They say spirits cannot cross running water; so what happens if someone dies in between? What if some person still closer to boy than man, desperately fleeing a life he escaped once and to which he won’t let himself be dragged back, plunges into the river? The river that crashes forth from the mountains, tumbles through the foothills, and slips with placid power through the town where this not-boy, not-man came of age? What if he relinquishes himself eagerly to the black water’s undertow just as his pursuer, this one more man than boy but still young enough to think love can fix anything, reaches the edge of the sandy bank? What if something happens – maybe he dives purposefully, maybe he slips, maybe the bank gives way under his weight – and suddenly the river has claimed two lives, washing the empty bodies far downstream from where they met their end? What if all this happened in the span of a breath; what would become of these doomed spirits? Trapped within the very water they cannot cross, would they be fated to remain in the river itself, caught forever within the icy current? Would their voices cry out in the thunder of the rapids, unable to ever find the peace they were also denied in life?
I will give my lover this; he does nothing by halves. If he drinks, it is expensive hard liquor he tosses back like cheap shots. If he gets high, it’s on uncounted pills that sink him into a sleep as deep as the dead. If he fucks, it is fervently, anonymously, dangerously. If he hurts, it is never just one punch, but blow after blow until knuckles split and bruise. And if he loves, he loves with body and heart and soul, all-consuming, submissive and possessive.
You were the first, weren’t you. Emerging from their caves in the dawn of time, the earliest humans must have blinked tears away as they stared into your brilliance. Huddled at the mouths of those same caves at night, they must have tracked your progress across the awesome night sky. Rising, setting, waxing, waning, you before all else must have first captured the attention of the collective human psyche. Thus you have been in our blood, our bones, our very DNA since we first began preserving our mythology through cave paintings and storytelling. You are the precursor, the archetype. You are older than the oldest, gods of a thousand times a thousand names and a thousand times a thousand forms. And yet you have but one story – summer to winter, night to day, life to death to resurrection, the great wheel ever turning.
“Don’t call me that,” you say. “I’m no angel.” But you’re wrong. You think I call you Angel as a term of endearment, homage to your sculpted form or unearthly eyes. That isn’t true. I call you Angel because you are like Lucifer himself, so determined to remain free, abhorring any kind of fetter. You jealously guard your autonomy; you covet free will beyond all rationality. You love me, I know you do, and yet the moment you feel less than absolutely in control you fight back, sometimes with words, sometimes with absence, sometimes with a blade. At even the barest hint of a future theoretical threat you make sure I understand in no uncertain terms that you can, and will, disappear from my life without a trace. That is why I call you Angel. Not because of your beauty; because beside you even Lucifer would feel shame for letting himself be cowed.
I had the sudden urge to touch you today, an overwhelming desire to take your face in my hands. My hands, not anyone else’s. I imagined it the way a mother might cup the face of her son when he is grown, knowing he is long past protecting but wanting still to smooth the worry lines from his brow and the corners of his eyes. I saw it so clearly, my raised arms, your bowed head. I could feel the hint of stubble on your cheeks and the light tickle of your hair. I touch you through proxy, I know the shape of your mouth and the curve of your jaw from another’s fingers, but this was different. The hands I used were not borrowed, but mine; small, beringed, unsteady. The longing came and went in the space of a second, but the memory of what my own hands touched lingers.
You haunt me, monstress! First my dreams and now in literature. What do you wish of me, why do you call to me from your prison in the dark depths? You make the saltwater in my blood rush like the tide; you stir the wreckage of ships and ocean liners buried in the silt of my stomach. Do you need your story told, perhaps? Has your tale been so twisted through the years that you crave retribution, if only in the form of the truth written somewhere, anywhere, for someone to find? There’s so little trace of you left in song or myth after all these years, so you must fill in the gaps for me. I am good at telling the monster’s story, and I will tell yours if you need. I am not afraid to be pulled down into the whirlpool if you are not afraid to show me your true form.
Isaac slumped against the loft railing, staring down to the floor below where his companions worked to reinforce the boarded windows. He vacillated between admiring their stubborn determination to keep fighting and pitying them for not being able to accept the bleak truth of their situation. Mostly, though, he watched Michael move among the busy scene and wondered how things would be different if he had met the handsome doctor under better circumstances. When you couldn’t even leave the building without carrying a gun, or at least a crow bar or sturdy length of wood, romantic overtures were quite low on the list of priorities. Of course, it also didn’t help that you had zero privacy and were never more than fifteen or twenty feet from one of the other survivors. Was it wrong to wish a few of them might disappear, to whatever end, just to ease the crowded conditions?
“Isaac, you look like you haven’t washed in days,” Maria’s heavy boots thunked along the cheap plyboard as she climbed the loft stairs, a hammer hanging from her belt loop and spare boards tucked under her arm. She looked him over with a motherly frown of disapproval. “Your hair’s all greasy.” Isaac wanted to reply with, We’ll all be dead soon, why does it matter if I don’t look my best? or perhaps, That’s what concerns you? I guess you didn’t notice that I haven’t eaten in two days, but he held his tongue and answered instead with a careless shrug. “Maybe the dead won’t want to eat me if I taste like unwashed skin,” he added as an afterthought, but Maria had already turned away to block up one of the second story windows. She could be friendly, and her nagging was well-meant, but sarcasm had no place in her version of the apocalypse.
To be fair, Isaac had very little energy or desire left for sarcasm himself. He also didn’t particularly mind that no one had yet noticed his share of the rations went untouched, though just from feeling his own body he knew the effects were becoming noticeable. Whatever. He wasn’t trying to be a martyr or anything; he just honestly felt that what little food was left to their ragtag group should go to the people who still clung to hope and life. Sure, they’d be dead soon either way, but at least they would fight until the very end. Isaac had given up, plain and simple. At this point all he wanted was to finish this slow wasting away so they could bury him and forget he’d ever existed. That had already happened to a couple billion other people, after all. What was one more?
Isaac closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the splintered railing, letting the sounds of hammering and urgent discussion wash over him like a white noise machine. Exhaustion and hunger made his head spin and when he woke later he couldn’t tell if the memory of Michael kneeling beside him, his handsome face creased with concern as he checked Isaac for fever, was real or just a wishful daydream.