wide open skies, haven’t seen a cloud yet. Like my wife says, feels like the Lord’s smiling down on us today –”
He immediately blushes and stutters an apology. Some things are still dangerous to say in certain company. Organized religion hasn’t totally gone extinct out here, so fuck you democracy , but being public about it typically gets the same reaction as bragging about a stash of goat porn. A little sad, a little crazy. I grunt and sniff the air. Smells like sweat, carpet cleaner, and airplane fumes. The inspection complete, he flips his phone around for my signature. I press my thumb onto the screen and wait as it matches my print to my subdermal radio dot and fishes out a valid ID. The salesman cranes his neck to see what comes up, probably hoping for a plump referral. I have more than enough cred to cover an entire fleet of these plastic toys, but he’ll see very little of it. My back-office hackers will have already wiped this identity, turning me into just another unexplained stain in their records.
The cliffs of smoking factories shrink into clusters of squat industrial parks, which in turn shrivel into puckered blisters of strip malls and stuttering dashes of orange stucco row houses before finally yielding to open landscape. An hour more and I’m deep into the heavy pines, the highway to myself. I pull over to piss into the tree line. The wind shifts the dust at my feet. Crows call to each other in stereo, warning each other of a hawk gliding above us in lazy orbits. I take my eyeglasses off and slide a thin, silver stylus out of the earpiece. With a swift tap to the thumb, the chipkiller fully reprograms and encrypts my radio dot with a new dummy identification key. Then I do the same to the rental car GPS, satellite radio and black box. As far as the rental company can tell, I’m still on my way to Lewiston and not jagging north. I gingerly slide the stylus behind my ear, and click it back into the eyeglass frame. The chipkiller is the second most expensive piece of equipment I carry, and the replacement paperwork is a bitch.
I kick the tires and stare into the creaking forest. I lean back and close my eyes against the sun. Seconds pass. No one drives by. The crows stop calling to each other. The hawk is still up there. Yes, I am procrastinating. I hate the next step. I hate thinking about it. What if I just … didn’t do it? Certainly no one is going to run a trace on me out here. If someone did have a reason to cast out a net, what would they see? A set of GPS coordinate? A timestamp? Load up a satellite nanny-cam and snatch a few pixels of me holding my dick? No one cares that much. So, why not skip it, just once?
Because it would break the Procedure, and that always ends up in pain. No matter how smart I think I am, the monks who developed the Procedure are smarter. Ridiculously so. It’s as if they created a chess game featuring every military tactic, every criminal heist, every psychological model. Then they set it to Extreme Difficulty and found a way to beat it every God damn time. I’ll be the first to admit that the Procedure has saved my hide more than I can count. One time, early on, I figured on improvising some of the minor steps, get a little loosey-goosey with the details. That tiny knot of hubris snagged up into a sequence of events that ended with me bound and gagged by a congregation of Columbian snake worshippers. Since then, no matter how much the cocky side of my brain tries to convince otherwise, I never stray from the Procedure. Cause when it goes right, it’s like I’m a motivated shadow, like I don’t even have to exist.
Onward. Grit my teeth and take out the hilt, the most valuable thing I’ve ever possessed in my life. Not because it’s made of reclaimed Vatican gold, a plated half-banana indented with a series of shallow ridges that match the knuckles of my right hand like the tumbler of a lock. Not because of the diamond crucifix inset on the side, a garish copy of the silver one hanging against my chest, and not because it’s locked to my DNA, making it more intimate than any lover, earned or stolen. Its value comes from the fact that it exists, a weapon of mass destruction that fits comfortably in my pocket. For this, there is no replacement, no paperwork. If I lose it, I may as well load up with rocks and walk into the sea.
I take the hilt and hold it in front of me, just as the rental guy held his phone. But instead of snapping pictures, a black filament shoots out, one-dimensional, as if drawn in ink. Then a second parallel wire joins the first, followed by an almost imperceptible trill of electronic diagnostics. The hilt suddenly grows cool in my hand as a milky light stutters out to encircle both of the wires, coiling around them a thousand times over in the blink of an eye. It’s called surgical fog, an innocuous name for a billion nano-goblins programmed with only one purpose – to cut through anything organic and never stop cutting until their brief mayfly lives are over. The wires keep the fog under control, sparking out radio orders to maintain formation, hold a simple shape. In my case, an elongated sword about a yard long and the width of my thumb.
“Lux Veritas,” I say to the Word.
It mindlessly hums back to me. You are a warrior. A samurai of Christ.
What a pretty liar you are.
Prior to the Word, there was a lot of improvisation. Some of us used acid to erase our Nodes. Others fell back on more primitive methods. Fire, holes, garbage bags and deep water. None of it was perfect – it’s quite amazing how much damage even the faintest traces of genetic material can withstand. Too many of our missions were poking through the ice, no matter how airtight the Procedure. So the monks hunkered down and dreamed up something new. God’s sword, for the Word is God. Implies a distribution of sin, that our actions are shared between us and our Creator. That is not the case. No one else is there when I track down my quarry, plot against them, choreograph the last moments of their life. I’ve never sensed a host of angels at my back as I unsheathe my weapon. And I am certainly, absolutely alone when I stand above the disintegrating bodies, the air fluid with that unique flavor of bursting cellular walls and ozone. Maybe later on, when I’m sure the Procedure is complete, does the Lord rejoin me, not with acceptance, but with wrath, a cold gray stone lodged into the forehead.
Many lives ago, I would bellow at my flock and warn them about the weight of our shackles, the burden of guilt we all are blessed and born with, drawing an invisible line from the bleeding Christ hanging above me to the hidden rooms of their hearts.
I press the hilt to my wrists. The warm gold feels good, the handshake of an old friend.
It would be so easy, just pull. Do it. Imagine the contents of my body pouring out on the cracked asphalt as the fog chews me up from the inside. Nothing would be left.
Except I’m a fucking coward. Not afraid of death itself. Maybe some of it is apprehension for the pain, although oddly enough no one ever seems to scream or even cry. I guess we never evolved a response to sudden disintegration.
Or maybe I’m afraid that unforgiving stone will be waiting for me in the darkness.
Enough. A swell of purple is already cresting at the horizon. The Procedure waits, teeth bared, daring me to ignore it. I crouch down in a patch of wildflowers and set the Word to its lowest setting, the fog falling in opacity to a faint shimmer. Carefully, carefully, I stroke the tip of my thumb along the blade and watch as the flesh goes pink, then white. I hold my breath and lock my muscles in place as the swirls and whorls of my thumbprint start to soften and the first specks of blood appear. Then I quickly retract the Word and thrust my blighted hand into the pocket my jacket, where a sewn-in patch of sync fabric stuns and disables the nano-goblins before they can get too far into the bloodstream. And with that, Mr. Effex disappears from the earth. Not to worry, the next Procedure will bring with it a shiny new name and thumbprint.
Even with all of the windows rolled down and the intake air at full force, it’s nearly midnight before I catch a trace of the scent. A single particle of John’s Water streaks through the black, as fleeting as a meteor. I pull over and wait for a few freight trailers to lumber past – natural gas, apples, frozen poultry. When the road is empty and silent, I close my eyes and suck in a breath. Nothing. Try twice more. Just as empty. Only the dun tide of weeds, the fluorescent sparkle of pine sap. I nervously rub my crucifix, wondering just how much further into the wilderness I’ll have to go. Each mile in is another subtle ratcheting of risk.
This is the problem with digging out roots. The monks claim to know exactly how much John’s Water is left out here, that everything has been calculated out with precision, that we’re making progress. They preach like born-again social network consultants, incessantly blathering on about betweenness, closeness, eigenvector centrality. A few weeks out in the field and everyone realizes this is total bullshit, that no one has a clue about the remaining nodes beyond a general estimate of how many more there may be and how deep they go. We’ll never walk the tree all the way back to the seed.
Getting closer now. The scent trail hangs in the crystalline air like a golden thread, easy to separate out from the heavy musk of a herd of deer racing alongside me, a hundred feet away. I catch a glimpse of them through the pines, headlights reflecting from their eyes, their antlers, the dirt flying up from their hooves. They have no idea I’m aware of their presence. They believe they’re invisible to humans. No one bothered to tell them that some of us have spent weeks in locked rooms with only a copy of the Xavier New Testament and an IV drip to keep us company, puking in buckets as experimental drugs attack and modify our bodies. They’ve never met a human with tripled hair cell count in their cochleae, hybridized scenthound chemoreceptors, or corneas enhanced with shims of metamaterial. If I walked up to one, would it even see me as human?
Early morning brings with it a flyspeck town that sits uncannily close to the vague pixels the Korean smuggler pointed at before returning to the bosom of his ancestors. I kill the engine and coast in. Yes, the scent is a lot stronger now. No specific direction yet, but close enough for today. I find the only hotel in town, pay the automat with a fresh radio dot and promptly pass out on a bed that despite the recent bleach soak still glows with the olfactory Cherenkov glow of a thousand gallons of bodily fluids. No problem. Have the right pills and anyone can sleep instantly and dreamless.
When I wake up, the later afternoon sun is soaking through the window screens. Lucky day, there’s a pub downstairs, the kind populated with dusty animals in various states of taxidermy and illuminated by Christmas lights all year round. I flick the bartender enough cash to last the night, wave over a shot of whiskey, and then a few more. The bartender notices me sniffing the glass.
“Worried I’m passing it to you with just a spit wash?” he asks, playfully offended.
“Tourists can’t be too careful.” The whiskey is diluted yet sublime. Third shot down and I catch the slightest trace of John’s Water coming in from a cracked window, just enough to kick in the Procedure. Damn, I was just starting to relax. Time to chum the water. “The Lord blessed me with the sensitive gut of a wee kitten.”
“Then you might think twice about having the rest of those,” the bartender cautions as he slides over a bowl of pretzels. “How about something to weigh it down? Sorry I don’t have any saucers of milk.”
The pretzels are stale but clean, the bowl is clean and the bartender is clean as well, which is a great relief. Nothing worse than having to slaughter where you sleep.
“So, is there a church in town?”
“You’re a few years too late. Last to go was First Lutheran, it’s a Texaco now. No, wait…” He sets down his rag and calls out to the other patrons. “Hey, what’s out there at the First?”
An uncomfortable silence. An indigo halo of adrenaline surges through the room. Fear. Panic.
From a table of college age girls, an answer. Ratty hair, clean faces, not enough clothing. A game of Euchre suspended between them. The girl in a blue day-glo tube top scowls at me.
“It’s nothing,” she says. “Junkies and cats.”
“Thank you very much,” I say, laying on my grandfather’s accent as thick as possible. She raises an eyebrow and brings a bottle of cheap beer to her lips, slowly. Very slowly. Everyone notices. The indigo air streaks with candy pheromones.
The bartender nods. “There you go. Why do you care? Are you some kind of Brit journalist?”
“Irish actually.” I shake the dirty images out of my head and lay out my crucifix on the bar. “We’re always looking for an opportunity to help spread the Good Word.”
The bartender grimaces and quickly covers the crucifix with a meaty hand. “Jesus, put that away before you get yourself killed.” His eyes dart around to the other patrons, the doddering cowboy watching football on his phone, the couple in the corner reading the menu, the girls back to focusing on their cards with bottles of beer tight in their fists.
“Just be careful with that shit. You from Rome or Osaka? A Shimabara boy?”
The name spikes a memory from the weeds. I’m naked and steaming in the fetish parlor when a gang of Daimyo Cardinals burst in, sending the red-rubber succubae squealing out to the hallway. I’d heard rumors of them, freaks hired by the Emperor’s second daughter after she witnessed her beloved Bishop of Tokyo stoned to death. In front of the royal family and the world, she declared herself married to God and cloistered herself away. Triggered a tipping point in Japanese pop-culture, and a few weeks later the entire place went Catholic-a-Go-Go. Teen fashion swung towards 18th Century liturgical garments, all heavy cloth and severe hats. Body shops sold out on stigmata implants. I tended to drift around the region a lot after realizing that being a real-deal Irish Catholic priest meant all of the free services I could handle, despite (or perhaps because of) my lapsed credentials.
I hoist my pop-gun from under a towel and level it at the vested goons.
What can I do for you tonight, gentlemen?
We’re starting it over, they said. The reincarnation of the Church.
Vatican III? Give me a fucking break.
No. We call it Shimabara, after a great rebellion in this country centuries ago, when thousands died in the name of Christ –
I know what it is.
We already have the seeds planted, and many of those pure of soul have answered the call.
Good luck with all that. Now, why should I care? I believe you have a pretty good view of the purity of my soul from where you’re standing.
We know what you used to be, Father, and what the great Corruption stole from you. We can give you a chance to fight for the scraps of your faith tossed into the wind by your previous masters.
How well does it pay?
Of course, we both knew it wasn’t really the quality of my soul that drew them to me. One condition for rebooting the Church was that it must be washed clean from the stains of the past, so that the light of Truth may shine unimpeded. So the Cardinals searched us out, former men of God, whom had bathed in sin and had no innocence left to lose. We would be their samurai, the Procedure seared into our subconscious, trained to walk the nodes of John’s Water. Our work will only be done when it, and everyone touched by it, has been scoured away. Until then, Shimabara rains yen down on us, keeping us fat and happy and firmly screwed into their grand designs.
“I consider myself more of a curious wanderer, although I do forward my roaming data bills to Osaka. I doubt Rome has enough lira to buy a bus ticket to Venice, let alone kick someone over the pond.”
“Yeah, well, I try not to follow all of that business. Around here, we’ve always tended to believe in ourselves rather than the redolent promises of strangers.” The bartender shrugs and rinses out my glass. “Anyways, I’m not sure what you’re hoping to find out there. This whole region is burned out, only ones kicking around are hippies spooking around in the woods. Nothing you would care about.”
“You’d be surprised,” I smile. “Even the smallest ministries don’t mind an open checkbook, no matter whose bank it draws from.”
“Wouldn’t call it a ministry. Wouldn’t call it anything but a problem.”
He pours another shot, appraises me with new eyes. “Just a little ways out of town, gravel path off to the west. Double-wide trailer, lots of tinsel, birdhouses. Old guy named Hank runs the place. Listen, if it matters, some folks say things about them, nasty things.”
“And what do you think?”
He turns his back to me.
“What do you want me to tell you? We stay out of their way and they keep to themselves. No one’s really comfortable with them being out there. Still … I expect they’re harmless enough. Like I said, nothing more than a squabble of hippies.”
I thank him with a tip of enough real, untraceable cash to give him walletburn for a few days. The road out of town reminds me what bothers me the most about the States – the predictability. Fifth time here and I’d be damned to tell the difference between any of these towns. One paved drag cutting through the core, fenced in both sides with a spill of fast food boxes, beauty enhancers, no-dot shops, insurance companies and agro brickfronts. A shower clog of stucco-and-neon hotels and bars caps the town at one end, a giant Wal-Mart at the other, with the population itself pushed out into a labyrinth of prefab apartments bleeding out of the warehouse district. As the sun sifts down from its apex, I can make out the glimmer of cathedral windows from high in the wooded mountains overlooking the town, Olympian manses for the stray plutocrat or a clan of well-armed squatters. And somewhere out there, someone is carefully listening to a voice in their head telling them to “recruit” more followers. Instant cult, just add water.
Rome or Osaka. What a question.
If the cards had been played fairly, that entire Abrahamic branch should have been cut and cauterized that day when the U.N. escorted the iPope out of the Vatican, their battered blue helmets stark against the clean whites and reds. They dragged him out in plastic handcuffs, the youngest Pope in history, the first Pope who didn’t need handlers to use the internet, who starred in viral videos and cameoed in Italian screwball comedies, whose flirtatious grin broke the Church out from decades of self-imposed solemnity and dourness.
Over the next year, details leaked out of The Hague, one terrible confirmation after another, high caloric fodder for every rabid conspiracy nut. Eventually one timeline rose in truthfulness above the others, spawning from a mere three megabyte PowerPoint file presented by a young Bishop at a social media conference, streamed and archived for posterity. He started by explaining that the Church claimed people were slipping from their faith. In public, they staged the problem in biblical terms like falling, tempted, wayward, lost. In private, they understood it in much more secular terms, those of eyeballs, market share, churn. The Bishop explains to his bored brethren that Catholicism is like a night out at the movies. They come in, young, excited, ready to believe. They get quite a show. And then, the credits roll and every Sunday it’s the same movie, repeated ad nauseum, and is it any wonder that our parishioners start to wonder is this it? We tell them, well, patience and endurance is the interactive part of the show, and maybe the older ones stick around a little longer. After all, they already paid their baptismal ticket, the cost is sunk. But most get restless, bored. They check their phones and worry about all of the other things they could be getting done. When they stop showing up physically and spiritually, it’s not because they are evil, led astray by the vices of modern life. No, they walk out of that theatre because once we have reduced ourselves to entertainment, they have no reason not to. And our troubles and scandals? Those may as well be bright Exit signs. Meanwhile, the Muslim Movement takes up more and more of those empty seats. The last slide in his deck has a single ominous, serpentine question mark. What do we do?
In the archive video of the room, you can see the Bishop expects feedback. After all, this is the future of the damn Church, right? Except the audience isn’t even looking at him. They’re all staring at their laptops, their iPads, their plastic cups of chilled, filtered water. All except one, another new Bishop, slightly older than the presenter but not by much. He hails from the science division, which is really just another breed of public relations to assure the educated population that yes the Pope believes in evolution and genetics and even the Higgs Boson. This man is carrying a bomb in his hands in the unresolved form of a bound report, the thesis of a neurochemical student from a quiet theological college. The two men’s eyes meet. They approach each other, they shake hands, they kiss cheeks, they whisper to each other, bathed in the cold light of the projector, that final question mark bent and broken around the folds of their robes, the backs of their necks.
Rome is dead. I watched it burn, as hard and white as a magnesium flare. There is no Rome, there is no Pope, only a haggard middle-aged man in a red jumpsuit, forbidden from touching a computer or a chemistry set. He writes these cozy little chapbooks, explaining from his cell the mistakes he made in the name of God. For example, their failure to contain John’s Water to a small circle of chosen luminaries; apparently they miscalculated the social proximity between a devout Australian politico and a budding JI cell in Jakarta, which turned out to be thin as the sweat between desperate, intertwined bodies. Once it was out, demand immediately backwashed up the network – insiders unloaded the recipe, the ingredients, hell, entire fucking chem kitchens dumped into the global gray market. The Church intended to gently boil the lobster and ended up skewering it over a deep-pit barbecue. In this case, they held positions of both the lobster and the fire.
Once I cajole him out of the trailer, I can see Hank does fair justice to the bartenders description; a shirtless man-child with a paunch and scraggly beard the color of dirty snow, tidal tremors rippling down his fingers, lungs clicking with the soaking rasp of self-pollution. Just another gelded hermit, except that he positively crackles with lemony light, John’s Water shimmering from every pore. Hank refuses to talk to me until I let him fondle my crucifix and eyeball my various Religion Licenses. Satisfied, he grabs my shoulder and cheerily offers me the grand tour of his operation, which consists of a rust-cornered trailer, a hastily constructed gazebo in the back, a few folding chairs, and several boxes of old PDAs stuffed with Bible passages and hymns. When his arms begin to flail about and he launches into a sermon about the intimacy of God, I wouldn’t have to smell him to know that his mind is buzzing with chemically induced rapture.
“I lost my way once, walking with the sinners and the demons, but then he found me.” He barks with the disembodied tone of a circus ringmaster. “He’s with me all the time now, the bearer of the morning star, guiding me away from the darkness, from my wrongful appetites.”
“Exactly who found you, my son?”
He gestures to the sky, the trees.
“Don’t you feel his presence?”
“If you are speaking of the Lord, yes, I know he is always with us.”
“Ah. The Lord. Yes. God. Allah. Manitou. Sucellus. It does not matter what you call him. He is unknowable, nothing that that could ever be understood by the meat in our skulls. Here, let me show you something.”
I follow him away from the trailer, into the trees. We walk until there’s no trace of civilization within eyesight, only a carpet of small stones and pine needles, the rustling trees, the whispering of wild grass. Hank is sweating, radiating neurochemicals like a man on fire. He kneels down on both knees and offers his face to the flawless sky.
“Just listen,” he says. “There are words in the silence. He is speaking to us. Can’t you feel his touch in the light?”
I smile, briefly spread out my hands so that the sun can warm them, then clasp them back together.
He bends backwards, arcing his spine to an intentionally painful angle. Pinecones push into his scalp.
“We rejoice! We offer ourselves, unafraid! We rejoice! Come to us!”
Back at the trailer, he offers me a glass of water. I politely decline, never taking my eyes off the clear liquid, a lukewarm bomb held so casually in his hand. It takes a concerted push of will to not unleash the Word, to cut him into ribbons for thinking so little of me.
“And how many others have joined your congregation?”
“Eight, for now, always looking for more,” he winks and leans into me. “If you’d like, we have a prayer circle every night, and all visitors are welcome. We sup at seven and then we commune. You could even rest your head in my home, plenty of room.”
I have to keep from gagging from the yellow clouds rising off of him. “That’s very gracious of you, but I’m currently residing at that automatic hotel off the highway.”
“I understand.” Hank tugs on his beard.
“Well, Hank, this is exactly the type of small organization my benefactors are looking for. I expect to have some assistance for you soon.”
“I knew this day would come. He told me so.” He grabs my hand and kisses it. “Bless you!”
On the drive back into of town I notice the shell of First Lutheran, a dead tooth squeezed between the nail salons and auto shops. Despite the minimal efforts of the last owners, obscene graffiti still coats the old brick walls like cheap tattoos. The stained glass windows are gone, replaced with plastic sheeting and particle board. Tears of ash run down the steeple, tracing a pale outline where the cross used to hang. I don’t know why I slow down, why my foot weighs down on the brakes until I am stopped in front of the gaping entrance. It may look like empathy for a theological cousin, except I truly don’t care. My fingers reflexively creep over the edge of my hilt as I pass the threshold. Winter jackets are still hanging on the racks, copies of the last program litter the floor. The sanctuary itself is a deep cavern of settling dust and cinders preserved in an opaque fog of feline urine. Many of the pews appear to have been gouged by an axe. Cats growl and dash away from my boots as I make my way to the pulpit, upon which the word LIAR has been scrawled over and over again in thick black paint.
There was a time when the world was electric with this particular breed of vengeance.
The bombings. The hangings. The doffed police uniforms, the blind camera eyes, the car trunks full of automatic weapons. The wobbly camera video of an enterprising student being smashed into the marble floor of his university library by a hundred furious boots until there was nothing human left.
I can understand that impulse, to reduce yourself to an object of violence, to let rage whittle away whatever you think you are into little more than a blunt intention to hurt, to kill, to obliterate. It is to be free from thought, from emotions, from any of the myriad biological mechanisms tricking us into consciousness.
As soon as I place my hands on the lectern, my ears prickle. Footsteps. Cat claws on tile. God damn it. I can’t smell a damn thing through the piss. I have the hilt out of its bed now, my index finger rubbing against the activation jewel.
“You look at home up there.”
Flare my nostrils. Smell her only a second before I see her. Beer. Perfume, artificial jasmine. Hairspray. Sweat. I hear her skin rubbing against her clothes, the soft rise and fall of air in her lungs. She brushes off the dust from the first pew and sits down, resting her head on her hands, making sure that the full shape of her body is visible, plain and true. A sad cartoon bunny peeks out from under her tube-top.
“Thank you,” I say, politely ignoring the rising heat in my blood, the buzz of inevitability in my ribs.
“Are you planning on moving in?”
“Ah, sorry, afraid I’m already spoken for.”
She raises an eyebrow. “So you’re really from Shimabara?”
“Indeed,” I tell the girl. “I’m surprised you’ve heard of it way out here.”
“Come on, Father. Even us hicks know how to use the internet.”
“Of course. No offense was meant.”
“So … did you find Hank?”
“Yes, I did, thank you.” I step off the pulpit. A patchwork cat with ripped ears rubs against my leg. “Do you know him?”
“No. But everyone knows of him.“ She bends over to lift the cat off the ground. A pencil beam of light from the broken roof scratches across her hair, her arms, the swells of her breasts, fracturing my thoughts out in angles probable and improbable. Fortunately the conditioning of the Procedure is greater than the force of my own aging libido, and I’m swiftly pulled back to admiring the landscape from behind the window of a moving train.
She stands back up, nuzzling the cat against her chin.
“Did he serve here?” I ask.
“No. That was Pastor Gardner, he –“ She stares past me to the pulpit.
The cat wriggles and growls and jumps out of her hands. “No, Hank isn’t from around here. Think my sister said he came up from Florida.”
“Your sister knew him?” I think back to the other girls she shared a table with at the pub, how there were parallel aspects in their features, a symmetry to their movements, in their scent, scattered across several years of age.
She shrugs. “A little bit. I mean, they were friendly … you know. She said he was a sweet guy. Was ready to start a new life.”
“Is your sister part of his group? I’d like to talk to her, get her thoughts on what’s going on out there.”
“His group?” She slides a hand along the curve of her hip, wiping off dust and cat dander. “Oh, you mean the others who go out there to his trailer and fuck around with candles and snakes or whatever? No, not anymore. Besides, Melli doesn’t live in town anymore.”
She reaches out and straightens out one of the lapels on my jacket. Her fingers move over to my neck, reach under my collar until they find the silver chain of my crucifix. This close, I can see the slight traces of age on her skin, in the wearing of her teeth, the redistribution of fat and muscle. Older than she seemed at first, well enough beyond the calm waters of innocence into wilder, open seas. I reach a hand through my own hair, steadily infiltrated by the blight of time despite the biological tinkering.
“May I?” she asks even though she already has the silver, balanced on the wall of her thumb. “Did they give this to you in Osaka?”
“It belonged to my mother.”
She nods and lets the crucifix drop.
“Father Bastion.” She kneels down before me on the filthy floor. My blood throbs with lurid expectation, ready to dissolve the shackles of the Procedure, all possible futures be damned.
She looks up with clean, blue eyes. “Will you say a prayer with me?”
I don’t know how long I stand there, mute and breathless. I draw the pleasant iron mask down hard, even as my mind grows cold behind it, cold as the earth beneath our feet.
“Please,” she says. “I promise, no one will see us.”
“Of course, my child.”
I kneel beside her, and my hands are shaking and there is a beautiful moment when nothing at all is happening. I hold onto it as long as I can. Then my lips are already moving, my tongue is moving towards the roof of my mouth to speak, a raspy breath bellows out from my lungs to form the sound, the clarion call to open the gates of my personal midnight graveyard.
“Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.”
The last time I said these words without irony, I was a wholly different human than I am now, unrecognizable to anyone alive who knows me. The sand is in our shoes, a hot wind ceaselessly rocks against the body, dehydrating emotions to small, hard cores. My second year in country, alone in the mission, a recently emptied glass of wine on the shelf.
Sprawled out on the floor, the broken child. Bones shattered. Eyes, black plums. Fingers scraped of skin attempting to shield herself.
Pray with me, she begs.
“Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.”
I had heard the story. Raped by an uncle, punishment for an unappreciated spark of laughter. Raped and then accused. She came to me for help. I taught her the ways of my God, His words, His promise. She needed more. I knew it. I knew it.
“Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.”
Life bubbles from her lips. The men cornered her by the old well, perhaps hoping she would jump in, selflessly save them from the bother of going through with it. At this time I am only a man, unenhanced, unwise, but I can still read her injuries like a movie playing in reverse. Each stone flies away from her, erasing the damage, revealing the smiling, shy face selling vegetables at the market.
She claws at my hand, fighting, losing.
Do you pray for my child as well?
“And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.”
The men are at the door. Angry shouts, fists beating the walls.
Something crashes through our only window and I cannot hear her last breath.
There is a gun, an old Kalashnikov, left by my predecessor. I have never fired it, never even dared lift it out from its secret home. I should be amazed at how gracefully it settles into my hands, how quickly I figure out how to aim the thing as the mob breaks through and tumbles into my sanctuary. If I could slip back into that room, would I have detected invisible fumes of a John’s Water boiling off their raging bodies? Of course.
But this was long before we knew about any of that.
The thing I do learn that day is that muscles and eyes don’t care about morality, to them there is no difference between marking a man’s forehead with a cross of ash or a thrown stone or a bullet hole.
“For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.
We stand back up. She stretches her arms out and then squints at me.
“Father, are you crying?”
“No,” I say. “It’s the damned cat piss.”
The pub is busier now, people flowing in and out with the ease of a warm bath. I track down an empty barstool by the wall, much too close to the speakers of an antique mini-stereo, crooning a brittle Johnny Cash ballad. The bartender notices me, nods. He’s already reaching for the half-emptied whiskey bottle.
“Maybe something lighter,” I interject. “I still have some work to do tonight.”
“Anything in mind?”
“Just a beer would be fine. I don’t care what kind. Surprise me.”
He fills a glass of copper from the tap and slides it over. I instinctively dissect the components, letting my nose filter out each unique molecule. I know it’s safe by the time my lips touch the glass. The beer is refreshingly cold, laced with unexpected sweetness. I tip it down until the lingering memories of urine and John’s Water are washed away. He notices my appreciation.
“Good, right? Local seasonal brew,” he says. “Honey ale.”
“I might have to buy a case to bring home with me.”
He chuckles. “That’s what everyone says. I doubt they make it much farther than the town limits. Heard you were able to get a hold of Hank?”
An old cowboy parked next to me pricks up his ears, swivels to face me. His eyes are scratched nickels.
“Are you going to close down that freak show?” he grumbles. “I’m not too keen about your kind sniffing around, but out there, in the woods, they’re worse. They creep everyone out. Yelling and singing their bullshit all hours of the night. Praise this, hail that.”
“Well, he seems fairly harmless.” I finish my beer, tap the bar for a replacement. “I admit God’s message can be unsettling at times. Still, I’ve been to a lot of places that could use the strength of his faith.”
The cowboy snorts and inches away from me, as if he just realized he was talking to a feral rat this whole time.
“Strength of faith? Isn’t that what got us into this mess in the first place? Used to be I’d take a dozen hard-ass Catholics over that crowd, but now I wish you’d all just go to hell.” He spits on the floor and then he’s gone.
The bartender hands me another beer.
“Sorry about that.”
I wave it off. What’s there to apologize for?
Bang more pills, dose myself into a few hours of unbreakable sleep before shambling back into the night. I knew the mob was waiting outside even before I woke, their sensory presence reinterpreted into the flicker of premonitory dreams, threatening shadows dancing inside my eyelids. I stroll calmly into the sulfur and neon light, my body tensed for survival.
I count seven of them flushed with alcohol, their skin twitching with adrenaline. Ready to fight. Nearly a dozen more gawkers keeping a safe distance behind them, all the phone cameras aimed at me. I adjust my eyeglasses, triggering the embedded chipkiller to beacon a privacy respect flag to all devices in range, a bit of legal fine-print that most everyone neglects to read. Now all they’ll keep of me is a pixelated slurry.
The cowboy steps up to me. Of course he’s the spark for this particular box of wet matches.
“Leaving?” he asks.
“No, not yet,” I say. “Just thinking about taking little a drive.”
“Damn it. “The cowboy shakes his head, turns to his boys. “I told you, he’s going out to Hank’s again.”
I see the first blow coming years before it arrives, slow as a comet swinging in from the outer dark, and it takes all of my reserve not to flinch, not to move at all, but take it full. My jaw absorbs most of the impact. Shock waves of nausea pain roll up and down my spine. I collapse to the pavement. It takes all of the Procedure’s conditioning to keep me down as they take turns punching my back and kicking my sides. I won’t break character, no matter how much blood I taste. I eat the pain, layer it like hot tar over that stone in my head, make it mine. Injuries can be mended, bones can be replaced.
I’m nearing the edge of unconsciousness, a breaking point where I may have to respond, and everyone here would have to die. So. Come on. Give it to me.
“What the fuck is going on?”
There’s a scuffle of sneakers back into the darkness, the pocketing of phones, the grunting of exhausted men. A pair of thick arms reaches under me, effortlessly heaves me off the ground.
“Are you with me?” the bartender asks, pushing up my eyelids. “Father? Are you here?”
I cough a bloody affirmative and a tooth falls out into my hand. Not carbon fiber, one of the originals. Ah well. Loving the Lord means learning to let go of the self.
The cowboy is wheezing, alone, abandoned by his compatriots.
“My mother,” he whines. “New Orleans. What was left fit into a lunch bag. Because of him.”
The bartender sighs. “Go home. Justin. Please … go home.”
At least ten cars are parked in front of Hank’s trailer, like rows of sleeping cattle. The scent is almost overpowering, and I have to plug my nose and wipe myself down with a blocking cream to keep my stomach from flipping. No one is in the trailer, everyone must be out back. Quietly, I follow the traces until I find the stash, a dozen plastic bags of John’s Water appropriately stockpiled inside the septic tank. Enough to open a thousand souls. A pinprick of the customized virus from my crucifix is all it takes to make it all unusable. The kitchen cabinets contain all of the necessities for an international smuggling operation, so I destroy those as well. What I don’t find are any signs linking to a further network – no broadcast gear, no Wi-Fi signals, not even a printer. Everything points to this being one of the final nodes, the wellspring. I’m almost giddy at the thought.
Outside, the flock is gathered in the gazebo, swaying in the tiki torch glow. Hank is offering them communion from some slaughtered animal, reduced to a mess of gristle and bone. The air is so thick with Water that I can practically grab the lemon wisps with my hands.
Hank notices me and grins. “Father Bastion! Glad you could join us. I’ve been telling these good folks all about you.”
The congregation focuses their sleepy eyes on me. Silver-haired couples, skinny vagrants, burly Walt Whitman types. Their faces are blank, blissed out.
No girls, no kids at all. Good.
“Evening, Hank. This everyone?”
Part of me is saying, stop, think. But the Procedures are egging me on, pushing me in front of the congregation, stretching towards the finish line. Hank blinks at the damage on my face.
“Ouch. Looks like you ran headfirst into a fence post, friend. Can’t say I’m surprised. Past few years, I’ve been at the soft end of many a steel-toe. But that’s the risk we take. I suppose you’re used to it –”
Show them the Word. Its fog glows like dying fireflies, like clouded moonlight.
“Look upon me. I am an agent of God. Does each one of you believe?”
The congregation responds as one. “We do.”
“You are the bearers of false idols.”
“We are the bearers of false idols.”
“Will you acknowledge your sin and accept forgiveness?”
“We accept,” they say, heads down, and the stone in my head thunders as the Word sweeps through them in total silence. I am a cyclone, the terrible wind at the end of the world. That bastard God uses me to scribe the hidden names of their souls, each arc flawless and sacred.
Hank is the last one remaining, surrendered at my feet, just like the girl in the church.
“Walk down your distant hallways, my children,” he whispers. “Mammon calls you forth.”
The Procedure has a script for this.
“The deity that speaks to you is false. There is no place in this world for those that have corrupted the soul with lies.”
He wipes his eyes. “I told you I’d do my best to find my way back. But it was too late. You are right, when you said I was weak. Too fucking weak. And now, where are you?”
I steady the Word over his neck. The neurons have already fired, the muscles are already in motion, irreversible, when he looks up at me in that collapsing second of oblivions.
“You’ll see, friend. Life is a small and heavy thing. Lux Veritas.”
His body drops and with a psychic thunderclap, the Procedure closes.
The ozone of his dissolution still clings to me as I tear the trailer apart. I find it taped behind the refrigerator, nestled among the dust bunnies and rotting scraps. Except for a few scratches and the contours of the knuckle lock, the hilt is identical to mine. Who Hank really was, I have no idea. Shimabara is careful to maintain a safe distance between their dogs, never letting us triangulate each other. There have always been rumors, of course. Those that have been deprogrammed, those that have tried to walk away. If shit were wishes, right? Still, it’s troubling. I’m tempted to pocket the thing, ponder the meaning of it. Instead I pack the explosives around it.
Nothing can survive.
I ditch the rental and make my way back on foot. Even though the summer wind is at my back, my body shivers on the long walk back to town. I shake because I am exhausted and thirsty, and because the stone is wedging back into my head, heavy and cold. God is angry again. This is reassuring, because He should be angry. Every sin is another nail in the door between me and Him.
At the edge of the town, a motorcycle slows down next to me. Gasoline, grease, beer, almond candy.
“I have a name,” the girl says. She revs the engine, shuddering my sensitive eardrums. “Get on.”
I wrap my hands around her waist and let her carry me through the night, through the empty streets, breaking through black chains of bats and mosquitos, air moving too fast for me to catch and swallow. I close my eyes and only feel the constant receding of the earth.
At the hotel room, I crash onto the bed.
“Leaving soon?” she asks.
“Sooner or later, we all leave. That’s why God made us disposable.”
The bed sags and creaks. A hand caresses my scalp.
“If you say so. Sounds like a solid excuse for weakness.”
“Life itself is an excuse for weakness.”
She slips the covers over both our heads. “Father, tell me. Who’s your favorite Saint?”
“You seem to be mistaking me for someone who still has the patience for this taboo religion groupie bullshit –“
She presses against me. The raw scent of her skin drives needles of fire into my bones. I roll over and rest my palms on her ribcage. Her heart flutters in my hands like a small bird.
“Saint Francis,” I say. “There’s a huge statue of him in Osaka, holding up a lantern. All steel and jade, fucking incredible.”
“I’d love to see that.” She kisses my neck, my collarbone.
“So, get a ticket and go. It’s not as hard to travel as it used to be –”
“It’ll never happen.” She’s on top of me and our fingers are grasping for each other. “Tell me a prayer, a prayer for Saint Francis. I like those.”
“Hurry,” she says, tuning contact points, building into a steady, urgent rhythm. “I need to hear it.”
I’m in no state to deny her, so I pry the old words out from the basement.
“Great Saint Francis, well beloved and full of charity, in union with you I reverently adore the Divine Majesty …”
Her teeth slide against my shoulder.
“I give thanks to God for the singular gifts of … damn hold on … grace bestowed on you in … fuck … life and of glory after death and I beg of you …”
“Go on, go on.” She moves harder now, and she won’t look at me, only toward the window, to the sweep of headlights sweeping through the glass, the guillotine shadows of the power lines. The words flow freely now, as if I have been broken apart, exposing the wet, green core of my oldest self to the light.
“With all the affection of my heart, by your powerful intercession, obtain … for … me the grace to live a holy life and die …”
Something is happening.
The stone in my head moves.
“ … a holy death.”
“Father, are you a sinner?” she asks between shallow breaths.
“God, yes, I am, yes,” I cry, the weight lifting, the air brightening.
Oxygen seethes through my veins.
“Then believe me.” She leans forward and pushes me down and I only see the whites of her eyes. “We will all be forgiven.”
And I know it’s true. God is here with us now, in our lust, in our fear. He is laid out over the mountains and the sea, the warmth of the sun and the fire, crashing through our cells, and further, where we mirror each other, cradled in His hand, a perfect shape carved out against the void.
She trembles as she pulls away from me and slips into the bathroom. I lay still in the darkness. The heat dissipates slightly. I haven’t felt like this in thirty years, not since I stepped into my church for the first time and knelt before the suffering Christ. I plead for grace and he came down from his cross and gave me comfort. For an instant, that space was ours only, an owned fortress of purity.
He is here again, next to me, pouring the light of God into me.
I stare towards the infinity point, hoping to hold onto it while it lasts.
It doesn’t go away. Instead, it grows in intensity. All my soul is an open wound, waiting.
You want to judge me? Well, here I am! Go on!
I fall out of the bed, onto my hands. The response comes out of the ether like a whisper, a thunderclap, a missed beat of the heart.
I forgive you.
No. Don’t. You can’t. Yet, you do.
That’s when the mephitic stink hits me, scraping across my sinuses like razors. My tongue swells up. Painful blisters flare along the lining of my nostrils. John’s Water. The bed is soaking in it, the room shimmers with veils of metallic yellow. My crotch radiates chemical vines that creep through my body like a hyper-infection, victorious molecular thieves streaming into my brain, cracking all of the locks.
You are not here. The presence I feel is a lie.
And you cannot deny your faith, Daniel. I am here. The God of Abraham, of Moses. You are part of Me as well.
I kick down the bathroom door. The girl crouches on the toilet, tissues sticky with blood balled up at her feet. Tears stream down her beautiful, innocent face.
The Procedure’s mainspring unspools, counting the seconds.
“Do you believe?” she asks, staring at me through the fog of the Word.
“Good,” she hisses through chattering teeth. “That’s good.”
Forty-three seconds. Paths both probable and improbable spill out in front me.
“Who did this to you? Tell me!”
Lemon sparks, biting down into my gums, my throat.
“He promised that whatever happened, it would be quick. No fear, no suffering. What are you waiting for? Why are you just standing there?”
She knows what I am.
Sixty seconds. Internal alarms, metal on metal, cartilage locked together in every joint.
The Word is the light of a cracked door. I don’t know which side of it I’m on. Please tell me which side I’m on. Please. Please. God. Please.
Thou shalt not kill.
Sixty one seconds.
When I track down the bartender, he’s flipping through my leather-bound Bible, stolen from my room during my absence. He grinds his cigarette out on the cover, leaving a neat black circle.
“You knew –“ I start to say.
“Wrong again,” he murmurs. “I only gave you directions. Eventually, you would have found out yourself. Your kind always does.”
My stomach clenches violently. I point the Word at him. He doesn’t flinch.
“You believe this is a trap.” Quick as a cat, he jumps over the bar and sucker-punches me in the side of the neck, knocking me down. That’s when I finally notice how big he is, dense like the pines outside.
“Father, if it were a trap, it’s one you built yourself, strung together with the dry bones of your misguided crusade. You never believed, not really. None of you did. Otherwise you couldn’t commit Osaka’s sins so easily.”
I am here for you. Open your heart to Me.
“You are the defilers!” He hurls the Bible at me. “Instruments of yet another religion wanting to spread their particular brand of plague. You are weak. Soulless, easy to seduce. All I have to do is part the Waters of Truth and veil them in crimes familiar.”
So that’s how he did it. Brilliant, really. People tried for years to break the chemical structure of John’s Water into stable components, so dogs like me couldn’t sniff them out. Never worked out, until now. Take one half, disguise it in what? The booze, of course. The honey. And the other –
“Fuck you. Using her virginity to get at me? That’s fucking sick. Did you call her Mary, did you call her whore?”
His face hardens into solid hatred. “Do not dare compare your pale faith to mine.”
Accept My love. It will save you. Tell the world of My truth, save them.
His Holy presence grows brighter within me, making it difficult to concentrate. Tell myself, it’s not real, slap myself to feel pain, anything other than this damned certainty.
The bartender smiles. He knows exactly what’s happening in my head.
“I wonder. What is your God telling you now? Please, go ahead, get up, show me what you’ve got.” He reaches behind the bar and produces a golden hilt. Then another, and another. With a sweep of his arm they crash to the floor. “They all thought they could stand up to the last true man, and each one I cast out as bait for the next stray dog. Although some were so anguished they went – what do the samurai call it? Seppuku. Quite a few of those in the early days.”
I try to stand up. He laughs.
“Sure. Go ahead and just think about killing me, see what happens.”
I do and the booming voice of God berates me like a meandering child.
WOE BE TO THOSE THAT DO NOT HEED MY COMMANDMENTS!
“Hear the voices, don’t you?” He crawls down next me. He slams me down and mashes his fists into my kidneys, over and over again. An inky blackness rolls through me, worse than pain, a disruption of life. All I can see are his teeth. “That grain of faith is enough to drown you. That’s how I’m sure that none of you are truly human. Imposters. Monsters. End the charade. Accept my truth.”
I’m waiting for you.
Yeah. I’m ready.
Then come to Me.
The bartender breathes hot into my ear. “I hoped I could use you like old Hank, but I’m starting to doubt it. Just like my lovely, lost daughters, you’re nothing more than a drone. An apparition to be used and sacrificed for the great truth.”
A girl is in my arms, broken, bruised, dead. Another girl in a bathroom, fingertips damp with blood. There is an invisible line connecting one node to the other. It passes through light and stone.
There is no Procedure for this, yet I know exactly what I have to do.
I shove the bartender off of me and raise the Word.
“I am a samurai for my master, the Lord.”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
I lock into a fighting stance. “You are the bearer of false idols.”
“There is no heaven, no hell,” he snarls. “There is nothing but my hands! You are nothing.”
“Quite possible you’re right. It doesn’t really matter.”
He senses the change and scoops up one of the hilts, squeezes it, frantically searches for a switch, a button. Nothing happens. Their master is dead and gone.
“Doesn’t matter.” He spits at my feet and cackles like a crow. “You still can’t hurt me. I’m untouchable. I’m immortal.”
Father and Son are both crying in shame, and it is the most terrible thing that I have ever heard. My heart aches for them.
“Mercy on our souls.”
He is still laughing when the Word passes him and it doesn’t fucking stop until his lungs finally return to dust. Then I smash my hilt against the wall until there’s nothing but shards of gold plating and other heavy metals.
I died for your sins.
I know you did. I’m already forgetting what it was like to be alone.
The morning sun is crowning over the forest when I ride out of town, riding north into the cresting mountains. Things happen that I don’t understand. The motorcycle engine swallows gasoline and produces inertia. A flock of geese track above me, coordinating their movements with a secret language. Occasionally I feel the pressure of her hands travel up my chest to my neck and wind the chain of my crucifix around her fingers. When she does I accelerate faster, as if we could escape the grace of angels. The speedometer creeps around. Although I adjust our balance as she shifts her weight, I don’t dare glance at the rear-view mirror, instead keeping my gaze forward, into the clean blue sky rising over an empty wilderness.
I absolutely love Mr. Gallay’s voice in this story. I hope to read more of his work in the future.