by Michael Marano

Published in hardcover ($24.95 US/ $34.95 CAN), June 1998
by Tor Books -- ISBN 0-312-86432-9

Published in paperback ($6.99 US/$8.99 CAN), September 1999
by Tor books -- ISBN 0-812-54547-8

Copyright 1998 by Michael Marano. All rights reserved.

Chapter Two


      Unaware of the bewildering beauty of a winter twilight, a young man wonders how he will pay for groceries over the next few days. His paycheck is not due till Friday, and paying rent last week has left his bank account almost empty.

            He walks the ice-paths worn into the snow that covers the unshoveled sidewalks of the Somerville neighborhood he calls home. He lives north of the sprawl of Cambridge and Boston, and he hopes that in better days he will be able to move south, to a neighborhood where the sidewalks are shoveled. He has said in the past, only half-jokingly, that the reason sidewalks are not shoveled in this neighborhood is because no one here is well-off enough to sue if someone were to slip and fall. He is walking home tonight because he has decided not to pay the dollar bus fare, thinking that perhaps the dollar could be used toward a half-dozen eggs and a bit of cheap, preservative-laced bread.

      The young man wonders, almost aloud and in rhythm with the crunching pace of his steps, if he has been abandoned, if the work and toil and study he has done in the Name of the One to whom he has given his devotion have been for nothing.

      In a whisper he speaks, alone on a street lined with sad and sagging houses that cast the flickering blue ghosts of television screens out of darkened windows onto snowy lawns:

"Please help me out of this."

      He walks a few more blocks in the wine-colored dusk before he sees it: something strangely regular amid the undulating shadows, half-driven into the snow within a boot-print, something that flaps in the wind like an autumn leaf about to fall from the branch.

      He steps closer and picks it up.

      It is a twenty-dollar bill.

      He goes home to his basement flat, and before he can take off his coat, his beautiful wife throws her arms around him and kisses him. He presses his face into her thick, fragrant red hair that tumbles in tresses like a coppery waterfall to her waist. She pulls the wool cap from his head, and his own long, dark hair falls to his shoulders. She strokes it, and crackles of static electricity arc on her fingertips.

      He hangs his threadbare, second-hand coat on the wall hook and tells her of what happened as he walked home.

      Her eyes light with a joyous spark, and, like a child leading someone to where a wonderful gift awaits, pulls him toward their answering machine. She plays back the message from his boss; he can pick up extra hours next week because some of his co-workers are taking early Christmas vacations. This will mean as much as one hundred dollars of overtime pay--one hundred dollars that can be set aside for the heating bill. If they are careful, they can stretch the hundred dollars until spring. They will not have to shut off the thermostat at night, so that if one of their arms happens to fall from under the blankets as they sleep, it will not be numb and unmovable in the morning, needing to be rubbed to life again under the covers until feeling returns to the fingertips.

      They have a supper, by candle-light, of canned soup and crackers. Tomorrow, the twenty dollars will buy fresh vegetables and fruit, perhaps even a bit of meat. They turn the thermostat high and drink tea and kiss on the worn couch they had found abandoned on a street corner last summer, feeling happy and safe for the first time in weeks.

      When the living room is warm enough, they strip their many layers of wool and flannel clothing and begin the foreplay of lovemaking, only to stop after some tens of minutes to light colored candles set about the room and to spread salt on the hardwood floor.

      They speak words from Syriac and Koine Greek they have memorized phonetically, and she lies belly down on the salty floor, within a weird, crisscrossing geometric pattern outlined atop the floor by long strips of differently colored electrical tape.

      Now they speak a dialogue in two other dead languages: Latin and Aramaic. Over the course of this dialogue, they perform the Rite of Sodom, an act of consecration and thanks to He to whom they have devoted themselves, to He who has provided for them this night. Originally a rite of devotion to another, they adopted this act long ago to honor their provider, The Unbowed One, who was well known in Sodom and in other cities of the Dead Sea, and who was the enemy of the Sons of Light in Qumran.

      With sighs and groans, they finish their act and lean against a plywood dais set against the North wall of the room. Atop the dais sits a wooden chair, decorated and painted gold to suggest a throne. Usually, the throne is used for rituals in which one or the other of the couple assume the metaphoric role of King or Queen. Tonight the throne is empty--symbolically occupied by The Unbowed One, their provider whom they honor.

      The young man brushes salt from his wife's torso and arms, then cups his hand over her left breast. He kisses her softly and says: "I love you."

      "I love you, too," she says as she strokes his face.

      For all their happiness, they each feel a tinge of worry. The Unbowed One is rarely this dramatic or obvious with his benedictions, usually preferring to act slowly and carefully over weeks, years, and, if some texts are to be believed, centuries. Their provider may be acting a grand scheme, putting into effect something so complex, so intricate, on such an unfathomable scale of thought, that they may never live to comprehend it. Or, something dramatic may be planned for them, some task they may be called upon to do that they may not be able to rise to meet.

      Everything has its price.

      She stands, now, and takes a comforter from the back of the couch, then spreads it over them as she again leans against the dais. It would be more comfortable to rest and touch each other on the couch, or in the bedroom, but they both need in this moment to be near their place of ritual, to bathe in the ethereal energy they have generated. This is their place now, symbolically at the feet of the One who has been so kind to them tonight.

      Some time later, when they both stand to leave, she draws the comforter around herself like a cloak. Her heart skips a beat as the comforter nearly knocks over a fragile, precious thing she has crafted herself and placed at the far left of the dais.

      Quickly, she crouches to steady it.

      It is a figure abstractly sculpted to represent a woman, made by pouring a mixture of salt and rubber cement into a hand-made mold. The twisted shape of the thing is taken from Munch's "The Scream." Unblinking doll's eyes have been set into where a face should be, to suggest wide-eyed horror.

      This miniature of Lot's wife is balanced by another figure at the far right of the dais: a lead figurine of a sharp-faced woman with bat wings, an accessory for a fantasy role playing game, supposed to represent a succubus.

      A gaze that had been old when the sun was young fixes upon the husk of what had been the soul of a young man named Andrew.

      The first blow has been struck; the churning, obscene, idiot-beast will fall.

      The husk smells of the sweet and nourishing treasure that it had held, the way a fresh rind smells of rich fruit. The Unbowed One crushes it with what would suggest a hand if human eyes could see it; the residual dust is carried away by a current that will be reborn as the föhn winds upon reaching the world of the living.

      The scent causes panic upon the vista of ruined souls boiling like a plain of maggots in the lightless, starless place the husk has fallen to. A hump like the back of an immense sea-beast rises up: thousands of flecks of dead humanity, each crying and hungering and climbing and clawing for the reminder of innocence and life the scent represents.

      They do not reach it.

      Flying things with fluting, discordant voices swarm like angry fish upon the husk-scraps, tearing, rending, slashing each other to savor the sweetness of the floating morsels.

      Soon, she who took Andrew will not leave even the husks of her lovers' souls behind: even these will be taken into her, and not dropped to this place. As she becomes stronger with each lover she takes, so will her hunger ...a burning concupiscence that will make her better able to take lovers the more desperately she needs them.

      Even what she was able to take into herself from this first lover may have been too much for her to retain. Part of what she had devoured has no doubt leaked out of her in a honey-thick sweat while she slept.

      A waste. But no matter.

      The first blow has been struck.

      She will not fail him.


      As he left the theater Paul realized he'd taken part in an act of mourning.

      With that realization came the guilt that he'd squandered grief, no matter how trivial, that he owed to another, that he'd shirked his obligation to the dead, and so added to the heavy burden he bore.

      Shuffling, ghost-like, with the crowd that flowed through the lobby, he felt the patient sadness take him again. It crept on him like dull winter fog, making him stoop slightly, as a flower does, first touched by frost. The sadness was a thing to be endured: a sickness that would pass, until it again clothed him in the gauze-shrouded mist of loss and a darker, velvet-textured regret.

      It had been almost a year since his mother died, entombed in the darkness of a hospital room. The pain he had felt the night she died blossomed at times into the deep depression that held him now, the remorse so pervading it felt as if it could stop the beat of his heart.

      At times, he was uncertain the depression could pass, when it suffused his blood as a numbing ether. But the sadness would be gone come morning... sometimes, in a rare blessing, by late evening. In the meantime, he had learned not to fight it.

      He lost when he did.

      Josephine spoke brightly bedside him. She walked with a slight spring between Paul and Bill, the gold lion's mane of her hair swaying with her step. Her voice was clear, like mountain water; its cadence cut the dull murmurs of the crowd.

      "So ...you guys up for espresso, or beer, or should we go for ice cream?"

      Now Paul, Bill and she were passing through the lobby doors. Patrons dispersed around them as bees leave a hive at first light. Through the brittle air, through his whispery sadness, Paul felt Bill's gaze upon him. Bill and Jo had joined arms; Bill leaned forward slightly, expecting Paul's answer.

      Paul wished not to answer; he wished to keep quiet, and give the sadness no voice through his own. He made himself speak, trying not to expel the breath he'd taken to form the words as a sigh.

      "I think I ought to get going. Sort some things out." His tone was as soft as one would use to read a storybook to a child, at the time when shadows change from greys to deeper blacks.

      The three were an island in the stream of foot traffic. Jo looked at Paul, looked through him, fixing her powder-blue eyes upon him.

      "You'll be okay?" Even when she spoke quietly, her voice was bright.

      "Yeah. I'll be okay."

      Bill, tall and elegant, looking, as always, as if he wore a fine suit instead of casual clothes, said, "You sure you don't want to come with us?"

      "Yeah. I need to clear some cobwebs out of my head."

      Bill gave a slight nod.

      Jo asked, "You'll be home, later?"

      Paul saw passersby give Bill and Jo sidelong glances and scowls. Boston, for all its liberal pretenses, was a racist town; its people did not hide their disapproval of a Black man joining arms with a White woman. Bill and Jo never seemed to notice the contemptuous looks. But Paul did whenever he went out with them; it made him angry, it offended him.

      "Before too late, yeah."

      Hands in his pockets, alone in the dark wood of his thoughts, he drifted along the Brookline streets, climbing hills steep as staircases, rock salt crunching underfoot. Under the blue-grey dome of night sky, the glow of downtown Boston made a false dawn to the east.

      True winter night invaded the light of evening. It was second twilight in Boston, when people left the streets to arrive at their destinations, huddled in bars and restaurants and living rooms as foxes huddle in dens: places thick with the scent of damp wool, cigarettes, and close, heated air. Once Paul could find such comfort on these very streets, among these very houses--once, but no more.

      This neighborhood had changed since he was young. The battered VWs and rusty GM four-doors of fifteen or ten years ago had given way to BMWs, Porsches and the odd Mercedes. Cheap apartments had been converted into condos. Local delis and bodegas were now pasta stores and overpriced gourmet shops.

      He used to play here with kids from school; bikes were left unlocked in front yards, and on any block, you could find a game of touch football or street hockey, even in winter if the plows had been through. In the thick heat of summer, when sweat would lie upon you like moist velvet and the cicadas sang their incessant songs and fresh-cut grass filled your lungs with the smell of green, growing things, clusters of kids sat on stoops and porches, talking the nonsense of their few years' worth of wisdom, or reading and swapping comic books.

      The neighborhood he knew--where long ago he'd had his first kiss, his first beer and his first cigarette--was dead, replaced by stacked boxes of rental space, harsh track-lighting filling windows so that they stared at each other in vacant gazes across streets, yards and alleys.

      To walk here was Paul's tribute, part of a night of mourning Paul had realized was inevitable when he saw the flyer in the lobby that proclaimed that the double feature was "A TRIBUTE TO THE MEMORY OF JOHN LENNON."

      Of course... ten years ago tonight, Lennon had died. The movies Paul had just seen were a testimonial conducted before an altar of flickering images, a testimonial offered to a stranger while he owed his mother so much. Tonight he had squandered his grief by trying to defer it.

      By trying to escape it.

      Since early this afternoon, he'd been aware of sadness near him as some are aware of coming storms. Paul threw himself into his work: correcting papers, cobbling lesson plans. He could not focus. Yet the pretense of work filled his mind with white noise so the depression couldn't take hold--the depression, and the accusing guilt that walked with it from which he could find no redemption.

      Sitting at the kitchen table, he'd picked up his battered copy of A Christmas Carol, looking for seasonal material to use in class. His eye touched a line of the text, a plea from the old miser, Scrooge, to the Ghost of Christmas Past.

      "Spirit ...show me no more."

      Paul's mind ...with trains of thought crossing, touching, like a tangle of branches in slow wind ...was awakened to a memory of a prayer that he had made in silence to a Spirit he could not see or comprehend, made over and over again as he watched his mother die cell by cell, as a rosary of tumors blossomed through the flesh of her chest and along her lymph nodes.

      "No more."

      A prayer that had been in his mind with the constancy of his own name.

      "No more."

      As the chemotherapy ravaged his mother's face.

      "Please, God. No more."

      As her flesh evaporated after the double masectomy and her skin became translucent as tissue-paper.

      "God, I beg You. No more."

      Thoughts and the memory of prayers, touching, crossing, under the shadow of his grief.

      He'd been angry when his father died, suddenly, of an embolism when Paul was eight. Angry, not grief-struck. After his father's funeral, his mother had told him: "Remember him, Paul. Everything. The good and the bad. Because as you get older, he will slip away from you...."

      And memories of his father, vibrantly alive, the good and the bad, Paul had etched into his mind before the first dew had formed on his father's headstone.

      Yet his mother died slowly, so very slowly. The memory of the woman, so proud and vital, had been long stolen from Paul when she finally left this world.

      "Spirit ...show me no more."

      A paralysis took Paul as he read the line. To acknowledge the sadness as it nuzzled him, cracking the shell he'd put around himself to keep it away, would overwhelm him in a flood of remorse for what he had failed to do for her before she was forever taken from him. To try to suppress the sadness would make it worse. He'd entangle himself like an animal in a net.

      He stared at the page--thinking of nothing yet feeling the sadness close like the wing of a dark angel--until the page became only dark markings on a white background, the spaces behind the print flickering lines of candle-flame.

      Transfixed, he did not hear Jo come home, nor was he aware of her behind him until she put her hand gently on his back.

      "Paul," she said.

      He started, as if suddenly woken, then turned to meet her gaze.

      "Please come out with Bill and me tonight." Her voice was almost a whisper. "You need to get out of here."

      She had freed him from his tangled thoughts, let him focus on something else. It was like dawn breaking.

      He was about to speak when she drew her hand away from his back and placed it upon the downy skin at the base of his neck. Her palm felt cool and soothing as she took the chair next to his.

      "Please come out with us. A Hard Day's Night and Yellow Submarine are playing at Coolidge Corner. It'll be fun. You need to get out."

      Paul smiled, and placed his hand upon her neck. He drew her gently towards him and kissed her brow.

      "I'd love to go out with you and Bill."

      She hugged him and kissed his cheek.

      Then she made him tea. As the kettle boiled, they talked about work, about how a customer had come into the antique store today and asked Jo if they sold big screen TVs. Paul complained about his privileged, apathetic students and the willfully ignorant principal.

      Bill arrived as they sipped the tea. Then the three took a winding route to the theater, stopping a moment to re-affix bits of coal and bottle-caps to the face of a snowman they found on a neighbor's lawn.

      Paul was happy to be out of the house. He enjoyed the movies, was distracted from his bleak thoughts and feelings. Then he saw the flyer, and his night of mourning, without the possibility of atonememnt, had begun.

      Paul was walking through Allston, now, past Beacon Street. While his mind had been wandering, he had back-tracked around the way he had come, taking the route he had walked hundreds of times in his youth to go home to his mother's house. Some instinct was bringing him home, like a bird or a fish.

      "Don't come back."

      Either instinct, or a longing for expiation.

      "Don't come back."

      The words stepped from the shadows of his thoughts, from where they were forever inscribed and forever whispered.

      They were the last words his mother spoke to him, said to his back as he left her hospital room. Good insurance had afforded her the dignity of dying in privacy.

      "Don't come back."

      He froze as he placed his hand on the door. He wanted to turn and ask why he shouldn't come back, why he shouldn't be here when she died.

      Then he realized that these were the last words she wished to speak to him.

      He could not deny her that.

      He left the room. Brutal light from the hallway flooded the quiet, dark place behind him.

      "Don't come back."

      A final gift from her, perhaps. Absolving him of having to be here when she died, ending his duty, as her son, to help her die as well as she could. But now it was plain her death could not be dignified or honorable, despite the care of nurses and the ministering of shots that could numb earthly pain, but not the unworldly agony of her very body betraying her, not the crucifixion of cancer destroying her with each breath she took.

      He would obey her, and not come back to complete his death vigil.

      But to come back, he would first have to leave.

      And this he did not do.

      Paul waited in the hospital as his mother slipped into her final coma. He slept on the waiting room couch, washed in the bathroom, and drank bad and bitter coffee given to him by nurses who let him stay despite regulations. Paul was never more than twenty feet away from her.

      When life quit his mother's shattered body, he went to her room before she was removed. Numb, yet knowing grief and pain would sunder his world completely once the numbness passed, in the presence of a kind, older nurse who wore a silver cross upon her uniform, he drew back the sheet and kissed his mother good-bye.

      Paul was walking his mother's street, now.

      Barren oaks arced above him, tree-tops touching across the avenue. Every fiber of his being cried that this was the way home, that to walk down this street and pass through the threshold would be the end of a pilgrimage. But the house was not his home anymore. A young couple with a baby lived there now. Nice people. They still forwarded mail to Paul's apartment.

      He resented them.

      Paul wished he could have preserved his mother's house as it had been just after her death--before her siblings, whom she could not stand, had come to take away the things Paul could not--and sit there now and mourn in privacy.

      And try to atone for his betrayal.

      Paul stood across from his mother's house. Christmas lights made the windows glow, as if from a hearth fire. He saw relics from the time it had been his home: plant hangers, glinting in the silvery light of the street lamps, attached to the window frames facing the small yard to the side of the house.

      Paul's mother had hung bird feeders off them: seed feeders in the winter and nectar-filled hummingbird feeders in the summer. Did Uncle Joe, the greasy bastard, take them, along with what had been his father's favorite chair? Along with so many other things Paul held dear?

      His mother had gotten the feeders for him, to teach him about wonder, the handiwork of God.

      When he was twelve, just old enough to become jaded and lose a child's sense of the marvelous, she hung the feeders from the living room window. Always the poet, always the teacher and the guide, she took him to the window when the birds came, and showed him how to truly see the birds, to see the splendor of natural things living within a city.

      "Look, Paul! Look at the jay." Her voice would lilt and have cadence like a bird song. "Can you see all the blues and the whites and the greys in the feathers? ... Look at the robin's breast, it's so fine and red and velvety. Can you imagine touching it?. ...See how the sparrow opens and closes its eye?"

      And in summer, when the hummingbirds came, she taught him how the tiniest things held the greatest miracles.

      Everything stopped when a hummingbird came to the feeder. The whole world became grey, insignificant shadow beside the tiny, magnificent bird.

      "Paul. Look at the feathers!" She whispered as she did in church, before this incredible creature that seemed crafted of impossibly intricate stained glass. "They're like fish scales, or shiny metal. The red under his throat burns like a little coal. ...It's so little! Its heart beats a thousand times a minute, can you imagine that? Can you imagine being so beautiful? See it sip the nectar? Its tongue can lap thirteen times a second."

      Years later, Paul could articulate what his mother had taught him: that miraculous things are intrusions. Welcome intrusions of the Divine that push aside the mundane and the dreary, the things that dull our senses and our minds. And miraculous things could be found everywhere--in the blues and subtle shadings of a jay's feather and in the burning, passionate sheen of a hummingbird's throat.

      She taught him of the obligations we have to marvelous things, to treasure them and preserve them, accept them as the gifts they are.

      And to give them gifts in return.

      In the last months of her life, when Paul had moved back to her house to take care of her, she gave him a cloth bag filled with the hair she'd lost from chemotherapy.

      "Give it to the birds, Paul."

      It had been November. A cold day. She was too weak to go outside.

      "I saved it, because it seemed wrong to throw it away. But it's too brittle to give to a wig maker. Give it to the birds, Paul. They look for soft things to line their nests with when it gets cold. Spread it out in the yard. They'll fly away with it to line their nests."

      Her way to enter and be part of the world of miraculous things, to know some part of herself could live past her, giving comfort to the things that had comforted her.

      Paul sowed her hair upon the grassy yard, placing swirling patterns atop the etched-glass patterns of frost.

      He felt her watching him do this through the window.

      His mother's hair was still in the trees above him, more than a year later, keeping the birds warm in the midst of this awful winter. He'd seen the birds fly off with the hair, strands of it trailing behind them like streamers.

      The Christmas lights in the window had been shut off. Flickering blue suggested a TV on somewhere in the house. He'd been standing so long in the snow, his feet had gone numb.

      He should not have come here, in the hope of finding solace. Paul could atone for nothing by being here tonight.

      Because he should have been here when his mother died, not defying her by keeping a death vigil she did not want him to make.

      "Don't come back."

      He had betrayed her, and all she had taught him.

      For when he did return here from the hospital the night she died, thinking, absently, of when to move his things back to the apartment, Paul became aware....

      Aware of something in the air of his mother's house.

      Of something resonating, vibrating, just barely in the realm of his senses like the faintest residual ringing of a distant church bell.

      Of something changed, made electric. The senses and perceptions his mother had honed within him burned and thrilled and reached out to grasp at....


      An intrusion had taken place of something marvelous, a lifting of the veil of the mundane world.

      Something he was not here to experience.

      "Don't come back."

      His mother's scent was thick in the house. Not the scent given off by her dying, traitorous body saturated with killing medicines. But the scent of her when she was alive, truly alive ...vibrant and full of kindness and love.

      She had been there.

      And he had not.

      And remembering what he had felt coming home that night, feeling again what he had felt knowing that his mother's desecrated body slept on a cold metal table in the hospital morgue, Paul wept.

      His knees fell from under him, and tears burned his face in the cold air.

      His mother, discorporate, free from the agony of her body, had searched for him.

      But he had not been where she could find him.

      It was past midnight when he left, still crying, to wend his way back to the apartment.

      The greatest Beast in Hell, violently formless as a raging sea suspended in the sky, unthinking, obscene, smells something It perceives to be a threat. In the dim, screaming riot of idiot voices inside its essence, It begins to awaken some form of order, the idiot voices aping thought. Cadences swell as if the many thousands of idiot voices were falling into chanting clusters, each intent on shouting the other down.

      It is in this way the thing re-assembles Its mind. It does not like to do this, as It finds thought repugnant, something that interrupts the dull seeping pleasure It feels churning in a cloud of Its own waste. Usually simple reaction is enough for It to deal with threats, yet if the Beast indeed smells a threat of the nature it seems to be, ugly, ugly thought will be required to solve it.

      A long time passes before the thing's mind has congealed enough for It to remember Its name.

(End, Part One, Chapter Two)

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