Saturday, August 20, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 17: Pathways

             Tarsus awoke suddenly.  He was lying facedown in arid dirt.  He turned his head, resting one side of his face on the earth as he took in the scene.  It was only, some seconds after waking, that he realized he was breathing.
            “How?” he thought.  Only a moment ago he was losing consciousness, stranded in some unknowable depth of the Crystal Sea.  Now, he was on dry land; a desert, from the looks of things. 
            He took short breaths, not wanting to take the luxury of air for granted.  He waited some moments, contemplating whether or not this was real; whether or not he was real anymore.  He shifted his body slowly, bringing up his hands and arms to push himself up.  He slid them along the earth - felt the rocks, pebbles and dirt move beneath him.  Once his hands were in place beside his head, Tarsus took a deep breath, testing his limits in this strange, new place.
            He began coughing immediately, pushing up onto his knees reflexively.  He had inhaled some dirt and the granules of rock and sand choked him.  He got to his feet as he continued to cough hard, slamming an open palm onto his chest; whatever good that did.
            After a few more moments of coughing and a few more strikes to his chest, alternating between the open palm and a closed fist, Tarsus got his throat clear.  He breathed in gratefully as he looked out onto the barren and desolate land he had come to.  There was nothing there.  It was all a wasteland, as far as he could see: east, west and south. 
            Then Tarsus turned around, orienting himself north, and his jaw slackened.  Only a short distance before him was a lush forest; the green of the wood glowing even under the desert sun. 
            “How could such a thing grow here?” he pondered.
            It was a fleeting thought, though.  Tarsus’s gaze moved up from the forest, for the earth beyond it rose.  On the far hill, he saw a field of crumbling stone pillars and decaying wooden cottages.  It looked like the bones of a small village, not unlike Briarden. 
            Tarsus looked beyond the village and saw that the earth kept rising still.  Resting even higher up was a majestic cathedral; with towers that soared high and stained glass windows so large that Tarsus could discern what holy figures were on them.  The cathedral was large enough to be a palace, and sitting atop it was a great spire that commanded view.
            Tarsus’s eyes moved upwards, following the spire to its natural zenith.  But the top of the spire was not the end of wonders to behold.
Beyond even the church, Tarsus saw a sight more lovely than any he had seen in his life: a sea of golden light that extended from the cathedral only a bit further upward.  He could not see where it began or where it ended, but it all culminated in a golden ball.  From the small sun, shot a brilliant sunbeam that rose eternally into the heavens.
“The mountain,” Tarsus remembered.  “This is the mountain I saw.  And that light…”
Tarsus felt it, deep in his stomach.  It didn’t feel the same as the pull of a god’s power.  What he felt was stronger than that: warmer, more wholesome.  He wanted to enter into this light and unite with it.  He felt compelled toward it, rather than controlled by it.
Hard as it was, Tarsus let his gaze fall from the golden light; back over the cathedral; past the village; over the forest; following the route he would have to take to reach the summit of this mountain. 
At the mouth of the forest, he saw a path that led inside.  It was clearly marked on either side by rows of small stones that made up its edges.  He followed the path backward from the entrance to the wood, to find where the road began.  He was not at all surprised to trace its beginning to his very feet.
“Clear enough,” he thought to himself.  “One path.  One way.  One destination.”
A forest, a village, and a cathedral had to be traveled through before he reached that one destination.  All while scaling the side of the tallest mountain Tarsus had ever seen.  Still, that is why he had come, he knew.  Somehow, he had reached the UnderIsle.  Finally, it was time to see what that meant.
“Yes,” a voice agreed from the air.
Cassius appeared beside Tarsus.  The sunsword did not see where the demigod came from.  Tarsus did not even look over to acknowledge Cassius, though he felt the half-god’s greedy eyes on him.
Not the divine power, though.  Tarsus could not feel the slight tug of Cassius’s power at all.  The only desire he felt, burning in the pit of his stomach like a roaring wild fire, was the need to enter into that light and join with it.
“That, my chosen, is the object of our quest,” Cassius said with an audible leer.  “Malthir…sword of the GodKing.”
“I know,” Tarsus said, finally looking at Cassius with wild eyes.  “I was
drowning…only a moment ago.  But I see no ocean nearby.”
            “My dear, stupid, foolish friend,” Cassius condescended.  “You still are drowning.”
            “What?”
            “The UnderIsle is not a physical island,” Cassius explained.  “It is a spiritual one; the path to which resides in the heart of every man, woman and child Arden shelters.”
            Tarsus took a deep breath, stunned by this revelation.  His mind raced with dozens of thoughts and questions. 
            “As we speak, you are unconscious in the middle of the Crystal Sea,” Cassius went on.  “And you do not have long to live.”
            “I don’t understand,” Tarsus spoke quickly as the sweat of fear pricked his brow.  “If the UnderIsle is not a physical place, why sail?  If you could get here through any mortal, why me?”
            “No time,” Cassius spat, annoyed now.  “You are dying!  I can save you.  Bring me the sword, and I will raise you from beneath the waves.”
            Tarsus turned back to look at the mountain summit.  He squinted, raising a hand to his brow.  That glorious light shone even brighter than before.  He ached to feel it, to possess it…
            That is when the awful truth struck him.  He was not the only one who yearned for the light’s blessing.
            “Look at you…”
            Tarsus strained to pull his eyes from the glorious sight and his own reveries.  He just managed it.  He turned back to the demigod, no longer cowed with eyes of fear, but armed against his would-be master with a look of determined understanding.
            Cassius’s self-satisfied smile melted into the pursed lips of uncertainty.  “You want it as badly as I do,” he stated, more in the tone of a question than a declaration.
            “I do,” Tarsus answered, affirming the half-god’s suspicion.  “Though I don’t know why.  But I will not get it.  You have my friends.  We came with you on a mad journey into the middle of the ocean with no other way back.  You hold all the cards…”
            The self-satisfied smile returned.
            “Save one,” Tarsus said, putting one of his big hands roughly onto the demigod’s shoulder.  “You need me to do this work for you.  So you will answer my questions now, and promise me that once this is done, my friends and I will be returned to Malthanon safely.”
            Tarsus bent his head to be level with Cassius.  He looked the demigod square in the eye with unblinking fervor.
            “What do you want to know?” Cassius conceded.
            “How much time do I have before I die?” Tarsus launched into the question.
            “Time moves more slowly here, in the spiritual realm,” Cassius said, looking nervously at the mountain and then back at Tarsus.  “One day, I would guess.  One day before your body dies and you are bound here for all eternity.”
            “Good, there is some time,” Tarsus said, exhaling with relief.  “Now tell me, why did we have to sail here?”
            “The spiritual realm is an extension of the physical realm” Cassius began, speaking rapidly.  “Just as mortals…even gods…have a spirit, so too does Arden.  Spiritual places, like physical ones, can only exist in one location, though…they are known to move from time to time.  I was not lying when I promised to bring you to the UnderIsle.  I simply did not tell you that you’d need more than just the location of the island to get there.”
            “One of us,” Tarsus clarified.
            “Yes,” Cassius confirmed.  “Just like a city rests in one land but may be reached by several roads.  You…mortals…are the roads.”
            “But…” Tarsus tried to make sense of this and phrase his question at the same time.  “We all saw something different.  Different islands.”
            “The UnderIsle reflects back at you your soul’s deepest desire,” Cassius explained, stumbling over his words as he rushed to get them out.  “It changes from mortal to mortal.  A spiritual place…remember?  It is not bound to any form the same way a physical village or forest are.  It is mutable…like faith.”
            Tarsus looked hard at Cassius.  There was still one question that resounded above all others in his mind.  “Why me?”
            “Neither god nor man can come to the UnderIsle alone,” Cassius admitted.  “Both are needed: god to show the way, and man to walk the path.”
            “You’re not here,” Tarsus realized, seeing through Cassius’s cryptic words.  “That’s why I can’t feel your power.”
            Cassius nodded bitterly.  “Here, I am naught but shadow.  My physical form is safely on the deck of the Defiance…watching you drown.”
            Tarsus perked up, remembering his body in the physical world beyond.  “You still haven’t answered my question.  Why me?  Why not Cecily, or Amelia, or any of the dozens of sailors on your ship?”
            “Because…” Cassius exhaled.  “In our souls, you and I want the same thing.  I saw it the moment I looked your way after overhearing your conversation on the docks of Malthanon.  That is why I chose you.”
            “I have no interest in the sword,” Tarsus said weakly.
            “Liar,” Cassius accused, his voice elongating the word with varied pitch.  “Deceiver.  The sword is but a symbol…that is what you want: what you need.  As do I.”
            “You want power,” Tarsus retorted.  “I do not.”
            “Oh my chosen,” Cassius mocked.  “You deceive even yourself.  Of the three of you, your UnderIsle showed the clearest path to the sword.  Do you know why?  Because you are a man who knows…truly knows…what his deepest desire is.  You only question how far you’re willing to go to achieve it.”
            Tarsus tried to maintain his resolute glare, but it was hard in the face of Cassius’s growing arrogance.  He thought of the light at the top of the mountain, and the fire it kindled inside him.  The demigod’s words only served to stoke that fire.  It roared so explosively in him now that he knew there was only one way off this island for him; with that light in tow.
            “What is that light?” Tarsus thought to himself.  “What is it that drives me so?”
            “You already know,” Cassius said, in answer to the sunsword’s thoughts.  “Admit the truth to yourself, or the challenges you face here will destroy you.”
            Tarsus’s eyes grew wide.  The fire inside him was too powerful to resist.  He turned quickly from Cassius then, and started down the path.  He did not want to give the demigod another chance of looking into his eyes: of reading his mind.  He looked up at the golden light.
            “I started this quest for Cecily,” he admonished himself as an image of his friend penetrated his thoughts.  “I can’t finish it for myself.”
            His eyes were still on the light.  He could not ignore the need he felt to be a part of it.  Finally, he tore his gaze away and focused on the path.
            To his surprise, the great wood he had spotted from the start of the path loomed high before him.  He stopped instantly, standing before an archway of oaken branches that led into the forest.
            The branches stretched out far from their mother trees; the trees themselves separated by a distance of the width of three men standing shoulder to shoulder.  Tarsus examined those trees for a moment and was struck by their odd shape.  The trunks did not resemble the traditional cylinders of wood he had seen in the forests bordering Briarden.  Instead, they were slimmer: curving and bending in odd places.  He froze as he realized what shape they resembled to him - bodies: human bodies.
            The branches that made up the arch now looked to Tarsus like strands of hair, or even outstretched fingers that were reaching for something.  They extended beyond the natural limits of oaken branches and found their way, from one tree to the other, into a central, twined union; curving and twisting around each other as though the two trees were holding hands.
            Tarsus smiled in wonder.  Never had he seen oaks so lush, and an archway so beautiful.
            But he did not have time for wonder.  He had to move.  Already the sun was at its zenith, and he did not have long to get through this dense wood; through the ruined village; through the grand cathedral; and up to the summit of the mountain.
            He stepped under the arch, entering the forest.  The path was open to him, and the way ahead looked clear.  The green buds of the bushes and blades of grass rose to greet him, and the many-colored blooms turned to face him.  He was welcome here.
            Tarsus steeled himself.  Though all seemed well, he remembered Cassius’s words.  Great challenges lay ahead.  He remembered the light, and the warmth of that yearning desire pulsed in his gut: reminding him of his great need to overcome those challenges and reach the top.
            “One path.  One way…” Tarsus remembered.  “…one destination.”
            On he went.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

HIGHER POWER
     “Sonny.”
     The small man didn’t move.  His ass was firmly set on his bar stool, and his face was firmly planted on the bar.  His skin was pale, and his clothes hung off his rail-thin frame.  Even hunched over like he was,  it was easy to see that he was swimming in an ocean of cotton and polyester.
     Sonny Larson, barely breathing and fast asleep at the bar, looked like a skeleton dressed up for an appearance in a house of horrors attraction: a literal bag of bones.
     “Sonny, wake up!”
     Sonny did this time, but it wasn’t from being yelled at.  It was from the shock of a hard slap that came down on his right cheek.  The sting of it burned.  He cursed under his breath as he sat up on his stool rubbing his face.
     Then he realized; he felt it.  That meant he was sober.
     Sonny swung his heavy head around, taking in where he was.  He was sitting at a beautiful wooden bar that stretched on endlessly in both directions.  The liquor display on the back-bar then caught his bleary eye.  It was a montage of all his favorites: Johnny Walker Blue, Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire, even Pappy Van Winkle.  Wow.  He’d only had that once in his life because of how rare it was, but he remembered it was the richest bourbon he had ever tasted.
     Memory struck Sonny then, like a flash of lightning.  He knew this bar.  Back in his drinking days, it used to be one of his favorites.  He loved how quiet and homey it felt.  It was one of those rare places where he could feel both alone and not alone at the same time.  It was the bar he would always visit when he wanted to celebrate really good news; and conversely, it was the place he could drown his sorrows when he got really bad news.
     Another memory emerged from the hazy fog in his head then: Margie.  He felt ashamed.  She should have been the first thing he thought of when he woke up, but she wasn’t.  Now she flooded his brain like a tidal wave.  
     Seven years ago, he promised to stop coming here for her.  He did it too; staying strong through Margie getting sick, through the treatments, through the highs and lows of inconclusive test results.  Then, yesterday, Margie got some very conclusive test results, and Sonny couldn’t take it anymore.  So here he was.
     On the stool next to him, a tall, red-headed Irishman sat down.  He had fair skin and radiant eyes.  Sonny looked into them now, and they looked back at him with a sad, sober expression.
     “Hey Ken, ya found me,” Sonny said.
     “Second place I looked,” Ken replied.  “Shoulda been the first.  Stupid of me, to expect a husband to be at the hospital with his sick wife.  Why didn’t ya call me?”
     “Cause as a rule o’thumb, yer sponsor is the guy who’s gonna try to talk you outta drinkin,” Sonny said with a sneer.  “And I needed a drink.”
     “I know what it feels like to…”
     “You don’t!” Sonny cut him off.  “Ya went to the hospital.  You talked to Margie.  You know the diagnosis.  Good for you.  You have the facts.  But whatever demons you got that make you wanna drink, this aint one of’em.  You have no idea how I feel.”  
     Sonny picked up the empty shot glass in front of him and looked around for a bartender.  There was no one behind the bar.  
     “I begged God to save her,” Sonny continued.  “Swore I’d stay sober if he’d just save her.  Seven years Ken…I did my part.  But yesterday, he stopped doin his.”
     “Ya can’t make a deal with God,” Ken instructed.  “For God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with men’s hands.”
     “I don’t need your bible verses,” Sonny replied, coming off more sad than surly.  “Your god aint my god.”
     “You know it’s not about that,” Ken said with an air of mild frustration.  “It’s about the higher power.  Don’t matter which one ya follow, it’s bigger than you.  It’s the dealer at the blackjack table; and ya can’t cut a deal with the dealer.”
     “Shut up Ken,” Sonny said, pushing himself off the stool and leaning over the bar.  He turned his head in both directions, but still no one was there.  “Excuse me?  Can somebody please top me off?”
     “What if God does come through for ya?  D’ya ever think of that, you selfish son of a bitch?” Ken attacked, his controlled voice commanding a quiet, forceful fury.  “She’s not dead yet.  But she’s scared Sonny.  Real scared.  Why aren’t you there?  Holdin her hand?  Why is THIS the first place you came when you got the call?”
     Sonny turned his head to face his accuser.  His eyes were brimming with tears, and his breathing quickened as the storm that was his grief finally caught him up.  “I…love…her.” 
     “Not enough,” Ken replied, without any hint of sympathy.
     “You’re right,” Sonny said, looking at the Irishman in the eye.  “I don’t deserve her.  Never did.  She met a drunk kid from Brooklyn and married him.  Before her, I thought I was a good guy.  Deep down, ya know?  I thought…but she stayed with me.  Through everything.  She showed me what bein good meant.  And I tried to be good to her.  For her.  I swear to god, Ken…I tried.”
     “I know ya did, Sonny,” Ken replied, softer than before.
     “I got sober for her.  I tried everything before, but nothing took.  Then one day, we find out she’s sick.  That was it.  God help me, her disease was my good luck charm,” Sonny recounted as his eyes glazed over in memory.
     Then his eyebrows rose.  His head followed after that, then his shoulders, chest and torso.  He went from slouching to sitting straight up as if he were a marionette being lifted string by string.  Sonny’s gaze looked past Ken at the empty bar all around him, and he remembered that last day being in here, before he gave it all up for seven years. 
He saw the dingy tables and shoddy chairs filled with the ghosts of the guys who played weekly poker games.  Fatty Chuckles was about to lose his weekly paycheck.  Every week, he lost his weekly paycheck.  Sonny never knew how he could afford to come back.
     Sonny moved from there to the row of faded banquettes behind him.  At the center banquette, Lucky Smythe was passed out with his fly unzipped.  Nothin new.  Lucky was one of the bar’s oldest rats.  He’d been going there since before Sonny’s time.  He was also the only Brit in the area, or the country as far as all the girls who came in were concerned.  He always managed to charm one enough to start fooling around with him in a banquette; and he always managed to get too drunk to finish the job.  He’d pass out, the girl would leave in a huff, and Lucky would be back the next night, regaling the bar with the details of a tryst he must have dreamed.   
     Sonny turned around.  There, in front of him, was the back bar with its glowing spirits. That sight was the final nail in the coffin of his sobriety that night.  What once was a welcome collage of white, black and amber that freed him up to be himself: who he thought he was: now just looked like row upon row of glass convicts behind aluminum bars.    
     “I can’t…live without her,” Sonny realized.
     “I got good news for ya, brother,” Ken offered.  “You don’t have to.”    
     “Whaddaya mean?” Sonny asked.
     “She’s gonna be ok.”
     Sonny was stunned.  His mouth was wide open, and his eyes were desperately searching Ken’s for any sign of the truth of what was just said.
     “Don’t fuck with me,” Sonny finally blurted out.
     “I’m not,” Ken reassured.  “Doctor said whatever she had, she don’t no more.  Called it a miracle.”
     For the first time since getting that dreaded phone call from the doctor a day ago, Sonny smiled.  He stood up.
     “I gotta see her,” Sonny enthused.
     “Sit down Sonny,” Ken instructed.
     “Thank you,” Sonny replied, looking down at Ken as though he hadn’t heard what Ken just told him.
     “Ya can’t see her,” Ken lamented as he exhaled a long breath.  “Sit down.”
     “Why can’t I see her?” Sonny asked, towering over Ken defiantly.  “She’s my wife.”
     “Not no more,” Ken said, looking up at Sonny.
     Sonny suddenly softened.  He transformed back into that marionette; with shoulders, chest and head falling, one after the other as though the strings holding them up had been cut.  Sonny fell hard back onto his stool.  “She’s leavin me?”
     “No,” Ken said heavily.  “Margie’d stay with ya till the end.”
     Sonny swallowed hard.  “Then what’s the problem?”
     “The end has come,” Ken said, looking down at his hands.  “You’re dead.”
     Sonny sat still, letting the truth sink in.  He looked at Ken without actually seeing him.  Instead, his eyes were reliving the memories from the past twenty-four hours, trying to deduce exactly when he had died.
     “I got three shots in…” Sonny said, watching the memory of those first drinks with his mind’s eye.  He saw himself take a shot from his point of view, two empty shot glasses on the bar in front of him.  Then, like a sweeping camera move from an action movie, his point of view rose out of his body.  It settled high up, with him looking down on himself.
Sonny saw his own body keel over onto the floor, flailing.  The bartender rushed to his phone on the back-bar, and the few barflies left in the place only looked on curiously as Sonny seized.
     “Heart attack,” Ken’s voice echoed quietly in Sonny’s head.  “You died almost instantly.”
     Sonny’s eyes focused, and he saw Ken’s sorrowful expression looking back at him.             “But Margie’s gonna make it?”
     “Yeah,” Ken smiled.
     Sonny looked around him at this familiar bar.  He knew this place, and yet he didn’t.  It wasn’t the bar he had been to all those times when he was alive.  It was a ghost - a phantom - a memory.  But so was he, now.
     “I belong here,” Sonny whispered.
     Ken didn’t say anything, allowing the silence to speak for him.
     “Are you dead too?” Sonny put to Ken.
     “No,” Ken replied.  “I’m not even really here with you.”
     “Where are you?”
     “Right now, I’m outside Margie’s hospital room,” Ken said somberly.  “Pacin.  Figurin out how to go in and tell her…what happened to ya.”
     “I’m sorry Ken,” Sonny said, looking away from his sponsor.
     More silence.
     “Then who are you?” Sonny asked.
     “Jiminy Cricket?” Ken gave a small laugh.
     “You gonna stay here with me?” Sonny asked through a broken smile.
     “I can’t,” Ken answered.  “Tellin ya what happened was my last job.  Now it’s time for me to go.”
     Ken stood up.  He wiped the wrinkles from his pants, like the real Ken did.  He dipped both arms halfway into the sleeves of his big trench coat and threw his shoulders up so that the coat landed on him perfectly, just like the real Ken did.  He even tied his scarf around his neck like a tie, same as the real Ken.
     “I can’t leave, can I?” Sonny asked.
     “Afraid not,” Ken affirmed.  “You made this bed.  Now ya gotta lie in it.  All alone.”
     “Ken,” Sonny said, turning suddenly…desperately to the silhouette of his sponsor that towered over him now.  “If there’s any way for you to get one last message to…to the real Ken.  Tell him…tell him to tell Margie that I’m sorry.  I was sorry.”
     “I can’t Sonny,” Ken said sympathetically.  “I’m sorry.”
     Ken turned from his sponsee and made for the door of the bar.  With the swiftness of the wind, he was gone.  Sonny didn’t even see him go.
     The newly dead man turned back to the bar.  In front of him was a fresh shot glass, filled with an amber liquid.  
     Behind the bar, a portly man with salt and pepper hair and very red cheeks stood looking down on him.  Gus, the bartender Sonny had seen every day he visited that bar in his living days, held a full bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.  Looking up into the bartender’s face, Sonny was greeted with that comforting smile and that all too familiar nod that always meant, “one more won’t hurt.”
     Sonny picked up the full shot glass and held it up.  He was hypnotized by that beautiful golden brown.  It gave him that warm feeling of familiarity: of possibility.  It was a promise that Sonny intimately understood: if you drink me, we can do anything.
He looked back up at the smiling, reassuring face of Gus.  Gus didn’t say anything, but it was clear to Sonny that they were both thinking the same thing.
     “I’m damned, right?” Sonny asked out loud.  “Why not?”
     He looked back at the shot glass in his hand.  He held it steady, at the ready; but his hand was shaking, even while the rest of his body was completely still.  
     Sonny sat staring at the shot glass for what could have been minutes or years in this limbo-hell; and all the while, the bourbon stared back.  It reminded him of all the times he had in this place; the good and the bad.  It reminded him of why he was here: Margie.
     Sonny decided.  His hand stopped shaking, and moved to obey.