First Chapter from AFTERGLOW: GODFALL

Greetings, everyone. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in any of my categories here. Meditating at the Crossroads is back, however, and I plan to keep it up and running with frequent updates. What follows below is the first chapter of what *may* turn into a larger novel…IF the first chapter seems to resonate with YOU, my dear readers. If you enjoy it, please do not hesitate to indicate your feelings either in poll box or comment section provided below. At any rate, let me know what you think of it, and enjoy! Thank you for your support and your time.

1.

 

Beryl Toren needed to wash the stink of the Stronghold out of his mouth, and in his experience, the best way to do that was with a tall shot of moonshine. Not the filthy swill poured out of the Council-sanctioned taps, but actual, honest-to-goodness homemade spirits. There was only one man in the Northeast Stronghold he knew had the stones to make it.

He started walking towards Barry’s bar, already looking forward to the indulgent perfection of the man’s homemade liquor. The prospect of returning to his studio filled him with disgust. The children next door would be wailing disconsolately for a mother who wasn’t there; that unnerving skittering and crunching sound carried on sporadically throughout the night; and every Moon Day’s evening a Council-sanctioned Tout would holler a litany of new ordinances passed throughout the Nation until midnight, when he would host a sequence of inane advertisements sponsored by Council-sanctioned merchants. The Council openly claimed that it did not interfere in merchant business, but the Sixth Council member was a merchant himself, as were his brothers, uncles, and distant cousins. Together they commanded a dynasty that dominated the market, peddling everything from liquor to soap. Nor did the Sixth Council member shy away from passing ordinances that made it difficult—if not impossible—for his competitors to do business; including an ordinance that penalized bootlegging with exile. Barry Windham was an exception to the rule, and there’s a story behind that.

Two years ago, one of the transport Millipedes had derailed, tearing off the tracks at breakneck speed and plunging into Slum Quarter 25 in the south of the Stronghold. It didn’t happen often, but every now and again one of the Great Beasts would remember that it had a mind of its own. Most of the citizens on the Millipede had died immediately, and a good many others were lying contorted in pools of their own blood or writhing underneath piles of debris. A few people managed to worm their way free of the wreck, and one of these was the fifth daughter of the Seventh Council Member. There are Eyes and Ears all over the Stronghold, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a corner, alley, hovel, or hole that wasn’t crawling with the Council’s spies—but the denizens of the Slums know their territory, and they know when and where those eyes and ears are turned in other directions.

When that poor girl came up out of the canal all bloodied and messed up, she found herself face to face with a few area boys who would have vented their frustration with Council policy on her in a few choice ways—starting with rape and likely ending with butchery. It would have taken the Medicals a good bit of time to get there (no rush: seems no one knew the Seventh Council Member’s fifth daughter would be on that Millipede); plenty of time for the mongrels to have their fun. Lucky for her, Barry Windham had business in Slum Quarter 25 that night.  He fought off the mongrels and saved the girl’s life. He did her one better, too: kept her hidden away until the ruckus surrounding the accident died down, so the girl could contact her mother privately and be taken home without too many prying eyes speculating as to why such a prominent citizen would have taken a public Millipede to begin with.

In exchange, the Seventh Council Member turned a blind eye—and all other eyes—away from Barry’s illicit business. Only a few people knew this story, and Beryl was one of them…primarily because he had helped bind the poor girl’s wounds. Trick he learned from his ex-wife. He was in Slum 25 on business also: tax collecting. A euphemism for wading through blood, tears, and hate on behalf of the Council; especially in the slums, where the citizens knew well that they were giving up their coin for nothing they would ever see in return. That’s where the blood came in: no coin, one less mouth to feed.

Beryl was no Skull player, but tax collectors were expected to be imposing. They were expected to frighten the submissive and intimidate the aggressive. More than a few bravos had tried their luck with him in physical combat. If they had stopped to think about it, they might have remembered that tax collectors receive intense martial training for years before their first assignment, and practice consistently thereafter. Unlike those who enforced the Council’s laws, tax collectors were trained to subdue rather than kill, bruise rather than break, immobilize rather than mutilate. You couldn’t pay your coin if you were dead, and you couldn’t make your coin if your legs were broken.

There were a few patrons in Barry’s dingy backwater joint this evening; two regulars, several strangers, and a honey-trap sitting at the end of the bar. Half the prostitutes (“sexual service providers”) in the Stronghold were Council-sanctioned, a little better than the Eyes and Ears skittering in and out of sight or droning blatantly on the message poles. A little bit of pillow talk could get you killed if you didn’t keep your mouth shut any better than you kept your pants up.

More than a few of the girls, though, were just down-and-outs looking to make a little coin.

Beryl knew this one. He didn’t exchange the common greeting with her (“Prosperity and Progress, citizen”), as in this part of town that would more than likely elicit a sneer and a curse as anything else. He was reviled enough as it was for his work. He was thankful at least for one rule that made sense: tax collectors never worked where they lived. They worked among strangers. They were constantly rotated throughout the Stronghold, and in a metropolis of over forty million people and one tax collector for every two thousand, it was easy for them to remain faceless and anonymous. Of course, it was still hazardous. Most of the tax collectors worked in at least one of the slum quarters, and a bit of common sense went a long way. Asking the desperate and angry to give up what little they had usually added another body to the murky canals that crisscrossed the city. Beryl had often written “pending” in his ledger, giving more than a few citizens the opportunity to defer payment until his route took him through their neighborhood again.

He was under no illusions that his leniency was any kind of help to them. If they couldn’t find work to pay their coin, they would make money some other way—and they would keep making it that way. Lizzie was a perfect example. Poor girl was no simpleton; her ambition had once painted her in colors far more vibrant than these. But another tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger one too many times.

“You missed the Tout,” she said.

Beryl grunted. “What’s the news of the day, then?”

Barry Windham came out of the stock room, his face brightening to see Beryl. One look at his friend’s haggard countenance and he disappeared again, no doubt to retrieve the good stuff.

“There’s to be a Godfall,” Lizzie said.

That took Beryl by surprise. There hadn’t been a Godfall since he was a kid. It was rare for any citizen to witness more than one in a lifetime. His own father had seen only one, and his grandfather had been a boy himself when he saw his own. “Huh,” Beryl said, taking a stool and breaking into a grin when Barry came out with a clear bottle of his specialty.

Barry nodded, uncorking the bottle and pouring him a shot. “They say it’s because the Stronghold is larger. More people. Takes more power to keep everything running. Makes sense to me,” he said, pushing the glass across the narrow bar. Beryl took the shot, slammed the glass down, and savored the aftertaste—watermelon. Real watermelon. Not the “tweaked” monstrosities peddled in the Council-sanctioned markets. He motioned for a refill.

“Savor it this time, you philistine,” Barry said. “I don’t sweat over this stuff so you can go through it like water.”

Beryl grinned. “First time’s to set the mood,” he said. “Which one of the Old Gods is it?”

“Who knows? Tout said something about them turning off the water and rationing supplies…”

“One of the Old River Gods then,” Beryl said. He took a sip of the moonshine, but the taste had lost a bit of its luster. The Stronghold would be in a riot over the Godfall. It would generate more excitement than any of the games, parades, or celebrity appearances that kept the citizens from focusing on anything important. Until it was over and they cast the spent husk of the Old God from the Pinnacle Tower, there would be talk of little else. Beryl had no stomach for it. As far as he was concerned, it was a hideous spectacle with an explicit motive: a testament to the unassailable supremacy of the Council over the world and the utter annihilation of everything that had once been magical, wondrous, and divine.

His granddaddy told him once that the Old Gods had been worshiped. That they had willingly given a portion of their immense power to those who knelt before them and to the priests who invoked their names. They had spread the Wild like a blanket over the created earth; they had gathered up the mountains from the bedrock of the world; they had dipped their hands into the mighty oceans and scattered the first rains with their palms across the dry country. They had given shape to the beasts and the Great Monsters that had once ranged beyond the fragile habitations of humankind.

Now they were chained in pens beneath the Strongholds, bound by the techno-sorcery of the Alchemists. Their power was used to fuel the Strongholds and the Council’s innumerable machines. The Siphons drained them day and night, funneling their divine energies into the immense network of pipes, conduits, and arteries stretched between the 9 Strongholds. There was even some speculation that the network itself had been one of them, hollowed out and used to funnel the energies of its brethren across the country.

“I wonder what they look like,” Lizzie said, “you know, before they’re all drained and everything…”

Barry looked at her oddly.

“What?” Lizzie leaned over the bar and whispered, “I don’t see any Eyes or Ears in here.” Beryl made a slight gesture with his head towards the strangers sitting around a table in the back. “Oh, them? They’re just some working boys out for a drink,” she winked.  Beryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. “What?” Lizzie challenged him playfully. “All you have to do is ask, Beryl, and I’m yours for the night.”

“Quit it Lizzie,” Barry said. “Lay off your talk or I’ll cut you off.”

Lizzie frowned. “Don’t tell me you never wondered, Barry. What they look like.”

“No. Never wondered. All I know is they keep the city running. You may come here for a shot or two of homemade, but at the end of the day, you get your food from the Dispensaries like everyone else. Ride the Millipedes to work like everyone else. Breathe the same filtered air. You want to try your luck with the exiles out in the barrens and Wilds, you just keep asking the wrong questions.”

“There’s a Godfall coming up, Barry. You think I’m the only one asking these questions?”

“Lizzie,” Beryl said, “you shouldn’t…”

“Shouldn’t what? Barry’s bar is safe, Beryl; been safe for two years now. Besides, I know better than the both of you how to protect myself. I’m no Council-sanctioned whore. And working boys like those,” she jerked her finger towards the three men in the back, “feel comfortable enough to talk to me about all kinds of things. An’ more than one of ‘em’s wondered about the Old Gods, locked away under this prison of a city. Wondered what it must’ve been like in the old days before the War, when there were still monsters to fight and heroes to fight them. Sure, most guys don’t give a damn one way or the other—they eat, they drink, they work, and their cares pretty much end at what’s between my legs and whether or not they’ll catch a show. But some of ‘em have more between their ears than they have hanging below their bellies—only they’re too damn scared to say anything within earshot of anyone other than me.”

“You think this place is safe, Lizzie?” Barry asked, shaking his head. “You’re a fool to think so—she watches me closer than anyone because of what happened two years ago. She wants to make sure I don’t tell anyone what happened. So why don’t you just calm down and lay off the subject…”

Lizzie growled and slammed her empty bottle down on the bar. The men in the back turned their heads sharply in alarm. Beryl nervously clenched his fist. “It’s good that there’s someplace I can go to feel safe,” Lizzie said. Barry shook his head, opening his mouth to interrupt, but the words that poured out of her mouth may as well have been boulders tumbling downhill.

“Safe from the damned Orders and their robed freaks!” One of the men in the back coughed up his drink. “Safe from all those damned abominations!” One of the two regulars all but ran out, bursting through the door in a blur of frantic desperation. Barry reached over the counter and tried to grab Lizzie’s arm. She pulled away, tipping over her stool. “Safe,” she hissed, looking around the room, “from all the ‘citizens’ who could care less about what the Old Gods looked like before they were chained up. Safe from the damned Council!”

“Lizzie…!”

“Alright, I’m done, I’m done!” She glanced around with a look of desperate disdain. “It’s dead in here anyway, and time for me to get to work…” She abruptly closed her mouth as the door opened.

A robed figure entered the bar, features obscured by a gray hood pulled low. Silence fell over the room, and in the quietude—punctuated only by the sputtering of the gas lamps in their dusty globes—everyone could hear a low whispering coming from the figure. Pale lips could be seen moving quickly beneath the shadows. Hands gestured in tandem with words spoken too softly to be heard. It could have been male or female, but everyone knew what the black robe and gray hood meant: it was a member of the Order of Whispering. The warning-givers (“Woe unto those to whom the Whisperers speak”).

The Whisperer approached Lizzie, who stood immobile and terrified. Beryl knew what she was thinking: how did they know? How did it happen so quickly? The strangers in the back rose and made themselves scarce. Lizzie started shaking her head and trembling. She was losing it. The regular boozer tottered to his feet and made for the door. He slammed against the dead music-box and crashed to the floor, dragging himself on his hands and knees towards the exit. The Whisperer was towering over Lizzie now, leaning in close to utter its fateful warning.

Then Beryl saw it. One of the Council’s Ears.

In the days before the War, there were all manner of lesser beasts. During the Period of Ascendance, before the Old Gods were enslaved, the Alchemists began to “harvest” them. Capturing them and twisting them to serve their purposes. Beryl didn’t know how they did it—no one but the Alchemists themselves knew—but the abominations they created were grotesque. People had gotten used to them, apparently, but Beryl couldn’t stand to look at them.

The Ears used to monitor the citizens of the Stronghold had been made from the feral cats that once wandered the streets. The Alchemists had emptied them of their innards, pulled their naked skin over unnaturally extended limbs, and replaced their red blood with some foul brew drained by the Siphons from one of the Old Gods. Their skulls had similarly been reshaped; wrought by vulgar hands into a bony jumble of canals and orifices designed to capture and isolate sound. They heard everything. The Alchemists had also found some way for the Ears to transmit what they heard directly to a receiver. Beryl knew this because, sometimes, a dumb fool who had let slip something he shouldn’t have had thought to capture and kill the Ear that had heard him—but it was never any use. Someone somewhere already knew.

There was a Godfall coming up, Beryl reminded himself; there would be Eyes and Ears everywhere.

But dammit all, she’d just asked a honest question…! Beryl watched the Ear slink into the overhead shadows, seriously contemplating throwing a bottle at it. He turned back to see the Whisperer move away from Lizzie. She looked even paler than before, turning a dismal gray color. She seemed on the verge of fainting. Beryl gave the Whisperer a wide berth, trying to catch a glimpse of its face under the gray hood—he could only see those ugly lips moving.

“What did he say to you, Lizzie?” Barry asked from behind the bar after the Whisperer had left.

Lizzie said nothing. Instead, she reached over to the bottle she had finished, and with a quick snap of her arm, broke it over the edge of the bar.

Barry and Beryl both shouted, but she was too fast: she struck the jagged edge of the broken bottle into her neck and drew it across her throat, flaying the skin open. She dropped to the hardwood floor, gouts of blood spurting from the ghastly wound. Too much blood to stop in time.

Beryl tried to stem the flow, but it gushed up between his fingers. Lizzie tried to speak some final words, freed by imminent death from the prison of her fear. Beryl leaned in close, wanting to comfort her, to tell her that was going to be alright…but he didn’t. He needed to hear what she was trying to say.

“I just wanted to know what they looked like. They must have been beautiful…”

Then she died. Barry was standing over Beryl and trying to pull him away. “You have to calm yourself down, man! You have to…” Beryl pushed his friend roughly aside. He knew her. He had known her. Now she was dead, so much meat for them to cart away and dump in the wastes beyond the walls.

Barry tried to tell him there was nothing he could do, but he was wrong. There was something he could do. In his heart the decision had already been made. Beryl rose to his feet, smiled at his old friend, and walked out of the bar. The Whisperer was gone, but that didn’t matter. The Council was everywhere. Watching. Listening. Not far from Barry’s bar there was a square, one of the innumerable hubs where the boulevards and avenues crisscrossing the city converged. When the Gods fell, nothing remained of them; but trophies of the slain Great Beasts were on display all over the Stronghold. Testaments to the supremacy of the Alchemists.

This one had been a creature of immense size; its skull stretched the length of five men. Beryl didn’t know what it had been called by the people before the War, nor even how it must have looked when alive. What mattered to Beryl now was that one of the Council Touts was drawing a crowd. Appropriately enough, he was announcing the upcoming Godfall.

Several years ago, Beryl had been working in Slum Quarter 37 in the northeast quad of the Stronghold. Tax collectors weren’t authorized to break down doors, but, if they didn’t write “pending” in their ledgers, they instead recorded the addresses of those who believed that a closed door would spare them. Sooner or later, someone who was authorized would come through and break down their door; they would take a pound of flesh as interest. On this occasion, Beryl had knocked on a door that looked the same as every other door in every other building in the quarter—except for a small symbol etched into the wood.

The door had opened of its own accord, swinging wide as if in response to some magic word. He would never have expected what he saw inside. It was a vigil. His mother had taught him the word; but it was a forbidden rite in the Stronghold. The dead were dead. Nothing but husks to be thrown unceremoniously away. Citizens were allowed to mourn—an emotional, human habit that couldn’t be stopped—but any observances or rituals devoted to the dead were punishable with exile.

An old man had been reading something over the body of a child. When Beryl entered he snapped around, surprised. He rose in a fury, his eyes wide and frantic. He started shouting at Beryl—What are you doing here? How did you get in? When Beryl told him that the door had simply opened, the man stopped abruptly and stared at him. He looked back at the body. He had been nervous, fearful that Beryl would report him. Instead he said, “The door wouldn’t have opened otherwise.” For awhile, he said nothing else. Beryl stood awkwardly in the foyer, ledger in hand.

When the old man spoke again he said, “I’m going to give you something. Words. But you must remember them. They aren’t just any words. You must never utter them unless you mean it. You must never allow anyone in this place to hear them—not until you are ready for the consequences. They are the words of a very powerful prayer. Do you know what that is? A prayer?”

“They were spoken to the Old Gods by their priests, before…”

“Yes,” the old man had said, interrupting him. “Before. I am going to give you the words of a prayer. Will you remember them?”

Yes, Beryl had said. And he did. The words came to him when Lizzie’s blood was gushing through his fingers. He knew why, and he knew what to do with them. Now, he was ready for the consequences.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw them. People used to call them “dogs.” Packs of them would wander the streets, scavenging for food. People even kept them as companions. They were commonplace before the ascendance of the Alchemists. After that, they were harvested. As with all the other lesser beasts, their desired ability had been distorted and exaggerated, wedded to the machinery of the Alchemists’ craft and subordinated to the will of the Council. In this case, it was empathy; some part of the dog’s brain that could tune into human emotions, developed over centuries of cooperation. The Alchemists had toyed with it, discovering that its function could be heightened when exposed to the effects of a certain chemical. They rounded up the street packs, and for decades it became increasingly rare to see a dog roaming free. In the meantime, the Stronghold commanded that a certain vine be grown throughout the Stronghold—a thorny, tangled, and oily thing that clung to every lattice and stairway, choked every narrow alley and wound about every ruin and crumbling façade. This vine secreted the very same chemical that the Alchemists used to warp the dogs’ natural ability.

Then, only about a decade ago, the dogs were released. They had been bred to feed on the vine, but its side effects were…unfortunate. The oil from the vine had physically warped them, and from one generation to the next they had adapted to survive these mutations and use their enhanced empathy with uncanny precision. Some of them had elongated limbs, stilted legs that supported a skeletal torso; others were sheathed in a tight skin that pulled their lips away from their fangs, stretched taught over every rippling muscle.

Different breeds were trained to respond in different ways to different emotions—excessive emotions. Fear, anger, guilt; all of them seeped from human pores with a specific scent. Gestures, movements, voice patterns; no amount of subtlety or restraint could prevent one of the dogs from catching on. The larger, more aggressive breeds responded to anger. Packs of leaner, quicker brutes responded to fear. Others responded to remorse, others to euphoria, others to caution. The Keepers of the Dogs tracked them and every citizen that they took an interest in. Sometimes, the dogs got overeager.

Beryl could not even begin to describe what he was feeling. Ecstasy? Rage? Fulfillment? Everything at once? Every damned pack and stray in the city would be coming for him.

He stopped within thirty yards of the Council Tout. The dogs were moving in closer. People at the edge of the crowd were starting to exclaim, murmur and scatter. Beryl had only a moment to say his piece before the dogs frightened his audience away, and he needed an audience for this. People had to hear it.

He moved forward, startling the Tout; the boy stammered in midsentence, his deformed throat quivering grotesquely. The Alchemists worked their craft on people, also. How else would a human voice be able to reach hundreds, even thousands, across the din of a crowded sector? He was using only a fraction of his volume now, and his voice could easily be heard on the far side of the square and across Processional Boulevard 6.

Beryl seized the flustered youth by his shoulders and learned forward. The boy cowered under his grip. “There is something I want you to say,” he growled. The Tout nodded. “You will say the words exactly as I say them, pronouncing them exactly as I pronounce them. If you do not do this, I will make sure you never speak above a whisper again. Do you understand?” Of course he did: the “children” of the Alchemists were task-specific citizens; if they couldn’t perform their tasks, they would be discarded like unwanted refuse. Beryl wasn’t entirely sure if he could do it. The boy was innocent, after all—no one asked to be “adopted” by the Alchemists. But after what happened to Lizzie, Beryl didn’t really know where his limits were anymore. Apparently, that showed clearly enough in his eyes. The Tout nodded frantically. Beryl loosed his grip, nodded and swallowed.

The words were still there, in his mind. Good.

He spoke them; slowly, carefully, mindfully. The Tout repeated them perfectly—they could mimic virtually any sound or voice imaginable. Choruses of Touts would put on Council-sanctioned performances in the squares at least once a week. Beryl never cared for them, but nearly every citizen in the Stronghold eagerly attended at least half of the biweekly performances. One needed to wander far indeed not to hear them echoing about the streets.

Beryl cocked his head to look at the crowd. The people were frozen. Their eyes were wide, their jaws slack, and they looked for all the world like a choreographed and synchronized mimicry of utter disbelief. Beryl wasn’t sure they would even remember what a prayer sounded like; it had been years since any prayers had been heard in the Nation. But they did remember. Even the young ones somehow knew what it was they were hearing. Beryl looked into the Tout’s eyes. Even he knew.

Beryl smiled. This was exactly what he’d wanted.

Then something happened that he did not expect. Near the prayer’s end, the dogs stopped in their approach and sat back on their haunches. They started howling. Howling!

Beryl understood, in a flash of insight, why the old man had given him the words of this prayer. They had somehow hidden his grief for his dead son. Otherwise the dogs would have been there, their claws skittering up the steps of that dingy building, their ravenous panting echoing up the stairwell. But they didn’t come. The old man had offered a prayer to one of the Old Gods, and whatever It was had heard him, shielded him, protected him.

The dogs turned tail and ran, darting about the motionless citizens and vanishing into the innumerable cracks and crevices of the Stronghold. They were no longer a problem…

…but the cloaked figures moving toward him with gliding, unhurried steps were.

 

2.

 

Backwater Brook came in through the Hedge behind Slum Quarter 46. It ran underneath the barricades that kept citizens from trying to cross through the Hedge (willing exile was forbidden, and the poisoned thorns of the seventy-foot tall bush made the attempt almost certain suicide). It passed through the trading stalls of the slum markets (you could find literally anything there), wound through the mazelike gutters of the quarter, and emptied out into Canal 108. It circled through the pipes and purification tunnels, finally emptying out of Murdock Fountain. While in Slum Quarter 46, it passed in front of a peculiar shop, nestled between two decaying brownstones on the west side of what the neighborhood called Parlor Street. A handwritten sign posted outside read “Appraisal Shop.” When people wanted to barter their goods, it sometimes paid for them to make damn sure they knew what their goods were worth on the market. Otherwise, an exaggerated price could easily anger the wrong potential customer. Many a stall had been trashed by an irate resident who thought he or she was being cheated.

This indispensible service was offered by Owl Tannerson. His daddy was a trader in tinctures, salves, balms, and unguents. On the side he traded in bones. Owl’s granddaddy had been a trapper Beyond the Hedge in the old days. But he didn’t trade with the Alchemists. Never once in his life. He traded bush meat in the slum markets. Back then, the Council Dispensaries were running, but an intrepid fellow with skills and a set of brass balls could make a living dealing in real, fresh, normal meat. No one did that anymore, but the Tannerson family remained well respected in 46. Owl was no lover of the Council, that was for sure. The tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger the last time he’d come around, though, and Owl did not relish the thought of running afoul of the authorities.

At this moment, Owl was entertaining a rather nervous client. On the table between them was a pile of assorted baubles and trinkets. Unfortunately for the nervous man, they were worth less than the ashtray next to them.

Fiction: Totem Cycle, part 1

‘They’re vintage,’ the trader held up a yellowed bundle of papers, ‘newspapers from the World That Ended. You won’t see anything like them. Not here. Maybe on the other side. But here…? I can see that you’re interested. Look at them. See that headline? It’s from 4 years before the War.’

‘I don’t know…’

The trader smiled knowingly. ‘This is knowledge, right here. I’ve already read it. But I don’t know anyone else who has. Come on; you only know the stories people tell you. This here,’ he tapped the newspaper, ‘is the truth. The absolute, unvarnished truth. In fact, it’s priceless…’ he frowned, ‘…but I can’t carry them anymore. See, my father entrusted them to me, but I’ve already lost so many of them. Half of them were stolen by Red Robert’s people…’

‘You survived an attack by Red Robert?’

‘I was traveling with a caravan. Me and one other survived, a blacksmith living down near Arizona Bay. He could tell you. I lost 3 more in the rain last season. You remember it? So I’ll give you the rest for a good deal. I’m telling you, this is a last-chance opportunity here.’

‘I don’t know that I have anything to trade…’

The trader scanned the old hunter quickly, assessing what he could see, guessing at what he could not. A hunting rifle, and not one of those made since the War. No, this was an antique even older than his newspapers, kept in impeccable condition. The old hunter wouldn’t want to part with it, or with any ammunition he carried for it. His clothes were soiled and torn in places, but the belts that held his knives and tools were fairly new.

‘I’ll take one of your knives. I’ve only got an old hunting one, but it’s in bad shape.’

The hunter frowned. ‘A knife for a few pieces of old paper?’ He shook his head. ‘The knife is more useful, whatever those papers say. What can I do with them? Stories are better than the truth. Who is ever going to ask me for the truth?’

‘Alright then, you tell me.’

‘Tell you what. You come back with me, break bread at my table, and we’ll talk. You can tell me the latest word, and we can trade over those newspapers.’

‘How do I know you won’t just kill me?’

The hunter snorted. ‘This would have been a better place for it. There’s no one living in these woods for miles.’

The trader considered the offer for a moment, but his stomach had already decided the matter for him: ‘Sure, sure. Why not? It is as you say. How far is your home?’

‘Not far. You’re lucky I was on my way back. These woods aren’t safe after dark.’

Their footsteps shuffled through wet brown leaves, thick on the trail and sodden with last night’s heavy rain. The late afternoon sun dipped behind the trees, shimmering between leaves the color of sunset. The air was cold and crisp, but not yet biting with winter’s harshness.

The two men did not speak again while they walked. The trail had been level beneath a ridge of small, rocky peaks; now it fell suddenly, cutting deeper into the forest below and winding through the western foothills of the Appalachians. The smoke of cookfires rose into the still air and deepening blue of the cloudless sky.

‘What do you call this settlement?’ the trader asked, breaking the silence.

‘Forthright,’ the hunter answered.

‘I’ve heard of it. It’s one of the largest settlements in these parts, isn’t it?’

‘Shouldn’t you know? Where were you going?’

‘To the District Barony,’ the trader answered after a moment.

The hunter glanced at him over his shoulder. ‘The Barony? Are you a fool, or a liar?’ he stopped and looked hard at the trader.  ‘You couldn’t get within fifteen miles of the Barony. The whole city’s surrounded by a ring of marauders, scavengers, and butchers that would kill you in a heartbeat and trade your wares between themselves…and make no mistake: your organs, whether they’re healthy or not, can still fetch a bargain.’

The trader met the hunter’s eyes steadily. ‘You’ve been there?’

‘When I was young and stupid.’

‘Well, that’s where I’m going,’ the trader said. ‘I’ve haven’t anywhere else to go. Besides, I have a few tricks up my sleeve,’ he added enigmatically. ‘There are places even the marauders, scavengers, and butchers won’t go.’

The hunter chuckled derisively. ‘You mean the swamps? That’s been tried. There’s a reason no one goes there. There’s just no way to make it through the swamps alive. No way. No one’s been in or out of the District Barony in thirty years.’

The trader shrugged and lapsed into silence. The trail widened into a small, shadowed clearing. A sentry tower stood in the center, a scaffolding of wooden beams topped by a small shed. The guard standing watch leaned over the railing, an arrow notched and pointed at the trader. When he saw the hunter he nodded but did not lower the bow. ‘Devin!’ he called out. ‘How was the hunting today?’

Devin looked up and waved. ‘Some rabbits is all.’ He motioned to the trader. ‘Met a trader on the trail. Invited him to break bread with my family.’

The watchman lowered the bow but kept the arrow notched. ‘Where’s he going?’

‘Says he was headed here, to Forthright,’ Devin lied. ‘He’s got some old newspapers to trade.’

‘Newspapers?’ the watchman thought about this for a moment. ‘From when?’

‘I have a series from 2100 to 2115,’ the trader called out, ‘in good condition.’

‘Let me take a look at them,’ the watchman said. ‘Come up.’

The trader smiled and ascended the tall ladder, followed by Devin. The watchman shook hands with them both. ‘Good to see you, Nick,’ Devin said warmly. ‘How’s Sam?’

‘She’s fine,’ Nick answered, ‘healer’s looking after her. How about Annie and Winn? They getting on?’

‘I would have taken them with me, but Annie’s been feeling out of sorts for the past couple of days.’

‘Want me to tell the healer to pay a visit?’

Devin shook his head. ‘No, it’s nothing serious. Really. You know those kids have always been sensitive. It’s just the winter coming on. They’ve always been able to feel it.’

Nick looked as if to press the point of the healer, then relented. He nodded towards the trader and said, ‘Alright. Let’s take a look at what you’ve got there. 2100 you said? That when the War started?’

‘No, no,’ the trader replied, ‘the Third World War started in 2110. But, see, a great many things happened in the decade preceding the War. Scandals and court cases, skirmishes and embargos, revolutions and invasions. It’s the truth of what really happened!’

Nick smiled. ‘Does it make for a good story?’

The trader looked bewildered for a second. ‘Of course!’ he answered at last. ‘It’s the best story there is!’

Nick nodded to a woolen cloak hung from a nail in the corner. ‘I’m sold. I can’t read all that well, but my grandfather used to tell me stories about history. Said he used to read books. Imagine that! Well, since he died I miss those stories…if these newspapers of yours are anything like that, I’ll trade you that cloak there for a few of them. How about it? Winter’s coming on, and it comes down hard in these parts.’

The trader looked over the cloak, rubbed the material between his fingers, examined the seams. ‘Fine,’ he said at last. ‘It’s got a few years on it, but it’ll hold for another season. Go on—look them over and take a few that you like. October 14, 2103 is a good one. That’s a nail in the coffin for sure.’

Silence hung in the shed, broken only by the rustle of old paper and muttered exclamations of interest from Nick. Devin had taken the rifle from his back and laid it on the knotted wooden railing; his hunter’s eyes scanned the trees. The sun was going down behind the hills in the west. A few minutes and it would be gone.

The season was turning, and the leaves were changing in that bittersweet pageantry of color that marked the end of summer. The mountains stretched out on either side to the north and south, fading into shades of deepening blue. The birds had stopped chattering among the trees. A blanket of cold wind settled with a whistle of harsh breath over the sentry tower. Devin shivered…

…and heard a series of howls rising up from the forest.

They washed over the treetops like a wave of sound, lapping softly up against the wooden frame of the tower. Everyone looked sharply up. Devin readied his rifle. He glanced at the trader; the man did not appear in the least bit afraid. He was looking out over the forest as if he knew exactly where they were coming from. Devin leveled the rifle’s sight in that direction.

‘How many?’

‘It’s been at least 15 for the past three nights,’ Nick answered. ‘They came past Darwin’s post last night, and he killed one and clipped another. It was 17 that night. Joey swears that 20 of them came past his tower two nights before that, and that was the night we lost Tom’s kids and 5 heads of cattle. I’m telling you, if we don’t figure out a way to stop them, we’ll be left hungry for the winter…already they’re starting to talk, saying that our stores won’t make it into February.’

Devin grunted.

‘You won’t be able to stop them,’ the trader said softly.

Nick looked at him sharply. ‘Don’t say that,’ he growled. He glared at the trader contemplatively and said, ‘Where did you sleep last night? They would have eaten you alive anywhere in these woods…’

‘They’re big woods,’ the trader snapped, then pointed. ‘Pay attention; here they come.’

They broke out of the gloom, loping towards the tower. There were 16 of them. It was the largest pack Devin had ever seen. Their yellow eyes gleamed, lips curled in snarls of rapacious frenzy. Their rust and soot colored coats tangled behind their ears and gathered in thick manes behind their jaws. Others were the color of iron and midnight, and several were pitch black.

The elders said that the old wolves had been different; more like to avoid a man than attack him outright. Things changed. Hearing howls in the woods was a death-knell to any group of travelers few in number, armed only with knives and tools—even guns were no guarantee. The wolves had plenty of game to eat, to be sure; but they preferred the blood of men.

Devin waited and aimed with patient precision. Only when he was sure of the shot, he fired. The rifle thundered out across the canopy and the muzzle flash was bright in the twilight. There was a cry as one of the animals was thrown against its side. The echo of the shot struck the mountains. Devin was already reloading.

Nick released an arrow, but the shaft thudded into the soft ground. He notched and loosed another, just missing one of the wolves. They spoke in growled utterances and sharp yips, coordinating a predator’s strategy. Circling the tower, an overzealous wolf made an attempt to scale the scaffolding and tumbled down, glaring up at them in cold spite.

‘We can’t possibly get them all before they reach Forthright,’ Nick said through clenched teeth. ‘What are they going to take this time? Our children?’ He hissed in desperate frustration, notched another arrow, and let it fly. It struck through the wolf that had tried to scale the tower. Devin fired the rifle again, taking another wolf down.

The pack gathered and started off towards the town. Nick cursed and rang the sentry bell. The old iron clanged and Devin listened for the reply; another bell answered, in the east tower beside the city walls. Whoever was in the fields outside the walls would be running in; the stragglers and those too far away to make it in time would have to rely on luck and the aim of the guardsmen. Others, living in the houses and shacks outside the settlement, would bolt their frail doors and wait it out—but the wolves were known to break into homes, and God help anyone with a wailing infant among them.

‘I’m gone,’ Devin said, hastening down the ladder. When he reached the ground he broke into a sprint towards the settlement. If the guards were able to scatter them, he might have a shot at one of two of them.

He underestimated his vigor—he’d been trekking all day, and his legs were not the legs of a young athlete anymore. He had to stop within sight of the settlement; the wolves were barely visible as dark shapes moving quickly toward the gray face of the city wall. It would be a wasted shot, most likely, but it was the only shot he had. By the time he gathered his strength to run again the wolves would have scattered, each smaller pack looking for a kill. He propped the rifle against the crook of his elbow, got down on his belly, and followed one of the darting shapes. The sentry on the east tower fired, and a small cloud of dust shot up next to one of the wolves; it paused, momentarily distracted, and Devin fired. The bullet took it in the head.

The pack scattered. Every shot now was wasted; they stayed out of the spheres of light cast by the lanterns atop the wall, groups of two or three moving quickly through fields and outlying houses. Annie and Winn…! Devin rose and charged forward with renewed energy; he knew his grandchildren. They wouldn’t have gone in behind the wall without him. Winn was good with a shotgun, and he would keep it loaded and handy; but against three wolves…! He increased his pace, fueling his aching muscles with panic and desperation.

Devin finally saw the red brick of his small house, the green door, the herb garden; he listened for any sound of struggle or pain. It was quiet. The wolves were around here somewhere, he had seen those three heading in this direction…he readied his rifle and slowed his pace, approaching the house cautiously. He had rushed to defend his grandchildren, but he was a likelier kill than anyone behind closed doors.

The thought occurred to him just in time; one of them had been watching him from behind the house. It charged at him, moving faster than he could possibly hope to point and shoot. He dropped the rifle, drew one of his hunting knives, and braced himself. He anticipated that the wolf would lunge; he would bring up his forearm, let it try and bite through his coat, and stab it through the heart—but he anticipated wrong. The wolf came in under his arm, turned its head, and tried for his hamstring. He twisted his leg out of the way, but it cost him: he was on the ground, scrambling to get up. Too slow, too slow…

The wolf came over him, its jaws snapping over his face, its wild yellow eyes glowing against its charcoal fur. It was near 180 pounds of snarling wolf, but Devin managed to push up and throw it off him for the split of a second he would have before it came up again—just enough to grab the knife, and follow through with a hasty stab on his hands and knees.

He was lucky; the knife went into its throat and it bit down on the empty air, whining in sudden pain and drawing hastily away. It loped quickly off, shaking its head and losing blood. Devin panted tiredly and got up. Where were the other two?

‘Winn!’ he shouted, ‘Annie! The wolves are here…!’ Devin stumbled towards the house. Why haven’t they responded? He slammed himself against the door and threw it open.

They were sitting at the table, looking at him as if he were raving. Annie, Winn, and the trader. Annie was putting down a tray of fresh bread and Winn was looking over the newspapers; the trader was smiling at him as if passing a secret between them. Devin took a moment to process the scene, his heart thudding in his chest, his knife clutched in his hand, his torn pant leg trailing blood over the floor.

‘What happened?’ Winn cried, rising from the table and moving forward.

‘Wolves…’ Devin answered, slowly trying to come to his senses. He stared at the trader. ‘How did you get here so quickly? You were still at the tower…’ he focused on his grandson. ‘When did he get here? Didn’t you hear the bells? There are wolves in the camp!’

Winn stared at him, then glanced back at the trader. ‘Bells?’ he asked wonderingly. ‘I didn’t hear any…wolves? Are you sure?’ he looked again at his grandfather and moved quickly to take up the shotgun beside the door. ‘I know this man—he’s traded here before. He told us you were with Nick at the tower, and that you were on your way.’

‘Grandfather…?’ Annie set the tray down and moved towards the sound of their voices.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, moving forward, ‘step away from him.’ Annie backed away from the trader. Winn looked at him questioningly, but Devin didn’t have time for explanations; as far as he was concerned, this man was dangerous. He would have seen the man moving toward his home; how did he get here so quickly…?

He started with the basics. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘You’re no trader. You said you were for the District Barony…why? You knew where the wolves were coming from; you had no fear of them. What’s your business here? Answer me!’

The trader put up his hands. ‘I come with a warning,’ he said. ‘I should have gone about it differently…but if I had told you the truth from the beginning, you would have shot me in the woods and left me for dead.’

Devin smiled dangerously. ‘I’m like to shoot you right here. You’re a stranger. No one would question a man defending his family against an intruder. You’ve nothing to lose by telling me the truth now. I guarantee that it will go poorly with you unless your explanation satisfies me.’

‘Very well,’ the trader put down his hands. ‘They’re coming for your granddaughter.’

Winn and Annie both started talking at once; Devin stared at the old trader, trying to make sense of what he was saying. With another ear he listened for the wolves, prowling around the grounds outside.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, ‘open the door.’

Outside, there were two men standing naked in the cold and dark. There was no shame in their nakedness; only a quiet, subtle danger that shone in eyes the color of gold. Still, Devin was momentarily grateful that his granddaughter could not see. Winn leveled the shotgun on them, as did he; they were often of a common mind, he and his grandson. He hoped that was enough to get them through this alive.

‘Who are you?’ he demanded, wondering why he didn’t just shoot them. Winn was waiting on his signal.

The men said nothing. They simply stood outside, waiting for a signal of their own. From the trader, no doubt. Devin turned, another question ready on his lips…

The old wolf stood on the wooden table, its hackles bristling in threat, lips curled over the feral horror of its exposed gums and vicious teeth.

The naked men bowed their heads in submission.

‘The Totem has chosen your granddaughter,’ one of them growled. ‘She will come with us.’

‘The hell you say,’ Devin replied. He turned and fired on the old wolf…

 

 

 

 

 

Spirituality Essay Series: The Challenges of Modern Spiritual Belief

Greetings after a long absence! Relocation half a world away will do that. At any rate, the spirituality essay series has finally returned, with a hopeful promise of frequent postings. Comments are more than welcome, as always. For fans of my fiction and short stories, I have more coming up in that sphere as well. Check back often, spread the word, and enjoy.

 

It is clear that religion is losing ground worldwide. The number of individuals claiming to be atheists or agnostics is steadily increasing, particularly in the developed world. While Islam and Christian Evangelism are making headway in Africa and Southeast Asia, it is apparent that a countercurrent of skepticism and doubt has penetrated into the global consciousness, disseminated along unprecedented channels of modern communication and social networking. Eventually, it is more than likely that the number of those who do not subscribe to a codified belief system will outnumber those who do; by what extent I am not in a position to say. Present circumstances may not allow this new paradigm shift to occur for many generations yet. There are many reasons why this is happening, and among the most commonly cited are advancements in science and technology, the proliferation of consumer culture (largely attributed to that nebulous and largely academic entity known as the “West,” but generally taken to mean the United States), and the historical and contemporary extremes of fundamentalist violence. Additionally, while superstitious belief remains prevalent, genuine belief in the mystical, transcendent, or spiritual is waning. This is due in no small part to the lack of genuine practitioners on the one hand; on the other, the spectacle of science—to the often unsubtle and untrained modern eye—is far more appealing and commanding than the often quiet and unseen transformations of the spiritual path. After all, one may expect visible manifestations and great displays of power and awe! If so, that one is often disappointed: so much of the Great Work takes place well beyond the pale of the five senses.

Schisms, fragmentations, and reformations are taking place in religions great and small. Independent churches, sects, and communities are present in the shadow of every world religion, espousing divergent interpretations, habits of practice, and claims to truth. Spirituality has, in the consideration of no insignificant percentage of individuals, distanced itself from religion—where they were once considered inseparable. Resurgences of earlier systems of belief, as well as approximations and recreations of older religions, have become common, and there is a marked interest in belief systems practiced by traditional peoples throughout the African Diaspora, South America, and Oceania. The legacies of spiritualist revivals are found on the bookshelves of commercial retailers throughout the United States, from the Golden Dawn to Theosophy to Carlos Castaneda. Rather than strengthen spiritual belief, these movements—lacking any direct cohesion, however much they have in common—point to a scattered, eclectic, and often individualistic buffet table of choices, each one tasting more or less like the other.

The modern spiritualist is in a rather curious and sometimes precarious position: neither a fundamentalist nor an atheist nor an agnostic. Spirituality, unlike many varieties of religion, does not advocate acceptance without question. On the contrary, one is encouraged to weigh opposing perspectives with consideration and mindfulness. Consequently, the spiritual man or woman is obligated to consider not only the world’s many religions and belief systems, but atheism as well. Fundamentalists and atheists will never be reconciled, of course, and the same can be said of spiritualists and atheists—but spiritualists do not have the luxury of responding to atheists in the same manner that fundamentalists do, i.e. with a scripted answer that precludes rational discourse. A true spiritualist must defend his or her position in a meaningful way. In order to do this, he or she should be able to counter a number of common arguments brought up against modern belief in the spiritual—as distinct from the religious.

  1. “There is no Proof”

Proof depends on humankind’s ability to detect, measure, and reproduce a particular result or phenomenon based on available technology and instrumentation. Our ability to prove something—a particular hypothesis or premise—depends on whether or not we can subject that hypothesis or premise to such methods as we have available to test it. Simply put, we cannot prove anything until we have the means to do so. Until recently, we could not prove a great many things about our world, and a good deal of it remains unknown. In order to prove the existence of God, we would first have to be able to detect God with our instruments! Surely you can see how unreasonable a proposition this is, particularly when we have only recently determined that other planets exist beyond our solar system—worlds that have been there all this time, circling their own suns in galaxies hundreds of thousands of light years away.

A skeptic may reply that people have been claiming to be able to “detect” God (in a manner of speaking) for centuries, whether through revelation, visionary experiences, or religious intuition. These methods lie outside the purview of the scientific method, and as such are summarily discredited. This implies that the scientific method is the only reliable means of establishing the verity of something. In one fell swoop, this effectively negates any intrinsic tools we possess to understand and evaluate our world in all its complexity. If we can’t see it, measure it, or manipulate it, it may as well not exist—irrespective of the fact that a great many things were entirely unknown to us, imagined only by the mystics and philosophers of our history. We thrust everything into the press of Reason, conforming the reality we experience into shapes that neatly fit the paradigm of our dominant worldview. We misuse the power we have to shape reality by diminishing and denying what we cannot manipulate, replacing the transcendent with the products of our industry.

We endeavor to prove what we suspect is true, and along the way have been dealt more than a few surprises; the laws governing the quantum universe, for example. Arguably, we have historically suspected that there is a God also. But from the very beginning we have allowed that the divine interacts with the perceptible world by choice and design, otherwise existing well beyond the scope of our reality. We have built our instruments out of the stuff of our reality. We have turned the eyes of our far-seeing tools towards the furthest reaches and minutest corners of our reality. And yet we have at every turn imagined the possibility of other realities, other dimensions of existence, and in our brief moments of humility have acknowledged just how little we know about the reality we inhabit.

The divine is not a hypothesis; it is a possibility that can never be disproven, and can only be “proven” under conditions of transcendence. Nor can these conditions be met unless the possibility of transcendence is taken as a starting point. This is important: if transcendence (or salvation, or Enlightenment) is assumed as having been accomplished, it follows that the existence of the divine should be within reach of our ability to prove it…and this, more than many things, is what has made the matter difficult between those who believe and those who do not: the number of individuals who lay claim to transcendence without understanding the distance between the possibility and its realization. Nor is it a suitable counterpoint to insist that transcendence is impossible simply because it is so rare of an accomplishment.

Charlatans, poseurs, and false prophets are abundant, and their very presence is a disservice to genuine seekers of truth. Those who represent the sciences, on the other hand, are typically far less prone to the abrasive rhetoric of delusion and fanaticism that is ludicrous, offensive, and utterly meaningless to anyone with a critical mind. Consequently, science is oft taken more seriously on that account alone.

To many, the very idea of an omnipotent deity, reincarnation, or a spiritual world is preposterous, inasmuch as these ideas require that an otherwise reasonable individual take on faith and as true what cannot possibly be supported by any measurable evidence. This is faith, a religious person might say; an explanation that rarely suffices to assuage the concerns of a skeptic or materialist. Faith, when brandished as a shield against the inquiries of those demanding a stricter methodology of evaluating a given premise, is a frail defense.

So, what is a better defense?

While the tautology is no longer considered a valid argument, spiritual systems of belief are based on logic that has, in many cases, been subjected to rigorous debate, discourse, and analysis; and they are based on experiential evidence that remains consistent in both form and substance. While a skeptic may insist that this “experiential evidence” is hardly comparable to the hard data produced by mechanical experimentation, based as it is on subjective rather than objective information, there is no reason to suppose that information gathered by our interior senses—particularly when it is correlated by similar or even identical information gathered by others—cannot be used in support of premises that are based in and depend on experiences of a specifically religious or spiritual variety.

  1. History

History is often cited as a good reason to disavow religious affiliation. It is a standard argument that religion has caused more conflict than it has resolved, and the world since 9/11 has only lent further authority to the claim that the human race might be better off without it. This does not stand to reason that humanity would be better off without spirituality, however. That one should be expected or commanded to die and kill for a God believed to have created ALL life is a contradiction summarily despised by most, if not all, branches of spirituality, which holds compassion among the highest virtues. Nonetheless, there it is: people are willing to die and kill for the sake of doctrinal interpretation.

Recent polls will tell you that the number of atheists is growing most notably in developed countries, leading one to conclude that there is a direct correlation between development and atheism. This also lends apparent credibility to the notion that, as human society advances, religious belief systems are rendered obsolete. Once necessary to control uneducated populations of peasant laborers, religion is removed further and further into the background relative to the dominance of humankind over the natural world. Whereas human beings appealed to a higher power to do whatever they could not—limited as we were by our ignorance of the mechanisms of nature and the means to manipulate those mechanisms—there now appears little reason to depend on a Supreme Being when, as a whole, humanity can work the same wonders formerly considered the province of gods.

It is only that not everyone has access to these powers and technologies; a good deal of the world remains impoverished, uneducated, and powerless. For so long as that remains so, many humanists insist that religion will always provide refuge and succor to the powerless and uneducated. On the other hand, if we advance enough to where the technologies that afford us health, luxury, and efficiency could spread into every house, hut, hovel, and hole, we would undoubtedly create the paradise that was previously held over our heads as a reward for obedience and good behavior. God and mysticism are unnecessary superstitions, by-products of the long and arduous road to more profitable development. To recall them would represent a step in the wrong direction. While this view is steadily gaining ground, and finding proponents among psychologists, scientists, humanists, and trans-humanists, it represents a decidedly limited scope of vision based on a sequence of conclusions that—while complex and highly intellectual (e.g. the “memes” of Dawkin’s hypothesis)—are nonetheless fiercely one-sided and antagonistic towards older models of belief.

On the other hand, there is more to be gained from the continued investigation of the possibilities associated with religious and spiritual thought. The choice of nihilism or materialist positivism is a choice, and it is not the only one available; there is sufficient mystery left in the world to accommodate most (if not all) of the premises upon which many religions are based. While it is true that we cannot credit Zeus with lightning, or attribute epilepsy to demonic possession, there are nonetheless many possibilities that cannot be discounted from the relative infancy of our collective understanding.

The successes of science are historically evident and indisputable, ranging from vaccines and medicines to advancements that have allowed us to communicate instantly with peoples and culture half a world away. The successes of religion are not so evident from the same perspective. Religion and spirituality are imbalanced when they do not support an intellectual, investigative, and artistic dimension as well as a practical, exoteric one. Unfortunately, it is the esoteric dimension of religion that is most quickly dismissed. While it may be protected by the devotees who study it, and who pass it down to their students and disciples, it cannot flourish without support. Nor can its insights and discoveries—many of which are psychological in nature—positively affect those who will not acknowledge them. Yet, without the symbols and beliefs belonging to the philosophy, mysticism, and intellectualism of religion, many of the concepts and ideas that have brought us this far will become empty and meaningless.

  1. Aggressive Conversion and Predatory Religions

The success of the conversion-based religions in terms of their propagation cannot be disputed. However, the tactics of conversion are arguably one of the central offenders adding fuel to the momentum of non- or even anti-religious movements. I am not referring only to the “convert or be damned” rhetoric of the extremist sects, but to the emphasis on mission work in developing countries and the attacks against traditional religions in many of those countries. While syncretism is an interesting defense mechanism, and has yielded many adaptations and innovations of a symbolic, ideological, and/or practical nature, the more frequent consequence of mission work in the developing world is a gradual erosion of traditional practices. Some of the more stubborn elements of traditional systems of belief may linger, changing form in order to pass inconspicuously through the gauntlet of doctrine; most are abandoned and forgotten.

The very notion of conversion is offensive to those who see the spread of an unwelcome ideology akin to the spread of a disease or plague—Nazism, Communism, radical Islam are all examples of movements that were, and are, likened to contaminations of a collective body. The spread of an extreme or fundamentalist expression of a religion is not taken kindly by many groups; not only those who would prefer to see the spread of secularism, equality, human rights, and the hallmarks of economic development, but also those who practice traditional religions considered barbaric or pagan by the monotheistic faiths. While mission work does often bring development in the forms of schools, clinics, and similar initiatives toward the alleviation of poverty and squalor, it also—to varying degrees—advocates the acceptance of a worldview and belief system that homogenizes culture and threatens diversity.

Of course, this may seem an excellent reason to condemn religion as a whole! I have known more than a few individuals who outright discredited Christianity on account of missionary Evangelism—and many believers who discount the whole of science because they find the theory of evolution unpalatable. The tendency towards generalization and reductionism—not to mention uninformed opinion—compounds the issue. Not only this, but that tendency is found most strikingly in the expressions of those faiths disseminated through conversion-based missionary work. The rhetoric that wins the masses is not, and cannot be, esoteric, intellectual, or obscurely mystical; it would fail to move the hearts of those who are best treated to the simplest and easiest to understand, the doubtless and most fundamental of premises.

This is not to say that conversion cannot take place at the intellectual or educated level! No—that is variety of conversion that is typically characterized by mutual willingness, in the case of those who decide after sufficient consideration that they should adhere to another faith tradition. No, I am focusing specifically on aggressive conversion, on the tendency on certain expressions of religion to actively pursue and recruit members.

Arguably, syncretism occurs primarily at the symbolic and esoteric level. Not only as a means of survival or appropriation, but simply by virtue of the fact that symbols and archetypes are endlessly adaptable, numinous, and stubbornly pervasive. Conversion necessarily utilizes these symbols because of this reason, but there is no institution or individual that can command every dimension and aspect of an archetypal symbol. In much the same way that the Bible can be studied on many levels, any given myth-structure (e.g. the Resurrection of Christ, the creation stories in the Hindu Upanishads, etc.) is hardly limited to those elements that are wielded by orators interested in conversion! Many symbols will make their way across cultural boundaries and interact with different practitioners on deeper levels; much may be lost in translation, of course, but it is nonetheless a testament to the resilience of religious and spiritual symbolism. Moreover, syncretism and adaptation both facilitate cross-cultural exchange and greater diversity, providing—at least for those who care to look deeper into the matter—an alternative paradigm to the homogeneity of modernization and industrialization. Global consumerism is a paltry substitute indeed for genuine dialogue across faiths and cultures, and materialist humanism, while offering a utopian vision of a unified (post-) humanity, cannot possibly hope to replace the sheer depth of symbolism and transformative power couched in the undeniably human impulse to preserve the sacred and respect the unseen.

Aggressive conversion is NOT a feature of spirituality, which proffers an invitation to those who would seek it out, and demands an unceasing dedication based on introspection, critical thought, questioning, and a dynamic faith that differentiates between what should be taken on trust and what should be subjected to rigorous investigation. To the extent that any religion councils that abandonment of individually cultural traditions only because they do not conform to the dominant narrative of the system, it is an offense to the natural inclinations of diverse groups to independently develop their own understanding of the divine and the means to attain an awareness of it. Does this mean that certain tribes in Africa should be allowed to promote twin-killing on a religious basis? Or that extremist sects of monotheistic religions should continue to impose barbarous punishments for the breaking of outdated laws originally composed under the auspices of a different time and place? Obviously not—but it does not mean either that we should lay waste to human belief because of those who cannot be troubled to look further than the exoteric, or who do not consider the possibility that vastly different perspectives may have merits all their own.

One final word and this perhaps the most helpful: to those who claim that our understanding of the world and of ourselves has thoroughly excised the possibility of the divine from the scheme of things, it is more appropriate to say that our search for knowledge has only deepened the mystery. We know as little about our own minds and the reasons for the extent of our self awareness and consciousness as we do about the vastness of the cosmos!

Consider this: why should evolution have furnished us with the capacity for artistry and the contemplation of abstract mysteries? What possible benefit could such an adaptation truly have? Even the mental capacity necessary to design our great cities and machines cannot account for what is not driven by utility or the desire for greater ease and efficiency; for yes, those elements do lead to longer life spans, increased chances for survival, and all the drives that impel life across the universe…but the concept of the divine or spiritual? While useful as a socialization mechanism, the sheer depth of our experience in this realm cannot be so easily classified as yet another human mechanism.

We have made the grievous error in judgment of allowing our industry and science to outstrip our philosophy and quest for transcendent spiritual wisdom (gnosis). They walked hand-in-hand at one point, and it would serve us well to pair them again (a move already performed by many metaphysicians and theoretical scientists who are able to comfortably maintain a healthy belief in the possibility of divinity and the sacred). Either extreme, whether of atheism or fundamentalism, does us a terrible disfavor by cutting off our access to entire dimensions of possibility.

On the other hand, the extremes of superstition, blind faith, and violent devotion should be curtailed and opposed at every turn—for they do more to imperil the simple, compassionate, and artful search for spiritual wisdom than any atheism ever will.

True Immortality: The Second Chapter

Dear Readers:

True Immortality is now available on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.com (which means it will be available on most e-book platforms). I have posted below the second chapter of the novel, hoping to whet your appetite for the whole manuscript. The first chapter is posted below. Enjoy!

 

Chapter Two:

From the Heart

 

 

Three Weeks Ago

 

They had made love that night, and even now she wanted to remember it as something other than what it was. She wanted to remember it as the consummate expression of a final goodbye she never got to say. Gentler and more passionate; more primal and rhythmic. But it was as it had been for months, an obligation that he fulfilled mechanically.

In the beginning, Paul Daniels was an aggressive lover. She mistook his aggression for ardor, responding in kind. Their sex had been an often violent affair, a struggle that resulted in mutual sweat and panting. They weren’t speaking the same language. Their physical exchange became a sequence of gestures repeated without intimacy. She chalked it up to his troubles and dealt with it; but his aggression was never replaced with sincere affection, not in all the nights they spent together.

Only months after she’d married him without knowing his family, Paul had been summoned home by his father. William had come back from Alaska, and there was something he wanted to share with his eldest son. Mary was finally going to meet the infamous William Daniels, the man obsessed with the legacy of his crazy great-grandfather.

After meeting William, Mary had started to wonder whether Paul had been running from his father when she found him; running into the arms of a woman to soothe him. She thought he was stronger than that, but every day spent at the Daniels estate confirmed his unshakeable loyalty to William. Paul would honor his father’s wishes whether he questioned them or not. How else could she explain this sudden trip to upstate New York? One minute, her husband was talking about going back to Boston and getting back to work as a freelance journalist, and in the next moment he was telling her they were going to New York. Why? Because William Daniels had said it was something important.

Meanwhile, Harper had flatly refused, challenging William at every turn. There was a truth he was trying to get at, a truth that Paul knew about but was probably hiding from his wife and brother. Harper had even tried to talk to Paul, but that conversation went the same way it always did, and ended the same way it always ended: black eyes and split lips.

Had Paul read the journal, even when she knew that William had expressly forbidden him to? Did he secretly cultivate a backbone and go behind his father’s interdiction? Did he know more than he was letting on to everyone, even William? His behavior on the trip, at the hotel, all of it pointed to something that he knew—something that his father wouldn’t have told him. William wouldn’t have told him anything that would have given him second thoughts about going to New York.

On that night before they left, he had turned his back on her after their intercourse. He heaved a deep sigh, which she had lately taken to interpret was his way of saying that he didn’t want to talk. But that wasn’t going to work. Not on that night.

“Why are we doing this?” she asked him.

He turned his head in the darkness to look at her. “My father’s trying to find some information on the journal he recovered in Alaska. Apparently Jonah’s research partner, this McEvelin Roberts, kept something from him and sent it away to a colleague of his for safekeeping. Jonah never knew about it.”

“What was it?”

“A piece of a stone tablet recovered by Jonah Daniels in South America. You remember my father going on about how Jonah disappeared after that? Until three years later, when he resurfaces in a few crazy stories across the U.S. before vanishing completely in 1901? Well, this Roberts guy sent a piece of whatever they were working on to Upstate New York. The missing piece was transcribed into a book and passed on from one generation to another, and now it’s somewhere in an antique bookstore owned by the grandson of Roberts’s hidden colleague: one Isaac Peerson.”

This was more than he’d ever told her about what he and William discussed. He was hoping she would take it and leave further questions aside—but that wasn’t her style. Mary tried pressing him for more information; why was this missing piece so important? Why were they treating this journal like some world-shattering relic, and how the hell did William Daniels even find out about it?

“William thinks this is really important,” Paul declared with finality, “and I have no reason to doubt that he’s right. Now Mary, it’s just going to be a short trip. Besides, you’ll get to see New York City.”

She’d listened carefully, and Paul hadn’t really told her anything. For the past year William had been obsessed with this journal. For months afterward he did nothing but lock himself in his study with a bottle of Black Label Walker and that wretched leather-bound book. Night after night, he hoarded over it, bitterly refusing to answer any questions about it.

“Listen, Mary, that’s all I’m going to tell you. Now if you don’t want to go that’s fine; you can just go back to Boston and wait for me there.”

He breathed heavily into the oppressive silence of the bedroom. She fumed in rage for a moment, leafing through remotely appropriate answers to that. Wait for him? The hell she would. “Don’t take me for a fool, Paul Daniels,” she said. “Now you listen: I’m coming along because I need to know what’s going on, and what your father’s got you all wrapped up in. I have a right to know, whether you plan on telling me or not. I intend to get it out of you any way I can.”

Paul huffed angrily. She knew that he was either going to get frustrated, angry, and unpleasantly aggressive—or he was going to shut down like a threatened child and pout his way through the night. He was going with option number two.

“Alright,” Mary acceded bitterly. “Why isn’t Harper going?”

“Dad hasn’t told him anything about all this. As far as our father’s concerned, Harper doesn’t need to know anything—not after what he did in Richmond.”

Mary was glad Paul couldn’t see her rolling her eyes. “That wasn’t his fault, Paul.”

“How was it not his fault? He should be grateful it ended better than it could have. If those two men hadn’t gotten up and ran away, Harper would likely have killed them!”

“Didn’t you say they attacked your dad in the street?”

“They were common muggers, Mary—two sick, homeless people who probably wanted spare change. My father tends to exaggerate things. I have no doubt they gave him a good scare when they came out of that alley. William told me they were pale and diseased-looking. I’m sure it was terrifying.

“Now Harper’s with him, interprets their actions as violently hostile, and explodes into a frenzy. He beats them into the ground, pushes one of them into a street, and throws the other one down a stairwell. Somehow they get up and flee the scene, leaving my father badly shaken and Harper salivating for more blood. I mean hell, Mary, my father’s no weak-hearted man, but even he told me that Harper’s reaction was extreme. I don’t know what my brother’s problem is, but I’m sure William is doing the right thing by keeping him out of all this.”

Mary didn’t say anything.

“He’s a loose cannon, Mary. If he knew more about that journal, there’s no telling what he’d do. Trust me on this; it’s better that Harper knows as little as possible. If he wants to throw a fit, curse our father, and refuse his wishes, then that’s his business.”

“And what about me, Paul?” she challenged. “Am I a loose cannon, that you’re keeping all this from me? You say, ‘we’re going to New York,’ and I say, ‘ok.’ I don’t usually ask why, but I’m asking you this time. What’s going on?”

Paul hadn’t told her.

They had left the next day. They reached New York City in the late afternoon after driving for over seven hours. They checked into a hotel in Manhattan, driving through the car-clogged arteries of the city while the sky darkened threateningly overhead. A storm had followed them up from the south.

Paul had become increasingly paranoid during the trip, going from his usual irritability to a heavy unease that was palpably choking the atmosphere. They had driven with little talking, and this was unlike them. After checking in, Mary had suggested they go out, but he tried to insist that they stay at the hotel.

Mary had reached her breaking point with him; damned if she was going to stay trapped in a hotel room while he panicked and brooded in stubborn secrecy. Either he was going to offer her some well-deserved answers in exchange for her obedience, or he was going to have to stomach it and take her on a walk across the Big Apple.

She had never been to New York, but she had created a version of it in her mind, composed haphazardly from books and television shows, rumors and second-hand stories of rude pedestrians and lunatic taxis. The reality of it was immediate and abstract, a perpetually sudden chaos of lights and noises, towering buildings and unexpected architecture. Gothic churches and cathedrals towered menacingly over boutiques and souvenir shops selling gaudy trinkets. A swelling tide of people and cars, trucks and buses crashed against the cavernous and echoing chasms between skyscrapers.

She loved and hated it at the same time. It was powerful and uncaring, unpredictable and base. That night it started to rain by the time she dragged her husband into Times Square, one of the most recognized urban landscapes in the world. It was as a extravagant as she expected it to be, as unapologetically commercial, and she wanted desperately to enjoy it.

Then Paul muttered something peculiar. “We shouldn’t be out in the storm,” he said. She turned to him, narrowing her eyes and peering at him. She wanted to know whether he was just changing tactics on her, trying to pity her into relenting and going back to the hotel, but he had been sincere; his eyes told the story of it. He was genuinely afraid.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded, brushing a wet strand of red hair out of her eyes, the better to glare at him.

She had never seen him look so helpless. “This is going to sound crazy, I know, but I really think we should stay out of the storm. It was something my father said…” She knew he was lying.

“You won’t get me to listen by quoting your father,” she snapped, “so don’t lie to me about it. William just told you to run up to Albany and buy him a book—that’s all. And he told you not to read the journal. But you did, didn’t you? What was it? What has you both so riled-up, so frightened?”

That should have stung his pride. Mary had never known her husband to accept that he could be afraid. Her words didn’t even faze him. “I can’t tell you, Mary!” he yelled, startling a few passerbies and embarrassing her in the process. “You just have to trust me, and come back with me to the hotel…”

“Paul,” Mary said, shaking her head in angry astonishment, “you keep telling me about this mysterious journal. What do you think about all this, about what you’re doing? If you told me that someone was following us, or that we were racing against time to find this book before someone else did, I would be more prepared to understand that! But you’re telling me that we should stay out of the rain, for God’s sake!”

She would have continued arguing, but Paul had stopped paying attention to her. They had wandered into the Diamond District, a narrow street closed to traffic and lined with jewelry stores. The rain had intensified and was coming down in torrents and curtains. People were huddled in alcoves and doorways, clustered against one another. Others peered out of store windows, leaning over glass counters alight with the glow of gold and diamonds on display. The buildings towering darkly above the street made it seem narrower, tighter, shadows in the hidden spaces vying with the artificial glitter of flashing signs and backlit advertisements.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. The two of them were standing in the middle of the street. People were looking at them, their eyes twinkling in the shadows, but they were just figures painted into a gray background. She was focused on her husband, whose eyes were scanning their surroundings the way a man expecting an ambush would.

“Paul…?”

A shock of thunder and burst of lightning shook the street, so mighty that nearly everyone flinched and started back. Mary didn’t avert her eyes. She saw it clearly:

It came out of a curtain of rain in the instant of the lightning flash, darting towards Paul in the boom of thunder. She had time only to widen her eyes when its hand erupted out of her husband’s sternum, holding his bloody heart cupped in its hand. His face was a mask of horror, his eyes staring at the ruddy, red-veined hand holding his dying heart, a pulpy thing ticking in weak beats.

Mary had time only to open her mouth before the monster seized Paul with its other arm and tossed him over its cloaked shoulder. It darted away just as quickly as it had come, vanishing into an alley. She turned to follow, the people around her starting to recover from the suddenness of the blinding lightning and echoing thunder. She ran towards the narrow crevice between buildings, but she already knew that it was too late. The alley was empty.

The vampire had taken her husband away.

A few people had been looking curiously at her, but no one had noticed anything. The rain lessened and they began to venture out of the doorways and alcoves, flooding the street, moving uncaringly around her. She hadn’t even been able to cry out, or scream, or call for help. She could only stand there in numbed bewilderment, pacing the alley for desperate hours afterward as if Paul would pop out from behind a car, alive and well.

She had seen what she had seen. It wasn’t a hallucination; that much was confirmed by William and Harper when they arrived in New York less than a day later to join in the search. Harper was relentless, but she had hated William for doing close to nothing to find his son. He just gave up, reviling and pitying himself, slinking back to his estate with fatalistic despondency.

 

* * * *

 

Now

 

A portion of the woman’s shoulder erupted in a gory splash of blood and splintered bone. She screamed and fell backward against the mantelpiece. In falling her right arm passed through the grate and into the fire. She wailed piteously as her skin blackened sickeningly. She pulled her arm away while the other hung by a shred of skin and muscle from the pulped shoulder.

“What have I done?” Henry moaned, the hunting rifle tumbling from his hands.

Susan lay crumpled against the wall next to the mantelpiece, panting in semi-conscious agony. I finally reached Henry. I picked up the rifle, took a step away, and turned to aim the barrel point-blank between his eyes.

I didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t move.

His head was nearly cleaved in two by the blast. Henry collapsed backward, his head a ghastly mess above his jaw. His body writhed on the floor, his hands blindly trying to push the pieces of his face back together.

I watched in horrified fascination as he succeeded; the white skin began to mend itself.

Where was the vampire?

I turned to see it stooping over Susan. It fastened itself over the wound in her shoulder and began to heave inward, chugging the blood out of her thin body. I cried out in hateful protest, but it was already done. The vampire let her go and looked at me. I averted my eyes.

I heard a whimper and turned to see Henry start to convulse, his teeth gritted and his skin darkening to an ugly gray. He glared up at me as he withered, his body crusting over like a piece of wood burnt out from the inside. The husk spat and coughed in collapsing protest until it crumbled inward, sighing into a mound of dust. The dust swirled in place and snaked across the foyer and through the open door, scattering into the rain and night.

Both of them were dead. I was alone with the monster.

The vampire moved closer.

You will give me what I want, Harper Daniels. You will give me bits and pieces of yourself until there is nothing left but that which you are withholding from me. I will sift this out from among the ashes of your spirit and continue my journey, passing over the place of your death with no more concern than a cloud casting a moving shadow over the ruin of a fire-pit.

I was a fool to think I could handle this. The vampire did not speak aloud. I don’t know why I expected that it would. It bore only the semblance of human form, its language a strange mimicry of ours. Its words swirled like a vortex in the hollow of my chest, a chaotic pulling that made me gasp, trying to gulp mouthfuls of air as if they could relieve the intense pressure of its words. It was as if the vampire spoke directly into my heart.

The windows burst into the living room, shards of glass catching the firelight as they sprinkled through the air. The curtains tore away around the bulk of three black forms that leapt into the room.

Black dogs.

They crouched next to Susan’s body, sable hair bristling with hackled rage, fangs bared in slavering hunger. They made no sound as the fur around their nostrils rose in seething aggression. Their eyes were intelligent, keen, and calculating. They belonged completely to the vampire. They prowled around it, bowing their heads in deference to their master.

I backed away toward the foyer. I needed to reload the rifle, and the box of ammunition was still there.

The dogs started gnawing at Susan’s body, gnashing their teeth into her skin and digging with grotesque abandon into the broken cavity of her corpse. They locked their jaws on her and snapped their heads back and forth with a violence and speed that blurred the movement. One tore at her limbs, tugging and pulling until the ligaments and muscles, empty of blood, gave way and broke into tattered ribbons. Another busied itself with her organs, and the third pawed at her bones, its red tongue darting to get at the marrow.

I loaded the rifle, cocked it, aimed, and fired at one of the dogs. The bullet struck it in the shoulder, but the beast took it without pausing or expressing any sign of pain. I fired the second shot and got it through the eye. The frenzied orb ruptured in the socket, but the dog didn’t so much as flinch.

When I recovered from my shock and revulsion I realized that all this gruesome scene took place without a single noise except for the cracks of the two shots in the uncanny quiet. There was no sound otherwise, neither the crunching of bone nor the wet grating of torn muscle. It was as if the beasts were cloaked in an impenetrable vacuum of silence; not even the scratching of their claws over the carpet could be heard.

I watched in amazement and terror as they finished their grizzly work, devouring the body so quickly and so thoroughly that, in short time that I stood there, all evidence of the old woman’s slaughter was entirely obliterated. The dogs walked casually past me, casting me a glance of such inscrutable and impossible intelligence that I shuddered.

When this was done, the dogs turned in unison to their master. Something must have passed between them, for the dogs rushed through the broken windows in a flurry of black fur and disappeared into the night. I looked over to where the old woman had been, and I could detect no trace of what happened. Not a single drop of blood.

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded.

It must know that I didn’t have the journal. It must know that I would never tell it where the journal was. I didn’t care how much I suffered. I would hold onto that promise. I was no stranger to pain. I looked forward to the death that would seal my lips forever. It would spare Mary from having to face this horror.

The vampire looked at me.

Your family has caused me a good deal of trouble, Harper Daniels. Your ancestor gave his blood to quiet my appetite for a time, and I awoke from my silence to find his descendents troubling me still.

“I am the only one left,” I said, closing my eyes.

By design. I have bitten at the tree of your family’s life, waiting for you to ripen. I have fattened you with sorrow and righteous anger, preparing you for the slaughter. When you are ready, your blood will be like nectar to me. You will see that this world is ruled by desire, and desire is strongest in darkness and shadow. And there is no desire in the heart of man greater than the desire for immortality.

When you are ready, you will give me what I need.

Something in the air shifted, a palpable and charged heaviness that amplified every sound. The clouds overhead were latticed with branching lightning. The undulating shadows enveloping the vampire became agitated, writhing serpent-like.

“I’m never going to help you,” I said.

You already have.

“What are you talking about?”

You and the journal are bound to one another. It will find its way to you again, and all those who touch it will fall to me, as your father and brother have fallen. They will serve me, as your father and brother have served me.

My brother Paul always said I was thoughtless.

The rifle was useless against the vampire, but there was a butcher knife on the table. I grabbed it, lunging toward the vampire and plunging the blade into the center of the murky distortion that was its body. I don’t know what I expected to feel; the soft, pliant resistance of flesh, the wet yielding of torn muscle, the hard crunch of metal against bone.

I felt nothing of the kind. It was like stabbing a paper doll: a brief sensation of the knife’s tip passing through something, and then a hollowness, a cold absence that arced up my forearm like a magnified shiver. I dropped the knife and it clattered uselessly to the ground. I pulled my arm close to my chest, gasping in agony through clenched teeth.

I looked at my arm. It was shriveled and blue, the skin hanging in creased and mangled folds around the bone. I wanted to scream, but panic and shock had seized my throat. I gasped like a fish out of water, realizing in a distortedly logical way that I was going into shock.

The vampire turned, calmly, and reached out.

I was so startled by the sight of its arm, sliding lithely toward me, that I forgot my trauma and fastened my eyes on it. It had the same blurred quality as the vampire’s uncertain features, and seemed made of fired clay, a ruddy brown that reminded me of ancient pottery. Veins of crimson visibly palpitated with stolen blood, snaking over the ligaments of its hand.

I wanted to back away, but I stood transfixed, cradling my ruined arm against my chest. The vampire clamped its hand over my desiccated wrist. There was a sensation of unpleasant warmth, and I watched in repulsed fascination as my arm changed beneath its grasp.

When the vampire took its hand away, my strength and challenge went with it. My vision swam as I looked at my arm. It was horribly altered. Pallid and strange, it looked like the arm of an antique porcelain doll, white and cracked.

“My God, what have you done to me?” I whispered.

I can take life and I can give life. The life I give is immortal life.

“I don’t want your life!” I screamed. I dropped to the floor, clutching at the knife. I gripped it in my left hand, closed my eyes, and stabbed it into my right arm. The knife crunched into the flesh, passing sickeningly through the skin, glancing against the bone and chipping the tiled floor underneath. I opened my eyes to see the knife lodged there. There was no blood. There was no pain.

“God no,” I breathed. I didn’t want this. I drew out the knife, watching the skin fold back into place. I looked up at the vampire, rage in my eyes.

You will become my instrument, Harper Daniels.

It raised its arms and there was a sudden rush of wind through the open door. I stared in awe as the vampire seemed to dissolve, unraveling into tendrils of thick smoke. It coiled into the stormy night. The house shook with thunder; the vampire was gone.

I ran to the threshold of the doorway. I stood braced against the frame, my body shaking violently, my vision wavering in fevered disorientation. I wanted to believe that none of this had happened, but my arm was testament to the cruel reality of it. I couldn’t bear to look at it. I wanted to take the knife and try again, but I knew it was useless. The house was empty. Those damned dogs had even managed to lick the blood off the walls.

It only took a moment, replaying it in my mind. A moment, and I was irrevocably altered. I almost wished for pain, something to mark the transition from what I was before—I flexed my strange, inhuman fingers—to what I was now. Something tainted.

I tried to piece together the chain of events that had led to this, a chain stretching back for generations to one man: Jonah Daniels.

My mind flashed back to Mary, running for her life to a place where I hoped she would be safe. She might find a way to end this. I didn’t want to be responsible for undoing all that Jonah had martyred himself to accomplish.

I needed to get out of here.

The vampire had taken the storm with it; the night outside was clear. The predawn stars paled in the softening sky. I turned to walk towards the center of town, dragging my feet and keeping my corrupted hand deep in my pocket. I didn’t want to see it. It was wretchedly cold; my breath blew past my face in vapors. I was staggering drunkenly. God, I was so weak.

I didn’t get very far.

A figure stepped out of the shadows in front of me, coming to stand just beyond the ring of sickly yellow light thrown over the sidewalk by a streetlamp. I halted, wavering on my feet, peering at the silhouette.

I thought it might be a mugger, a petty mortal predator skulking after drunken passerby in the early hours of the morning. Then I saw, when he moved beneath the light, that his face was wrong. He had the same colorless and cracked appearance as Henry, as my arm.

He looked fragile, as if a strike with a hammer in the right place would shatter his face into countless pieces. I knew otherwise. There was a feral quality to the man, the restless pacing of an inhuman, bloodthirsty thing.

“Harper Daniels!” He shouted. How did he know my name?

I stumbled to the side, my shoulder crashing harshly against the brick façade of a storefront.

“You’re not going to make it very far,” the man said.

“What do you want?” I mumbled weakly, feeling myself sag brokenly.

“I want to help you,” he said, coming closer.

“Stay away from me. What are you?” I asked, trying to rally my strength. I succeeded in pushing away from the wall. Damned if I was going to let this thing get a hold of me.

“I am like you,” he said, moving closer. His eyes moved down to my arm. I tried to move away. Running was out of the question. The night had taken its toll, and the vampire had made certain I wouldn’t have the strength to do more than lurch a few paces before dropping into a gutter. It had sent its servant to pick me up, drag me wherever it wanted.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I hissed, digging deep for strength. Let him think I was stronger than I looked. That might be enough to deter him, out in the open. He wouldn’t risk an altercation where anyone passing by might take notice.

It didn’t work.

In a flash, he was on me.

 

Jonah Daniels’s Journal

 

 

10 August, 1900

 

I should have known better than to believe that I could ever see my wife and son again. Roberts tried to tell me, but I would not listen. How could I? The past two years have been one unbroken nightmare, unrelenting and unremitting since my discovery of those wretched tablets in South America. How I wish I had never found them! How I wish that I had never seen that place, hidden in the dark bowels of the earth; and how right my poor guide had been to consider those caverns an extension of hell, born up to the surface of the world the way a man might vomit a poison unsettling his belly.

I credit myself with only one moment of lucidity; for I had thought to bring those tablets home and translate them there, in the comfort of my study. Yet I knew, somehow, what ill-fortune my discovery would bring. At the time, I thought it a scholarly decision; Florence, Rome, and the great libraries of Europe boast resources unmatched even by the ivy-covered universities of New England. Surely I must have known, when I had a few moments of peace to regard those tablets and the language etched into their clay, that there were no resources anywhere in this world that could have availed me—none, truly, but one: McEvelin Roberts.

Despite all that happened in Florence, I was foolish enough to imagine that I could go home to my wife and son. All that I suffered, all that I learned and felt, was so far beyond the ken of normal men that it seemed as if I were adrift on a treacherous sea beneath alien stars, with no compass or sense of direction. I went so far as to book passage to Virginia, gathering my belongings with the blind fervor of an addict clinging to the illusion of choice. Roberts, in one of his rare moments of genuine understanding, did not interrupt my preparations; indeed, if he did, I would have shot him dead. I had to arrive at that conclusion myself, without his interference.

Before we parted ways, Roberts and I discussed whether I should destroy this journal. He was of the opinion that I should burn it. It will remain a lure to the vampire for as long as it survives, and neither I nor anyone who comes in contact with it is safe. Containing the only transcription and translation of the tablets’ contents, I have all but guaranteed that I alone possess what my immortal pursuer wants more than blood: the key to uncovering the location of its birthplace.

I know that my life is over. I will as faithfully as possible here narrate the content of a most remarkable encounter. If not for the man who intercepted me just prior to my quitting Italy, I would have sailed to my home shore and signed my own family’s death warrant. I have known war to follow men home from the battlefield, tormenting them unceasingly and distorting their perceptions more ably and terribly than any opiate—but this—this demon will never let me go.

Leaving Roberts was a breath of fresh air, and with this journal in my satchel I allowed myself to entertain the ludicrous notion that, with our work accomplished, I could put all that behind me. I was giddy with anticipation, and I fully expected that I would see my family in a fortnight. I took a room in a hotel some distance away from the port at Lido di Ostia, allowing myself to marvel at how much the world had changed in less than half a century. The marks of the industrial revolution that had seized England were rapidly encroaching even here, in the birthplace of the Renaissance. The great galleons and sailing vessels that had chartered the seas and braved the edge of the world were replaced by the titanic metal behemoths of a new era.

When evening came I found myself hungrier than I had been in months. I went down to the bar and took a stool near a cluster of foreigners speaking French. I know the language well, and delighted in eavesdropping on their conversation. I did not interrupt, but contented myself with listening to the common talk of people who did not know that monsters were real. I found myself smiling, remembering when my conversations were similarly innocent. So enrapt I was that I did not see the man who sat down beside me.

I noticed his hand first, white and scarred. I glanced surreptitiously at him, only to find him staring fixedly at me. Unnerved, I drew away. He smiled and leaned forward, his eyes glittering beneath a deeply furrowed brow, his pale face grizzled with an unshaven beard that would never grow longer nor succumb to the edge of a blade.

“I know who you are,” he said, “Johan Daniels. Your work has stirred up quite a bit of trouble. You’ve caught the monster’s attention, and it has set its sights on you.” His eyes drifted down to the satchel at my hip. “You’re a liability to everyone around you. If you’re not careful, you will leave a trail of bodies in your wake.”

I reached down, brought the journal into my lap, and tightened my grip on it. “Who are you?”

“Someone who knows about those tablets you recovered from South America. You can’t unearth something like that without anyone noticing, Mr. Daniels. Admittedly, we expected you to return to Virginia with your prize and go about making a show of it.”

Something in his tone made it plain that he—or whomever he represented—would have taken measures to prevent that from happening. “And when I didn’t…?”

The man smiled. “We lost track of you until you reached out to a colleague of yours. This circle is woven tighter than you can imagine. You see—we know McEvelin Roberts. We’ve known him for a long time.”

“You’re American,” I said.

“I am,” he said, “all the way from New York. Now I’ve a story to tell you and I advise you to listen carefully. I already know that you’ve taken passage on a vessel bound for Virginia. That is a mistake—” he raised his hand to interrupt what I had been about to say, “and if you consider the matter, you will see plainly enough that to return home is tantamount to murder. The vampire will slaughter you and everyone around you. It has done this before.”

“What would suggest I do, then? Destroy the journal and surrender myself?”

“Why don’t you?”

His question gave me pause. Why indeed? I was the one who discovered the tablets; I was the one who brought them to Italy and contacted McEvelin Roberts. I was the one who insisted we complete our work, knowing full well that the dark fable recounted by the ancient writer whose etchings we translated spoke not of an imaginary monster, but an evil as old as the world itself. Surely, I should hold myself accountable.

All the while I struggled with these thoughts, this man regarded me as if knowing every thought as it appeared and turned in my mind. He knew also that I would not do it. I would neither destroy the journal nor surrender myself. The only question remained whether he would try and seize the journal himself, and do what I could not.

“If I’ve guessed your thoughts correctly, Mr. Daniels,” he said, “you intend to stay alive. Very good! If you thought me here to convince you otherwise, you are mistaken. No—I am here at the behest of a woman very dear to me…someone whose sight was not limited to the past and present but encompassed the future also.”

“It is not enough that I should believe in monsters,” I said, “you would have me believe in oracles also? What sort of game are you playing? Speak sense, or leave me be—”

He frowned. “I can do neither, if you will not listen! She knew you would not surrender, Jonah Daniels. She knew you could not, and she also knew that you would have a good deal further to go from here—farther even than you can imagine now.”

“Who is this woman?”

“Her name was Helen. Years ago, after McEvelin Roberts abandoned his studies at the University, his path crossed hers. She knew even then that Roberts possessed an uncanny knowledge, more dangerous than he could have realized. She knew about the tablets, and she knew that he alone could translate them…”

“How could she have possibly known that? Those tablets had been buried for centuries! It was only by a bizarre turn of circumstance that those caverns were even opened at all! For heaven’s sake, an earthquake had unsettled a wall of solid rock that had sealed off an entire village buried underneath a mountain!”

The man smiled. “Nonetheless, she knew. Helen also knew what Roberts was hoping to find: there are clues scattered across the world, and it takes a keen eye and a willing mind to recognize the mystery they point to…”

“The vampire.”

“True immortality. That is what Roberts was looking for. All he needed was a push in the right direction. Helen promised to show him something that would point him in that direction—an artifact of incredible age and power. Roberts didn’t hesitate. He agreed to meet with her, and she made good on her promise.”

“He didn’t tell me any of this…”

“Of course not. Roberts is a secretive man. Does it surprise you that he would have this from you? Besides, telling you outright may have dissuaded you from finishing your work on the tablets.”

“What did she show him? What was this artifact?”

“I’m afraid any description of mine would do it little justice,” he said. “ Suffice it to say that it was enough to commit Roberts to his course. After their meeting, Helen ended her journey in New York. She died in the wilderness of the Adirondacks, among a unique collective of people who undertook the burden of her stewardship.”

“Stewardship? Of this artifact?” The man nodded. I made the connection instantly. “You were among this collective of people,” I said.

He nodded. “I am. If I could have foreseen the strange turnings of fortune that brought me there, only months before Helen’s arrival, I would have remained where I was. But these are idle daydreams. It is no easy burden that Helen left us with, but we didn’t have a choice and neither did she. Her flight had come to an end, and she was with child. She could go no further, and it was there beside the waters of our encampment in the forest that she died in childbirth, leaving us with the responsibility of rearing her daughter and safeguarding the artifact. That was some time ago—over ten years, I expect, though I had little sense of time beyond the passing of seasons.”

He smiled. “This is a story that will require more time than we have at present. Rest assured you will hear it; but for the moment I will tell you only that Helen entrusted me with an additional task. She misjudged Roberts, and in showing him the artifact she expected that his course would lead him to the vampire—a problem that would take care of itself. She didn’t expect that you would find the tablets and contact Roberts. No one can foresee the strange threads that bind us together over time and distance, nor what happens when we tug on a single one of these.”

“Things rarely happen the way we would wish them to,” I said.

“When I learned that Roberts had received your letter and was en route to Italy, I had no choice but to follow…not the simplest proposition, Mr. Daniels, when you have not a penny to your name and no name besides. I arrived in Italy too late, but I am hoping I can salvage some of what I set out to do.”

“What was it, dammit?” I hissed, my anger suddenly stirred by the damnable mystery of it all. “What did Mary show Roberts? What is this artifact, and why is it so important? Why are you here? If you mean to help me, then be plain about it, and do away with all your vagueness!”

The man raised his hands in a gesture of mocking placation. “Come now!” he said. “Not all mysteries are better revealed all at once. Besides, I have good reason for keeping you in the dark: you must agree to accompany me to New York, into the Adirondacks, and I must have your word that you will speak to no one until we arrive at our destination.”

“Are you mad?” I demanded angrily. “I have no intention of going anywhere with you…”

“Are you planning to return to your family, then?” he asked with a cruel scoff. “What do you imagine that you left behind in Florence? Do you suppose Roberts is well? Drinking his Italian wine and smoking his opium? What now—I suppose you reckon that everything can be explained away?” he continued relentlessly, his words turning a knife in my gut. “What else? Will you sit with your wife and son and relate all your brave adventures over supper?”

I glowered at him, refusing to avert my eyes. He did not shy away from my gaze. “Listen, Mr. Daniels, I am here for my own reasons, I’ll grant you that—you are no fool, to think my motives entirely courteous. But let me tell you that my reasons are your reasons. I want to be free of this nightmare.”

“What of Roberts?” I challenged. “What do you know?”

The man sighed. “What do you think? The monster took him, Mr. Daniels, only days after you left.”

Roberts was dead, then. The news should have shaken me, but instead carved a hollow into my soul. With every minute and hour that passed I imagined myself closer to my wife and son; but at that moment, following this man’s words, that hope fell into sudden darkness. I couldn’t see my wife and son. Their faces were smeared over, the canvas of my memory torn by the hand of a predator older than history.

The man must have known that his words had struck a violent chord, because he remained silent for awhile, waiting for me to digest the news of Roberts’s death.

“So,” he said when I looked at him again, “what is your answer? Will you accompany me to New York? Will you agree to see what Mary showed Roberts, all those years ago?”

“What then? If I should agree to your terms, what then?”

“Then, Mr. Daniels, I expect you will have to make a decision. I am offering you the opportunity to make a well-informed decision, at least. Now, you are fleeing blindly, and you haven’t a chance in the world to outrun the storm. Come with me, see what I have to show you, and you may yet find a way out of this…you may yet find some way to set us both free.”

What choice did I have, really?

 

True Immortality: The First Chapter

Dear Readers:

What follows is the first chapter of my full-length novel, True Immortality. I will soon publish the entire manuscript on Amazon Kindle. If you enjoy the excerpt below, please look for the full novel or contact me for more details on how to find and download it. If you enjoy vampire fiction, and believe that vampires should be frightening, read on!

 

Prologue

 

 

 

I am your perfect predator.

I have never been mortal. I have never been human.

I evolved alongside you, darting through the shadows in the mud you crawled from, watching as you staggered upright and babbled in the infant tongues of your race.

I have always been there.

In the days before the Flood I ranged over the earth, drinking the blood of living things to sate my unending thirst. I came in the storms, in thunder and lightning. When the sky darkened and the clouds gathered, beasts fled the meadow and creeping things bowed low to the ground. In curtains of cold rain I descended and culled the wandering tribes of men. In every place they settled I came to them and hunted them.

I was there, when you cowered in your mud-hovels during the night. I was there, when you poured your sweat and blood into the foundation-stones of temples that no one would remember. I was there, listening to your grunting as your took your pleasure in one another, as you spat out blood-soaked children from your wombs, as you labored in the fields, as you withered on your pallets while the priests of your clans muttered their base incantations.

I was there until the flood-waters usurped the earth. I languished in the deep places, listening to the echoes of your dying. The earth became silent. Even by my reckoning the earth remained silent for many ages.

I heard again the tongues of men, seeping into my awareness like a blotch of ink crawling through the fibers of a paper. My thirst was rekindled and I arose, finding the world changed. The place of my origin had been lost to the waters, and in my long slumber the knowledge of it had passed from me and from the collective memory of my prey. I searched for it, passing over the earth in the storms, but I could not find it.

I adapted as you adapted. You learned to wield iron, I learned to withstand its sharp touch. You learned to fire thunder, I learned to relish the flame. Civilizations rose and fell, ages of wonder followed ages of darkness. And still I came in the storms to drink the wellspring of your blood, and in my silent predation I went unknown and unseen, becoming a thing of tales, legends, and fictions.

Another age began to dawn. The meaningless superstitions of your childish imaginings were replaced with the equally meaningless jargon of reason. Towers rose above temples, coins replaced icons, and the watchful ancestors of your tribes faded into murky remembrance. Your history died, and from its carcass came spurting and squirming the promise of a new era: an age of industry, where the fires that had warmed your fragile flesh in the winters and cooked your kills would now fuel the machines of your irrepressible greed.

I cannot die. There is neither art nor industry that can end me. I am eternal. My thirst is eternal.

I look for my place of rest. Only there can I let go of the storms that follow  me, and abide in utter darkness. Only there can I make another in my image, and consummate the sacrament of my pilgrimage with the gift of true immortality.

 

 

Chapter One:

Laying it Out

 

 

Now

 

I turned off the water and punched the shower stall. The pain gave me something to focus on. Drying my face with a clean towel, I was momentarily startled by my appearance in the mirror; my thick brown hair was tangled and unkempt, my face was pale and haggard, nearly lost in the dark moss of an unshaven beard. My gray eyes gleamed underneath a troubled brow, encircled by the rough marks of many sleepless nights.

I dressed and went downstairs to join the old woman for dinner. A glass cabinet gathered dust in one corner of the dining room, the shelves lined with trinkets collected from every corner of the world. Family portraits spanning several generations stood in tarnished silver frames on an old cherry wood table topped with handmade doilies. A tall ceramic vase holding dry reeds and old cattails stood underneath a painted copy of Degas’ ballet dancers.

She had prepared a banquet fit for a king. I was her only guest, as far as I knew—I had asked her that question when I checked in—but there was another place setting put out.

I nodded toward the place setting and asked, “Is someone else staying here?”

The old woman smiled, her warm eyes crinkling at the edges. “No,” she said wistfully. “I keep a place for my husband; he’s been gone six months now.” She looked over at the plate and silverware, arranged to perfection on the table.

“I’m sorry,” I said, seating myself. A plate of soup steamed in front of me, and I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I asked myself how long it’d been since my last meal. It was days ago; a diner, just before I said goodbye to Mary. I remember looking at her across the marbled table, saying nothing, watching her red hair tumble across her forehead as she looked down, unwilling to meet my eyes.

“…there was a storm,” the old woman was saying, and I looked up. She was staring at a picture of her husband on a small table. “A terrible storm. We didn’t see it coming. It knocked out the power lines. We were sitting here, huddled beside the fireplace…” her eyes narrowed as she braced herself against the memory. “He heard someone calling for help,” she continued, “out there in the storm. You couldn’t see your hand if you held it out in front of your face; everything was covered in ice and buried in snow. Everyone here knows better than to go outside when it’s like that. But my husband…he heard someone calling for help.” She smiled. “He could never turn away someone who needed help,” she said proudly. She sighed and a distant look came into her eyes. “He was lost in the storm.

“They looked for him, of course,” she continued, noticing that I had finished my soup. She rose and took my plate into the kitchen, returning to load another with buttered toast, venison, and a generous portion of spiced potatoes. “Everyone pitched in; he was a well-respected man. I keep a place setting out for him, hoping that he’ll find his way home.”

I glanced at her, trying to gauge whether she seriously believed that her husband had survived the storm and was wandering around in the wilderness, looking for a way back. She did.

She sat down again and watched me with a warm smile. “Do you like the food?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” I answered earnestly. “It’s the best I’ve had in a while.”

“You know,” she went on, hardly touching her own plate, “you remind me of a man who passed through here six months ago, just before the storm came.”

I looked up at her. She was gazing abstractly into her memory, oblivious to the whitening of my knuckles around the silverware I was holding. I already knew who she was talking about, but waited breathlessly for her to remember. When she looked at me again she smiled and said nothing.

“Who was it?” I said, struggling to control my voice. “Where did he come from? What did he look like?”

The old woman was taken aback. I had questioned her too fiercely. I looked down at my plate and took a bite of food, trying to mitigate my intensity. The pain of her husband’s loss was still fresh, and here I was rubbing salt into the wound. But I needed to know.

“He looked rather like you, come to think of it,” she said cautiously. “He didn’t say where he was from.”

“What was his name?”

“I’m sorry, young man, but I don’t remember.”

I looked away. “My father passed through here, six months ago,” I said. What I didn’t say was that he was looking for a journal written by Jonah Daniels, his great-grandfather. Jonah died over a hundred years ago.

He sacrificed his life to put the vampire in the ground for a century.

Six months ago, on a somber Tuesday in the middle of a wintry February, my father discovered the ruins of an old market town. It was deep in the wilderness of northwest Alaska, near the gray Pacific, nestled in a knot of mountains blanketed by pine forests and laced with glaciers.

Over a hundred years ago, an ancient evil had destroyed an entire town in that place. Not a single person was left alive. Everything from surveyor’s maps to civic records were somehow erased. Everyone who knew anything about it vanished or was killed in apparently unsuspicious ways; a string of deaths and disappearances that would appear meaningless to anyone but those directly involved.

Jonah Daniels’ sacrifice had spared my family two generations of death and suffering, but at the end of the day, the vampire had crawled up out of the bowels of the deep earth. My father’s recovery of Jonah’s journal guaranteed that it would hunt down every member of my family until the vampire repaid my ancestor’s victory with the blood of his descendants.

“Oh!” the woman exclaimed, “that was your father…”

She would have said more, but a knock at the door abruptly cut her off.

The old woman paused and looked momentarily bewildered. “Goodness,” she said, “it’s already dark outside; who would come knocking now?” She rose from her chair. I felt a wave of apprehension sweep over me. I wanted to stop her from answering that door. I knew beyond doubt that nothing good would come of it. I kept my place, watching her walk past me and into the foyer.

I got up, turning to see her peering through the windows of the door.

“Don’t do it,” I managed to whisper, but it was too late. Her eyes widened, her hands flew to her mouth in surprise, and after a moment of speechless disbelief, she burst into a weeping shriek of joy. I moved closer, feeling the steely terror that a prisoner feels when faced with a firing squad.

It was happening. The vampire was here.

 

* * * *

 

Two weeks ago

 

“Let’s start with what we know,” Mary said.

“Let’s start with coffee,” I said, flagging the waitress over. Mary shook her head and smiled. She tried to start again, but I put a finger to my lips and grinned. She huffed, blew a wayward strand of red hair away from her face, and sighed. When the coffee came a few minutes later—the first brew of the day—we took a few minutes to enjoy it. I was grateful for that.

“We can’t fight it, we can’t outrun it, and we can’t outthink it. It is older than the pyramids. It is immortal, impossibly powerful, and virtually unstoppable. It manipulates an army of Changed Ones across the world, like pieces on a chessboard. It changes shape, rides the storms, and damn near nothing can hurt it, much less kill it.”

Mary glanced out the window, lowering the coffee cup as her eyes focused on the sky above the small street outside the diner. I heard the clink of the cup as it shook against the saucer. Mary noticed it too and her eyes snapped back to the table, immediately fixing on the old journal between us.

“It wants two things above all else,” I said. “Blood, and this journal,” I reached out to tap the leather-bound book. “I’ll bet you wish you’d never read it.” I put down the empty coffee mug, ignoring the emptiness in my stomach. I was too tired to eat. Too tired, and so knotted up with fear and anxiety that I found myself daydreaming about running out there and shouting up at the storm, having it out with the damned vampire and finishing it. I just wanted to end this godforsaken torment. I had reached my limit with it.

I willed myself to snap to and focus my attention on the present moment. I narrowed my eyes at the journal and cursed it, cursed my father for finding it, cursed the trail of poison breadcrumbs that had led him to it.

When the waitress came around again I started to motion for the check.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Mary interrupted, taking the poor girl by surprise. “You’ve been subsisting on nothing but trail mix and vitamin water. You’re going to look at the menu again, and you’re going to order something…” she looked for the right word, “…positively gluttonous.”

I stared her for a moment. I broke into a grin—the vampire can go to hell, I thought—and ordered something that would fill my belly. I caught Mary smiling at me across the table. I knew what she was thinking, clear as if she’d outright said it: Paul wouldn’t have reacted the same way.  He would have ignored her.

God, how he wanted to run with her forever! To the edge of the world, even; but he knew that there was no place they could go the vampire could not follow. The only question in my mind was what we were going to do about it.

“My father and brother died for that journal,” I said. “Every instinct is telling me that we should just burn it. We’re endangering everyone around us. That journal has left nothing but horror and misery in its wake. I wish you had never read it, to be honest.”

Her green eyes pleaded with me. “I had to, Harper. After what happened in New York, I started to remember…” she cut herself off. I could tell she was weighing how much she wanted to tell me. How much had she told my brother? She must have guessed my thought when she looked into my eyes. “It was already too late to tell Paul,” she said. “He couldn’t possibly have known that the bloodlines of our two families have been entwined from the very beginning.”

“What’s the plan, Mary?”

She looked out the window—first at the clear blue sky, then at the street. They were just outside of Albany, New York. “Come with me, Harper. You don’t have to do this. We can do this together.”

“Mary,” I said, “you know what this thing is capable of!” We both knew. My father and older brother were dead. Behind us, all was pain and sorrow. “You haven’t told me where we’re going, Mary.”

“The same place your great-great-grandfather went, after he fled Italy with this journal and long before he found himself in central Alaska: the place where I was born and raised, Harper. The place where my mother entrusted me with secrets that I have since buried so deep that I remember nothing but a childhood dream-world of phantoms and mysteries. There is something there, Harper; something that my mother believed would help us against the vampire.”

I grabbed the journal off the table and stuffed it violently into my satchel. I didn’t want to look at it anymore. I knew what I had to do—the decision was already made. I hadn’t been able to focus on it because of how I felt about her, but my feelings were the reason I knew I had made the right choice.

Mary glanced outside the window again—it had become second nature to us both, in so short a time—and she saw the bank of dark clouds gathering to the south.

“I see it,” I put the fork down and slid the plate away. “I’ve lost my appetite. I really do wonder,” I said, looking at the incoming storm, “with all those satellites, telescopes, cameras, and high-end toys used by the governments of the world…can no one see it?”

“You know the answer to that, Harper.”

“Incredible. Listen, Mary—it’s better if I play the bait in this game. Don’t…” I put my hand up to forestall her interjection, “…just don’t. If it’s the two of us running, there’s just no chance. No chance in hell. We have to split up, Mary. I’ll lead it on a merry chase, and you get yourself to this place you keep talking about. And don’t tell me where it is. You can’t. If I know, and if…no, when…the vampire catches up to me…I can’t know anything about where you’re going.”

“So you expect me to just leave you? That’s brilliant.”

I played it more cavalier than I felt, but she saw right through me. “It’ll be alright,” I tried weakly. I didn’t want her to penetrate into my reasons—now wasn’t the time for her to know how much I felt for her. I was ready to sacrifice myself for her.

“Everything will be alright once you find this artifact,” I said. “You find it, bring it back, and we’ll use it to put the vampire in the ground. Only this time, it won’t be for a hundred years. We’ll destroy the journal once it’s done and make sure this never happens again.”

“What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not there anymore? It’s been years since…”

I shook my head. “What do you want me to tell you? That’s it’s a long shot? It’s the only shot we got, Mary. You told me yourself, not too long ago—one of the only things you’ve told me—is that your mother knew this would happen. You didn’t believe it then, but you sure as hell believe it now…”

“Paul’s dead because of me, Harper,” she began to say.

“My brother is dead because my father retrieved Jonah’s journal, and my father’s probably dead because it doesn’t make sense that the vampire wouldn’t tie up every loose end we’ve left behind. Right now, my ignorance is the only thing I can use to defend you, Mary…”

That was it; I had given myself away. She knew then that I loved her.

She also knew that she couldn’t stop me.

“I’ll try,” was all she said.

 

* * * *

 

Now

 

“Henry!” the old woman cried, “you’ve come back!”

I shook my head, reaching out toward her. I may as well have been moving in slow motion. She tore open the door, her hand clutching at her heart as if to steady it. There was a man standing outside; he looked to be in his late sixties, and his face matched the picture on the table—but something was wrong with him.

His skin was as white as his hair and laced with a fine network of tiny cracks. His face was almost translucent, shimmering beneath the drops of rain that traced his countless wrinkles. His eyes were cold above a strange, disconcerting smile. His wife didn’t notice any of this; she was transported with elation. All she knew was that her husband had come back. She was right, she knew he would, and now everything was going to be alright again.

“Susan,” he said. She rushed forward to embrace him. A peal of thunder rocked the house, and I looked up to see the stars blacked out by a night-storm flashing with lightning. Snow fell mixed with rain, and it was so cold that the water was already freezing on the ground.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“No!” I shouted, but my warning went unnoticed.

“God yes,” Susan whispered breathlessly, disengaging from the embrace and stepping backward into the house. “Come in where it’s warm,” she said. She turned to me. “Young man, won’t you go into the kitchen and prepare some water for a hot tea?”

“I…” she wasn’t listening. She ushered her husband over the threshold and guided him toward the fireplace in the living room.

“Henry, you must be freezing,” she cooed. “Where were you all this time? Are you alright? Oh, I have so many questions! Goodness, but you must be famished! I’ve made some dinner…”

“I’m not hungry,” he said.

She continued to fuss over him, but he gripped her by her frail shoulders and held her at arm’s length. “Susan,” he said, trying to keep her from flurrying about and seeing to comforts he no longer needed, “Susan!” She stopped at last and focused on him. She looked into his eyes and I knew that she was beginning to realize something was utterly wrong.

“Henry, are you alright?”

He smiled coldly again. “I’m fine,” he said. “Susan, listen. There is someone waiting outside, in the cold and dark. He’s a friend of mine, someone I’ve been waiting all this time for you to meet. Can he come in?”

“Susan,” I said, “you can’t…”

“But you must,” Henry said to her. She looked at him and nodded mechanically.

“Of course,” she said, “you know I wouldn’t turn anyone away.”

“That’s my girl,” Henry said darkly, pushing her toward the open door. I saw something outside. In the cold and dark. Glittering eyes and writhing shadows. Susan must not have seen the same thing I did, because she smiled and invited it inside.

I glanced at the mirror opposite the entrance. The glass fractured with a sharp report, blackening as if a blot of ink had burst behind it. The wall behind it sighed and a crack sprang up from underneath the floorboards and raced across the ceiling. The mirror fell with a crash. The hanging Tiffany lamp trembled and its bulbs burst, scattering darkness over the foyer. A quiet thicker than a winter’s night in the empty wilderness swept into the house.

The vampire crossed the threshold.

It was draped in shadow and blurred edges, and I tried to focus on it. I couldn’t; it was like trying to look through a broken camera lens at an image underwater. The vampire’s features sharpened for a moment, then became indistinct. I looked at its clothes and saw only shapes and suggestions. It was frustrating and agonizing and it didn’t make sense. I clenched my teeth and stared and tried not to blink but it didn’t work. 

There was only one constant: its eyes glinted from dark, shadowed sockets, regardless of the light, regardless of whether it turned its face this way or that. There were no clear features around its eyes at all, neither the vague outline of lids or crow’s feet, nor the bony ridge of an emptied skull. It was only shadow, and those pinpoints of light shifting through colors as if prisms were suspended where its eyes should have been, catching and refracting stray bits of luminance.

I knew it was staring at me, but I couldn’t look at it. It was like looking at a black hole.

The old woman began to tremble and quiver; she was staring fixedly at the floor. Henry came near her, wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and led her away from the vampire. He sat her in front of the fireplace, kneeled before her, and whispered something I couldn’t hear. She nodded weakly. Henry got up and walked toward me.

“Harper Daniels,” he said to me. I didn’t reply. “The vampire told me all about you. I met your father, did you know that? I met him when he passed through here six months ago. He was carrying something.”

I said nothing.

“A journal,” Henry continued. The vampire stood behind him, silent.

I took a deep breath and tried to get my heart to stop rattling my chest with its thunder, tried to stop my stomach from crawling up my spine into my throat. It wasn’t working, and the effort was bringing on a fierce headache that was making this nightmare a good deal worse.

“A journal written by your great-great-grandfather. Where is it?”

This was good. Things were going exactly as I’d expected; the vampire had come after me. Right now, hundreds of miles away, Mary was getting herself to safety.

“Don’t play games with the vampire,” Henry snapped. I glanced at his wife; she was trembling. I began to fear for her life. Henry smiled, catching my look. “You worry about my wife?” he asked. “How noble of you. She’s a nice old woman, isn’t she?” Something in his eyes flickered, some trace of humanity lost six months ago, the day the vampire called out to him from the storm.

“Aren’t you worried about her?” I demanded.

Henry glowered at me, turning to look at the vampire. I wondered how he could bear to look at it. I tried again, and it felt as if my mind were suddenly seized by a rough hand and pulled through a meat grinder until nothing remained but a mess of madness and fear. I tore my eyes away and watched Susan instead, weeping in front of the fire. God, that poor woman—

“Harper,” Henry said, turning back to me. “You’d better just talk to me. Don’t try and play the hero, because it won’t make any difference.”

I shook my head. “No? Jonah made a difference. He put the vampire in the ground for a hundred years. His sacrifice spared countless lives. I’m willing to make the same sacrifice,” I declared, clenching my fists.

Henry looked dejected. “You seem like a nice boy, Mr. Daniels,” he said. “Six months ago, I would have applauded your bravery. I would have turned to Susan and said, ‘this world would be a better place if there were more like him.’” He shrugged. “I look at things somewhat differently now. In the end, the vampire will always come back, whether it takes a hundred years or a thousand. In the end,” he said, “the vampire will continue its pilgrimage until it reaches its destination.”

“Its pilgrimage?”

Henry nodded. “That’s right. The vampire’s just trying to find its way back to where it came from. That’s what all this is about…”

“I told you,” I said, “I don’t have the journal.”

“But you read it, didn’t you? You know what’s in it. You can give the vampire what it wants. Do it, and all this can end right now.”

“No,” I answered.

“So it’s back to the basics, eh?” Henry asked sadly. He turned away and walked into the living room, disappearing around a corner for a moment. He continued to talk. “Every pilgrimage has a destination. It is both a journey and a sacrament validated upon completion.

“This is a pilgrimage that has lasted for as long as men have killed one another over plots of land and proper sacrifices,” he said, reappearing with a hunting rifle in one hand, a box of ammunition in the other. He set the weapon on a small table across from the door and proceeded to calmly load it.

“Do you think you’re in a position to stop it?” he asked, cocking the rifle. “Do you think anyone’s in a position to stop it?”

He turned and pointed the weapon at his wife.

“What are you doing?” I roared. “That’s your wife…!”

“I know,” Henry said, a tremor in his voice. “I don’t want to do this…” he whispered, his own pale hand trembling. The rifle barrel shook in the tensioned air. I was conscious of the vampire pivoting in place, turning its masklike face toward Henry. “I can’t do this,” Henry said, raising his voice.

“I won’t let you do it,” I said. I started to run toward the living room. Henry stood aiming the rifle at Susan, who had turned in the chair to stare incredulously at her husband. She shook her head pleadingly.

“You can put an end to this, Harper,” Henry yelled. “Just tell the vampire what you know about the journal. Tell it where the journal is!”

“I don’t have it! I can take you to it!” I lied, trying to infuse my voice with as much angry sincerity as possible. In truth, I was terrified. I couldn’t say anything that would point the vampire in Mary’s direction, and I needed to say just enough to pull its attention away from the old woman. I was excruciatingly aware that her life was hinged on my every word and action.

“Liar!” Henry roared. “Don’t make me do this,” he raged, his eyes wild.

Susan rose from the chair, extending her arms in supplication towards him.

He fired.



Spirituality Essay Series: Spirituality, Freedom, and Privacy

In light of recent information concerning the data-mining and information gathering activities of the government (via the PRISM program, as well as earlier under the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), I thought it pertinent to examine the impact of this alarming new trend on the landscape of religion and spirituality. The connection between the two may not be readily evident, but I hope to shed some light on what is a very close relationship.

For those of you who may not know (I expect there are very few of you who don’t, at this point), a whistleblower by the name of Edward Snowden has disclosed information that indicates the National Security Agency has been tracking the phone numbers, calls, and internet usage of American citizens—ostensibly as a means of protecting the American people against acts of terrorism both in country and abroad. Snowden has subsequently been labeled a traitor against the government, and it is apparent that it was not the government’s intention to inform the citizens of the United States about the sheer scope of this program. Nonetheless, the cat is out of the bag, and we should be thankful that we have the democratic luxury of debating on this issue publically.

There are two points that can be made here. The first is fairly simple, and the other depends on a rather specific premise: increased surveillance inevitably leads to increased control.

Let’s start with the first:

Spirituality refers to a personal and intimate relationship with the divine or transcendent, generally facilitated through a progressive discipline of practice. Alternatively, the word “spirit” in this context may refer to an individual’s spirit, the Spirit of God, or spirits in general. While there is a modern emphasis on individual or personal growth, the term can also be applied to communities and belief systems.

Is spirituality affected by an environment of constant monitoring and surveillance? Yes.

Take for example certain habits of spiritual behavior, such as prayer, contemplation, or meditation—all three of which are central to practices of spirituality in religions across the world. While many of these activities are performed in groups, whether in monasteries, temples, or churches, there is a certain atmosphere that is considered conducive to fruitful practice. While it is true that a master of meditation is expected to be able to enter heightened states of mindfulness irrespective of distraction, it is more common for most practitioners to choose places that are serene, sanctified, and—private. Private, in this context, means apart from the hustle, bustle, and prying eyes of the profane world.

The psychological states of mind most favorable to spiritual practice are those that allow the individual to willfully shift from certain frequencies of thought and behavior (such as those employed to interact with others, or to conduct business in the world) to others that are more introspective, personal, and that—most importantly—allow the individual to direct his or her attention to subjects appropriate to spiritual practices.

So what’s the problem? If you’re meditating, praying, or contemplating, then you are obviously not using your Smartphone, surfing the internet, or employing any of those devices that allow the government to monitor you. However, unless you’re living off the grid (in which case you’re probably not reading this blog post), your interactions with the world are under constant surveillance—and now you know they are. We cannot assume that this knowledge does not affect various dimensions of your life, and in turn, the habitual practices and disciplines that guide your spirituality.

Of course, unless you are a practicing monk, or a religious hermit (as opposed to a purely social hermit), the private and social aspects of your life are carefully balanced. This balance is mirrored on many levels, including between your spiritual and religious life. You may be a Christian, or a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Wiccan, and you may have a great many things in common with those who share your faith (and with those who don’t!) but chances are you express your private spirituality in an individual and unique way. No one thinks in quite the same way, so it stands to reason that no one practices spirituality in the same way!

An environment of constant monitoring and surveillance represents an imbalance, a forced and unwanted opening of your private life. At the moment, the government claims that it does not monitor the content of your worldly interactions. This may be the case (until the next whistleblower comes along to reveal otherwise)—but the fact that information is collected about you, without your having expressly offered that information to others, represents a breach of privacy that darkens your personal space and casts a pall over your ability to create a truly private arena of personal practice.

To help make my point here, I will cite the French philosopher Michel Foucault on the Panopticon, an architectural design whereby the wardens of a prison can watch the inmates without being seen themselves: “the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.”

In other words, even if you aren’t being watched, you will feel that you are, and that feeling will both negatively affect your life and drastically alter your patterns of living. This potentially involves self-censorship, paranoia, and an overwhelming sense that—no matter how hard you try—there is no place to go where someone is not watching.

Now, the second point is more complex and depends on the following premise: increased surveillance leads to increased control. Why else would surveillance be increased to begin with, if not to make possible a broader scope of action?

There are those who say that “freedom comes with a price,” and these are often the same people who say, “I have nothing to hide: if privacy is the price for freedom, I am willing to pay it.” This is all well and good as long as you are getting what you pay for. Arguably, we are not. Feel free to research the facts yourself: the government’s access to our personal information is incommensurate with the actual threat posed by foreign terrorists on American soil. That there is a threat is not in question. The question is whether, in applying measures to combat this threat, we do not sow the seeds for a greater threat in the future.

The issue is that people aren’t private only about suffering, criminal behavior, or family life; there are quite a few important facets of the human experience that most individuals consider quite intimate—including what they believe and how they express their beliefs. While they may be quite vocal and public in their religious lives—centers of worship also serve as centers of socialization—their spiritual lives are another matter altogether. There is more to this issue than the possibility of a 1984-esque social order overseeing every aspect of our lives. We must ask whether the practice of spirituality, in all its infinite variety of forms, is in any way threatened or obstructed by an environment of constant monitoring, surveillance, and possible control.

If we want for a basis of comparison, we can take the surveillance practices of communist countries with their secret police forces, censorship, and unapologetic psychology of total control. At the risk of comparing two systems of governance that were at one time—and in the minds of many continue to be—archenemies, I will point out in my defense that a centralized surveillance and monitoring network is antithetical to the fundamental principles of democracy as they are commonly defined. Surveillance in this context must be centralized. All that data must be sorted, organized, and routed through a focal point (regardless of where the information goes from there). Communism actively sought to repress religious practice, as is was considered not only an “opium of the people” according to the oft-quoted statement by Karl Marx, but also to vie with the State for influence. Obviously, a democracy based on freedom of religion does not take the same stance. However, religion and spirituality encompass an extensive range of behaviors that include conventional and socially acceptable patterns of interaction as well as unorthodox and radical practices (extreme asceticism, possession states, etc.).

Any apparatus designed to monitor errant and potentially dangerous behavior cannot overlook those elements in religious practice. Consider this: if either the Roman Empire in 1st Century Judea, or the ruling Jewish authorities of the time, were given the same technology that our government is using right now, it is more than likely that Jesus would have been flagged as a person of interest. He represented a genuine threat to the status quo, and many of his followers likely thought that his intentions were to bring about an entirely literal Kingdom of Heaven—in other words, to restore the sovereignty of the Israelites over the Holy Land. That he did not—that his intentions were more peaceful—would not have made a difference in a milieu that included other revolutionaries whose motives were more militant. Christianity maintains that Christ died on the cross for the sins of humanity, and this is a principal theological and spiritual point. However, local news at the time would have stated that another seditionist, traitor, and radical had been condemned and executed in typical Roman fashion.

Still, I may be taking it for granted that surveillance leads to control. This is a mistake commonly made by conspiracy theorists predicting the rise of the New World Order and decrying the power of centralized government. I am by no means looking to fall into this category. Nonetheless, accepting the powers of the government to snoop on its citizens involves accepting a number of premises as true: first, that the government’s intentions are benevolent and will always act on behalf of safety and the preservation of life. Secondly, that the threats ostensibly under surveillance warrant this measure, and that similar threats will arise to maintain this warrant in the future. Third, that surveillance and monitoring represent an effective means of dealing with these threats.

Upon closer inspection, these premises are thin at best.

How does this relate to spirituality? The answer to that question lies in the possibility that a wholesale invasion of privacy may lead to other curtailments of basic civil liberties, including several that are facilitated by religion. Given the actions of cult leaders in the past—Applewhite and Koresh, to name the most infamous—is it not unreasonable to presume that the government would monitor any religious or spiritual group exercising the right to peacefully assemble as a congregation?

Spirituality does not advocate conformity, nor does it countenance tyranny. On the contrary, spirituality has always had a rebellious streak. Spirituality pushes the limits. Spirituality demands out-of-the-box thinking and encourages drastic action. While it does not, by any means, support violence or terrorism, it nevertheless has a tendency to oppose established authority when that authority comes between the people and their ability to experience the divine. In a society based on control, this ability is severely obstructed, weakened by an imbalance in favor of individual and collective obligation to the state.

Furthermore, when religion is co-opted by the State apparatus—as it has been in the past, and continues to be now—there arises a decidedly rebellious faction to advocate a different perspective, to posit another route to the communion that is sought by practitioners of spirituality. In many cases, these uprisings prove unsuccessful. They are too radical, too unorthodox, too misguided—but they are also products of a natural human process: the need to reach out and seek transcendence by any means necessary. We can condemn those who exercise this need in the wrong way (such as harming others, encouraging violence, etc.), but we cannot in good conscience condemn the need itself.

In a democracy, the individual pursuit of happiness—which includes spirituality, albeit implicitly—is balanced by social obligation. Once the private and personal affairs of individuals are made vulnerable to the scrutiny of centralized authority, for whatever reason, the balance shifts.

Obviously, defenders of these NSA programs and similar ventures may argue that the government has no interest in gathering information on, or controlling, our spiritual beliefs. However, the psychology of terrorism often includes a good deal of religious and even spiritual conviction. We don’t like to consider terrorists spiritual; after all, spirituality is generally about peace, interconnectedness, and respect for the environment and its inhabitants. Still, spirituality can be distorted and turned to violent ends. The Jihadist who believes he is killing and sacrificing himself for Allah and the white supremacist who believes that God favors the Aryan race both include in their worldview a dimension that justifies their actions on spiritual as well as religious terms. From a religious perspective, they are glorifying a particular belief system and worldview. From a spiritual perspective, they believe themselves embodiments of the sacrifice and struggle that defines an ongoing narrative of faith in a particular cause. However brainwashed they may be, this process occurs first on an intimate and private level before it ever impacts society at large. There are secular terrorists whose motives have nothing to do with faith or religiosity, but there are nonetheless an overwhelming number whose rhetoric includes these elements.

That having been said, it seems clear that the hateful extremes of belief which can potentially lead to acts of social violence do fall under the purview of programs designed to identify terrorists before they strike. In other words, the scope of surveillance must necessarily include religious beliefs, and in turn, the private dimensions of spirituality where the momentum and motivation behind drastic actions first arise. Proponents of government surveillance may consider this point in their favor, and they would not be entirely mistaken. After all, if religion and spirituality can lead to extreme and violent action, they should be monitored. Again, those whose religious beliefs are benevolent, compassionate, and humane have nothing to worry about. Sure, their privacy may be “modestly encroached upon,” but it’s all for a good cause: freedom from acts of terror.

…Until you remember that religious freedom is a fairly recent development in the history of humankind. Even today, genuine religious freedom exists more as an ideal than a reality. Religious tolerance is not a modern concept; for example, Muslims allowed both Christians and Jews to maintain their sites of worship in 638 following the conquest of Jerusalem. Religious persecution, however, is far more prevalent—even in the developed world. We may expect to hear of it in areas that espouse fundamentalist versions of conversion-based religions, including Africa, the Middle East, and China, but we cannot overlook its existence in countries where religious freedom is protected under the law of the land. In some cases, “persecution” may be too strong a word, implying violence as well as intolerance. It would be quite a stretch to suggest that any particular religious group in the United States, for example, is persecuted.

Can this change, however? Can the liberties protected by the freedom of religion be overturned? Ultimately, this question is asked in different ways by many of us who express a sore distrust of the government’s surveillance and blatant defense of its right to continue doing so—whether we want it or not.

At the end of the day, it may boil down to something as simple as this: if we consider spirituality to be, by definition, a profound connection to the transcendent in our lives, we must ask whether we have to freedom the create the space necessary to experience that connection. If we find an unwelcome intruder in our temples and sacred spaces, a shadow coming between ourselves and the Spirit—it may be too late to ask whether the price we paid was higher than we expected.

From the Vampire Preludes Collection: Passing the Test

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

Passing the Test

 

When I was a little kid, I was afraid of thunder. My elder brothers would force me outside, dragging me to the nearest electrical tower. I can remember screaming and wailing, looking up at that metal scaffolding in wide-eyed terror while my brothers laughed and hooted. I remember lying there in the rain and wet grass, that line of electrical towers tethered to one another by humming cables, marching in line towards some unseen end.

When I got older Theo and Hess quit their game, but they never could understand what it was about the thunder and lightning that terrified me so much. Maybe I knew, even then, that the storms around here brought bad things with them.

We lived on a farm house on the Eastern Shore. It was all flat land, crisscrossed by stretches of woods, local roads passing through small towns, and several highway arteries that branched off after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and converged again near D.C. We lived near the Atlantic side, a few miles out from the shore.

There were three other farm houses in sight, and the same families had lived in them for generations. We were all kin out here; least we acted like it. In reality my brothers and I hated the poor Widow’s boys, tolerated the dim-witted twins down the way, and fought one another over the right to ask Kitty for her hand in marriage some day.

We knew all the local area boys, and by local I mean within a radius of about 50 miles. We’d see the ones far out maybe once a month during a game; but every kid who could get away from his folks would come through the shopping complex on the weekends. That was our spot, our social arena. That was where we watched the elder boys hook up with girls and play out the violence and passion of arrogant youth. That was where we mimicked their games and learned just how high the stakes were.

Ronny Calloway ran an old mom and pop joint up the road from the complex, which used to be a whole strip of mom and pops until they went under. Ronny kept on, the old survivor, and he’d keep on until every last old family in these parts died. Sometimes I’d leave my brothers and kin to their ruckus and walk over to Ronny’s after the Sunday-school crowd went home. He was an old soldier, from a long line of soldiers. He was our elder, our storyteller, and I still respected his role. Someone needed to hear his stories before they were lost, and he hadn’t any kids to do it. He wasn’t a boast, and he wasn’t a liar. Far as I could tell, Ronny told the straight truth and backed it up if he could. His stories cut right to it, and I appreciated them all the more because he didn’t spare any details. I might’ve been a little young to hear about some of it, but he just told me to keep my mouth and remember that ‘this world will never be anything but a wilderness.’

One night in mid October I remember sitting with my brothers in the pizza shop at the edge of the complex. The people who ran the shop were move-ins from New York; they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, damned Yankees, but they made one hell of a pizza pie and they were forgiven.

On this particular night I was feeling restless. We were all feeling restless.

Now, looking back, I know what it was: we were anxious for the test. All the boys were tested at some point, whether by fate or by the ancient social mechanisms that grind children into men. We had watched it happen to those before us. We all thought it would have something to do with sex, or graduation, or the first mistake you make driving your parent’s car. It was more complicated than that.

It had something to do with blood. That much we understood. The blood is the life, and the test was real when blood was at stake. Old Ronny had said it best, ‘Even money is meaningless until you bleed over it.’ That’s what we were all waiting for. We were scared, anxious, and excited all at the same time.

We were restless because we’d all been feeling it coming. That night had a charge to it.

‘Paul came through from Talbot County two nights ago,’ Theo said, bringing our wandering attention back to the table. ‘I heard him talking to dad about something that happened up that way.’ We waited patiently for him to continue. Theo was the firstborn. ‘You remember that storm a few nights back? Talbot caught the brunt of it. Paul’s a 911 responder, right? So he gets this call and there’s a woman on the line, says that someone’s been stalking her. She’s called before, the police never found anyone, no one believes her—says that she keeps seeing things following her on the street. Sometimes it’s a guy, sometimes it’s three black dogs.’

‘Three black dogs?’ Hess said. He used to dote on Theo when he was younger and I was still crawling on my hands and knees. When he got a little older, he started to realize how different he was from his older brother. Theo would thrive in this place; people would respect him, honor him. Even now the elders often took him hunting with them. Give him a few years to round out, they said, and he will be a man about this town. Hess’s ambitions were going to lead him elsewhere. I often imagined him roaming around the world in far-off, exotic places. He often said that he would take me with him.

‘That’s what she said,’ Theo replied. ‘So now Paul figures this woman’s a loon, right? Then she starts telling him that she’s made a terrible mistake. She tried to kill herself—took a razor to her wrists right up the street…’ Theo glanced at me. Sometimes he caught himself wondering whether I was still too young to hear about such things. He shrugged and went on. ‘She’s bleeding out in her living room, holding the phone and sobbing into the line; Paul’s listening to all this and trying to calm her down, telling her that EMS will be there soon. Only he knows that soon is not soon enough. Storm’s raging, the roads are cluttered with accidents, it’s raining so hard that no one can see more’n a few feet…no, he knew that nobody would get there in time.

‘Still, he keeps her on the phone. Then she starts talking about the dogs again. Says that she can see them outside her window. They’re coming towards her place. Paul figures she’s just hallucinating, you know, from all the blood loss; then he hears her screaming, and glass breaking, some kind of struggle on her end…then she hangs up,’ Theo slapped his palms against the table.

‘Then what happened?’ I asked.

‘Well, first responders get there and find the roof sheared clean off. They find her, dead on the floor from blood loss. Only here’s the thing…there wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere.’

Hess stared at Theo blankly. ‘Really?’ he asked in a deadpan voice. ‘I’m a little too old for ghost stories; I don’t about Jesse over here…’ he punched my shoulder. ‘I was hoping you heard something about what Caleb said the other night. You know, about what happened up at the Pines…’

Theo shrugged. ‘What? About Kitty’s cousin? What more is there to say? She was a meth head; she was always going up to the Pines. It was only a matter of time before she got herself killed, and worse.’

‘What’s worse?’ I asked.

Theo smiles. ‘A few things are worse. Anyway, that’s what happened. Now everybody’s waiting, ’cause you can be sure that Kitty’s older brother has already heard about it.’ He leaned forward over the table. ‘But I did hear about something going down tonight. You know that Russian kid? Sasha? He’s got friends who live by there and he told me that Kitty’s brother was on his way down from Wilmington. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if…’

We heard the screeching tires and turned; a familiar car ripped into the lot and slammed to a halt that nearly sent the back wheels off the ground. It was Kitty’s older brother Tom. He tore out of the car and took off down the lot on foot, his head snapping from side to side like he was looking for something. We all knew Tom—sort of. Sort of in that we only knew his last name and his little sister. No one talked about him, and last time he came by we were all too young to register more than a disturbance in the adult world. The only other things we knew were what we had heard: he worked in Wilmington, and he ran with the kind of people that eventually get you killed.

My brothers and I looked at one another. Theo was older than Hess by a year and me by two. We were watching Tom storm off when Theo said, ‘There’s someone else in the car.’ Sure enough, there was someone we didn’t recognize slumped over in the passenger seat. Theo got up and we followed him outside the pizza shop. On the far side of the lot, I saw Tom approaching some of the area boys. Theo and Hess peered into the car, muttering to one another. I heard snippets of what they were saying, but I was watching Tommy round up the boys.

‘Shit, he’s been shot!’ Theo exclaimed. The boy in the car—couldn’t have been more than nineteen—stirred and groaned. ‘He needs a hospital…’

That didn’t seem to be Tom’s priority. He jogged back to the car, pausing when he saw us clustered around it. He wasn’t going to spare us a word. He pulled open the door and Theo said, ‘You need to take him to a hospital.’ We all stared at him. What was he doing? We weren’t supposed to get mixed up in whatever this was!

Tom regarded our elder brother for a moment. ‘No hospitals,’ he said, ‘until we clear this up. Now get back inside,’ he nodded towards the pizza shop. I glanced behind to see everyone inside looking at us. Gigliani had the phone to his ear. Tom didn’t miss it. He cursed and slammed the top of the car. ‘You didn’t see anything, you understand? He’s just sleeping it off, ok?’ His eyes narrowed and we all understood what he meant.

‘But what happened?’ Theo said. We all stared at him again.

Tom shook his head, exasperated, and threw out two words before sliding into the car and slamming the door. ‘Goddamn meth heads,’ was what he said. He reversed out of the lot and drove away, followed by the older boys in our circle. They were going to the Pines.

Gigliani came out of the pizza shop. ‘You boys had better get back inside. Matty and the rest of them will be here any minute. They’ll handle it.’ Matty—Matthew Henderson—was the local law enforcement. Tom and the boys were likely going to wage war, and there would be a firefight. If Matty caught up to them, they’d get thrown in the can for a couple of days while the cops raided the Pines and scattered their enemies. Second chances for everyone. Tom knew this, and he didn’t give a damn about second chances.

I went to see Ronny. He poured me a glass of lemonade, added half a shot to it, and listened. When I finished, I expected him to dispense his usual wisdom and follow it up with a war story. Instead he said, ‘Now’s not a good time for this. Storm’s coming in. We don’t need any blood being shed now.’ I asked him what he meant.

‘This is old country,’ he said. ‘There were rituals here from long before. They weren’t just superstitions. What some people call savagery and barbarism was just survival—then as now. There was something that people used to do here, before they forgot. When the storms came in, they would call a stop to any kind of violence and bloodshed. No fighting, no warring, no hunting.’

‘No hunting?’

‘No hunting. The watermen could go about their business, but everything else was off-limits. No bloodshed. Anyone who broke the rules would be dragged out to sea and left alone, hog-tied in a canoe. There’s a story someone told me; an old waterman from Tangier Island out in the bay. I could hardly understand a word of what this fellow was saying. Anyway, he said that this is an old story.

‘On the first day of the storm season, a waterman was coming in from a long day out on the open sea. Not two days before, the blood-taboo was declared. The waterman was gathering up his net on the beach when he looks up and sees them,’ he moved his hand horizontally, his eyes narrowed as if he were seeing this himself, ‘coming up out of the water. Some had been dead for years. They should have been bloated, or falling apart—but they walked up out of the surf looking as strong as they did when they were alive. Only their skin was somehow different; it was like porcelain or fine china, smooth and cracked and glossy.

‘They came inland and overtook the village. They caught everyone unawares; trussed them up and nicked ’em on the neck,’ Ronny drew his thumb in a quick gesture across his neck. ‘Not enough so they’d bleed out; just enough.’

‘Just enough for what?’

Ronny smiled enigmatically. ‘Remember what I told you, kid. This world is nothing but a wilderness. Those boys got themselves into a serious fix. If this was back in the day, they would have been punished for shedding blood. They would’ve been hauled out in a canoe and left to the sea. But not today. Today, nobody remembers the old rituals. Nobody remembers how to survive. Let me tell you something: you can bet that our predator’s hasn’t forgotten how to hunt us…’

‘The hell, Ronny, I have no idea what you’re talking about…!’

I didn’t get a chance to press him for an interpretation. Theo and Hess found me and told me that Matty and the others were here—with our father. I groaned, glared at Ronny and his poorly concealed smirk, and left with my brothers.

I figured it was over. Some of the men went after Tommy and the other boys, calling ahead to cut them off before they made it to the Pines. Matty stayed with us, riding back in our car. ‘If things go south, and we don’t get to them before they cause trouble, Tommy’s going to try and make it back to his folks’ place. He’ll likely cut across the back way by your property. I’m sorry for the bother, Frank…’

Our father shook his head. ‘Pay no mind,’ he said.

‘What about the other guy?’ Theo demanded.

Matty looked into the rearview mirror. ‘You boys are the only ones who saw this other boy,’ he said. ‘You tell me he was shot. How do you know? Did you look at him that closely…?’

‘I looked at him close enough,’ Theo said defensively. ‘There was a lot of blood. It was obvious that he needed a hospital…’

Matty shook his head. ‘Well, Tommy’s not headed to the hospital.’

The storm followed on our heels all the way home. I kept thinking about Ronny’s story. I kept thinking that it was too late: that boy was just bleeding, spilling his short life into that car. I kept thinking that the boy had failed his test; he would never become a man. He would die a boy, just a foolish boy.

It started coming down and we dashed into the house. My brothers and I made it through the gauntlet of our mother’s worried chastisement, our father’s stern reprimand, and Matty’s friendly reminder to avoid associating with the wrong crowd. He never did specify what the right crowd was.

Eventually the call came. We listened to Matty’s clipped answers and pointed questions, watched his facial expressions and awaited his explanation. ‘They found the boys,’ he said after he was done, ‘at a gas station just off the state road. No sign of Tommy. He hasn’t shown up at the Pines, either.’ Matty glanced at Theo. ‘If your boy is right,’ he said to our father, ‘could be Tommy found himself with a dead body on his hands and decided to get rid of it.’

Our mother gasped. Matty put up his hands and chuckled. ‘Sorry ma’am, didn’t mean to be so blunt about it.’ All the same, he winked at us. I remembered why I liked Matty. ‘Listen, Frank, I’m going to go ahead and get going. I’ll be needing to keep an eye on the Tanners’ place; if Tommy makes it back, he’ll have some explaining to do. I’ll have a look over his car, too—blood’s not something that washes off so easy.’ He smirked at our mother and left.

The storm broke something fierce. The clouds unfurled over the sky like an angry mob pouring out of a side street, waving lightning and shouting thunder.

 

* * * *

 

This was a season of storms. Nothing ended up happening that night and we all thought it’d blown over. But the sky remained overcast and I couldn’t shake this feeling. I remembered the girl on the phone and what she said about being watched. I remembered Ronny’s story and wondered whether the blood-taboo would have been passed by now. Three days later, another storm was about to break.

I was standing in the kitchen when the power went out. I had been trying to see past my reflection in the glass door; the sudden darkness threw into sharp focus the silhouette of two figures walking across the property. I ran upstairs to call my brothers down. Quietly we skirted past our parents and out the back door.

The wind lashed my face with coils of icy rain. ‘Can you make out who they are?’ Hess asked.

‘Let me get the gun,’ Theo said. He returned a few minutes later with his 10 gauge Browning. He was especially proud of that gun; it was a gift from our uncle. He kept that weapon in impeccable condition and made real good use of it. He stood on the deck and peered out. ‘Can’t make them out,’ he muttered. ‘Let’s go see what they want.’

‘Maybe we should call dad,’ I said. Hess scowled at me.

Theo considered it for a moment, then shook his head. God, how eager he was to face his test! ‘We can handle it,’ I remember him saying. How wrong he was. ‘If it’s Tommy,’ Theo said, ‘he’s probably just looking to get home.’

It was Tommy, alright—and the other boy, the one who had been bleeding to death in the car. They were still about three hundred meters away, moving toward us. Theo called out, but the wind stole his voice and threw it somewhere behind us. He decided that body language might convey his message more effectively: he loaded the shotgun and leveled the barrel towards the approaching boys.

When they came closer, I saw their faces and remembered what Ronny had said: their skin was somehow different; it was like porcelain or fine china, smooth and cracked and glossy. I could see it. Tommy’s face looked like the face of a doll, animated by a surreal parody of expression. I looked at Theo; did he notice how different Tommy looked? Did he realize how wrong he was?

‘Look at you, all grown up,’ Tommy shouted. ‘Frank’s boys. I remember when you three used to chase my sister around. You still chasin’ Kitty around, boys? What are you aiming to do once you catch her?’

‘Matty’s looking for ya, Tommy,’ Theo called back. ‘Did you get your friend here fixed up?’

‘Something like that,’ Tommy said. He glanced at the boy next to him. ‘Listen, Theo, you know what they say about pointing a gun when you don’t mean it. Now we’re just passing through; why don’t you and your brothers step aside and let us be on our way?’

‘Nobody wants any trouble, Tommy,’ Theo says.

Tommy looks up as a heavier downpour of rain pelts across the field. There is something almost sorrowful in his dark eyes. ‘What nobody wants and what everybody gets are two different things, kid.’

I looked at my brother. I thought, he should shoot. Instead, Theo lowered the gun. I knew that it was a mistake as soon as he did it. A glint in Tommy’s eye gave him away. A massive thunder-clap disoriented by brother long enough for him to make his move. Fortunately, I listened to my instincts and tackled my elder brother to the ground. Tommy blurred past us, his arm extended with a knife in hand.

I turned in time to see the other boy dart forward towards Hess. He sliced my brother across his upraised forearm; Hess cried out and staggered away. Theo recovers himself and braces the shotgun on his knee. He had only to spare before Tommy assaulted him again; he took quick aim and fired. The shot caught the other boy in through the back, right where his heart should have been—but there was nothing there. It was like he’d been emptied out.

Tommy laughed. ‘Oh my! They’ve gone and figured it out. Too little too late, boys. The game is up!’ He raised his arms and threw his head back. ‘The amazing race for immortality has begun! And now for the host of our game this evening…’

The Vampire descended from the sky like a curtain of rain taking solid shape, alighting on the electrical tower. It was beautiful in its own way, the way something deadly is beautiful when it does what it does best. It was like sighting a rare predator in the wild.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our father running towards us from the house. Hess was cradling his arm and crying. Theo was just sitting there, the shotgun in his lap, looking up at the thing on the tower. Tommy and the other boy were watching us, expressionless, all mimicry of human emotion erased from their features. ‘Looks like we got a volunteer,’ Tommy said, reaching inside his jacket and withdrawing a .38 pistol. He turned and fired; our father was thrown off his feet by the impact. He rolled away, howling and trying to keep the blood from spurting out of a fresh hole in his gut.

Behind him, standing on the back deck, our mother screamed and shouted our names.

Theo fired the shotgun a second time; the shot took half of Tommy’s face with it. He went down cursing. My eldest brother was already up and reloading the shotgun. Hess was running towards our father. I look up…

The Vampire’s face was neither grotesque nor monstrous, but somehow worse than both. It was so uncannily inhuman that it blurred, defying focus and certainty. Its eyes were opaque shadow, pools of inky blackness punctuated by twin pinpoints of reflected light. I felt myself pushed against the earth by its terrible gaze; the Vampire didn’t move, but those pinpoints of light grew larger and larger, pressing me down.

It spread its shroud, like a pair of immense raven wings stretching out over the field—then it collapsed like a fountain jet cut off at the base. It swarmed over the metal scaffolding of the electrical tower, clambering like an enormous millipede down the length of the structure. Theo and I backed away from the skittering monstrosity. It pooled into a shadow that stretched across the grass, snaking over the ground towards our father. He extended an arm towards our mother, shouting at her to go inside and call for help…but the storm crushed his words as soon as he uttered them.

Like a shark smelling blood in the water, the Vampire rose over our gasping father. Hess tried to strike it—what a brave soul he was! The blood drinker tossed him towards Tommy and the other boy as if it were tossing crumbs to a pair of obedient dogs. They closed in on him; Tommy fastened his lips over the wound in my Hess’s arm, his Adam’s apple bobbing and his cheeks sagging with each drought of Hess’s blood. Tommy’s face unraveled itself like a piece of crumpled paper straightening into place, the ghastly wound closing seamlessly. The other boy knelt down and made an incision in Hess’s leg, severing the femoral artery; he leaned forward, sticking his tongue out to catch the blood.

Theo yelled and discharged the shotgun. The shot took the other boy in the side, throwing his clear of Hess. Tommy, his white lips covered in gore, grinned and threw my brother down. His teeth flashed behind the blood and he stepped forward. ‘Not bad, kid,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry—in another time and place, this would’ve been the night you became a man. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To prove yourself. How are you handling it, Theo? This is isn’t your test, you frail little bag of watered-down meat!

‘This is my test!’ he yelled, ‘and I’m about proving myself to a god!’

Theo fired the second shot, taking Tommy full in the chest. The bastard flew backwards laughing. My brother grabbed the knife Tommy had dropped in the grass. ‘This is it, little guy, this is what it’s all about,’ he said as he ran past me. Those were the last words I heard my brother speak.

The Vampire stooped over our father. Theo reached it, but the predator didn’t stand to be interrupted; it rose and turned as he drew near. Its shroud wavered like smoke and then rippled as if shaken by an unheard sonic explosion. Theo stopped and fell, as simple as that; when he struck the ground his head rolled back lifelessly, his eyes, nose, and mouth streaming blood. My father shouted his name. My mother collapsed on the back deck.

I wondered, how does a boy make peace with a God he will never know as a man?

The Vampire embraced my father, its fangs folding outward. Its head was strangely distorted, as if its skull were changing shape to accommodate the sickening blades that descended from the roof of its mouth. It lifted my father up over its head and stabbed its fangs into the gunshot wound in his abdomen. It burrowed its face into the blood, gnashing its teeth into my father’s body; he flailed and gurgled in the monster’s grip, his hands clutching at the Vampire’s snarling black shroud. His fingers closed over nothing but oily smoke.

I heard someone call my name. I looked towards our house to see Ronny running forward, a .45 hand-cannon in his hand. How had he known? He drew to a stop and fired at Tommy and the other boy. Two shots! They were blasted off their feet and sent sprawling away in broken heaps. Ronny shouted my name again and sprinted forward. He fired into the other boy’s crawling body and laid him out. He did the same to Tommy, a headless mess of white flesh and torn clothing.

I grabbed Ronny and yelled at him to help my father; I shouted at Theo, telling him to get up, just get up. Hess was lying immobile on the ground—I roared and started to charge forward. Ronny grabbed my arm so roughly that my legs nearly flew out from under me. ‘Let me go!’ I cried, ‘I need to help them!’

‘There are some tests you pass by surviving,’ Ronny said.

This was it. This was my test. I kicked Ronny in the shins and grabbed the .45 out of his stunned grip. I rolled away and pointed the gun at the Vampire, gorging on the blood of my father. As my finger found the trigger and pulled, I thanked Theo for teaching me how to shoot.

I fired; the Vampire dropped my father, turning its face to me. I fired again, and the shot struck it right in the face—I expected blood, pain, something—but the Vampire just kept coming.

Ronny leapt in front of me, pushing me away. He told me to run and I ran. I ran because my courage was exhausted. I ran because I could do nothing else. I ran because I was still a boy, and the test was unfair.

When I finally stopped and turned to look, I was already at the far edge of the Widow’s property. From that distance, I saw my house shake and break apart, planks of wood and rent fabric twisting into the fierce wind. The lightning flashed, turning the pieces of my life into so much flotsam caught in a torrent of rain and thunder.

I saw the Vampire ascend, its hunger sated, an awful black bird soaring into the charcoal pillars of cloud turning in the sky.

 

* * * *

I push the skiff into the surf and jump aboard. The waters of the Atlantic are choppy; it takes me a while to paddle out past the breakers. I timed the storm just right. It breaks over the open ocean; a crack of thunder and the clouds pour down rain like broken water jars.

Now’s as good a time as any.

I draw the knife across my palm, clenching my fist and teeth. I shake the blood over an old picture of my family. ‘I never did pass that test,’ I tell my brothers, ‘but I never did forget. This world will never be anything but a wilderness.

I sit down and load my brother’s shotgun. I am a much better shot these days, but it won’t make a difference. I watch the sky, waiting. Then I see it.

The Vampire is coming in the storm.

 

 

Short Story: The Hidden Road

This is based on some of what I have learned in southwest Nigeria. I would like to extend my gratitude for those who have helped me learn more about the Yoruba and their spiritual traditions. While this narrative is an exaggerated account (in some respects), I hope my readers will recognize how rich and deep the practice is.  Enjoy, and don’t forget to “like” it if you do.

Alexander Chirila 2013

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

 

The Hidden Road

 

They say there is no power in magic without blood. Olumide is dead. Tokunbo had prevailed over him; he and the men from Ilé-Iku had killed everyone in the compound. Olumide, his wife, his firstborn, his junior brother—everyone.

Olumide was babalawo of the village; the spirits were strong with him. They did not withhold knowledge of the future from him. When the sick came to him, he healed them. When the troubled came to him for divination, he consulted the Oracle on their behalf. Everyone said that his predictions were accurate. How many had ignored his warnings only to find that Esu had taken their wealth? Even the oba had come to him for his blessing.

I was his apprentice. Clothed in white robes, I listened to him recite the verses. I watched him cast the divining chain. At first, I did not believe the spirits spoke to him. I secretly doubted his reverent silence, eyes closed, immersed in contemplation. When he nodded sagely and extended a wrinkled hand over the tray, his finger trembling above the dust, I credited his performance. When he cut the markings in the dust and interpreted them, I credited his imagination.

I know better now.

The spirits told him that there would be an attack. That death was coming. That only the most extreme sacrifice would suffice to keep death away. When the markings were cut in the sand, his eyes widened and his teeth chattered. ‘Get out!’ he yelled at me, ‘This is not for your eyes to see!’

But I had already seen. I needed to know what the markings meant. I approached another diviner—a taboo of the highest order to Olumide—and showed him the arrangement of figures. At first, he refused to interpret them. Then he wanted to swindle and mislead me. To him I was just another oyinbo with a fetish for African juju. There are serious prohibitions against disclosing the traditions to outsiders. Let them have stories and falsehoods, they won’t be able to tell the difference.

I could, and I made sure he knew that.

At last he told me that the markings meant almost certain death for the diviner who cast them. He said that the only way to prevent the prescribed destiny was to offer the highest order of sacrifice.

‘No snail, no pigeon, no rat, no she-goat,’ he said. ‘Only human.’

 

* * * *

 

‘There are hidden gods,’ Ona-Ode says, ‘that have never left this country. Some of the Orisha traveled with our people across the waters. Shango, Ogun, Osun; they have worshipers in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, the United States. You may not have realized it, oyinbo, but you have met Osun before. You may know the Orisha by different names, but they were the spirits of this place long before Islam came to the north and long before your people brought Jesus to our shores. There are spirits that your people have never seen. Spirits that went deep into the bush when the foreigners came. Spirits that could not be placated and did not suffer themselves to be hidden away.’

Ona-Ode is the lastborn of seven brothers, himself an Ifa apprentice. He wears the white robes, as do I. I serve Orunmila, the Custodian of Destiny and father of divination; a white deity and one of the most powerful and benevolent among the Orisha. Ona-Ode serves Osanyin; he can tell you the medicinal properties of every single tree, root, and herb in the Yoruba nation. He ranges across southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, administering his mixtures and concoctions throughout the local villages. His son runs a shop in Lagos, selling herbs and potions to urban Nigerians and foreign businessmen.

Olumide would often buy medicines from him; that’s how I met him. Ona-Ode is a genius when it comes to traditional medicine. Of his six brothers, only two remain; one is a devout Christian. The other lives way out into the bush and miles away from even the smallest villages. Awo-Iku serves an entirely different sort of spirit.

We had taken the car as far as it would go off-road; the rains had gutted whatever dirt track there was. Ona-Ode and I trek out into the forest, following a vague herding trail that wound into the hills north of Ogbomosho. ‘Black, red, white. The ancient colors. All creation is balanced between these forces. White is good, benevolent, wise, and cool-headed. You can reason with the white deities; only don’t offend them, and observe their taboos. Red is violent, bloodthirsty, always angry and hot-headed. You can work with the red deities, but you must be very careful.’ Ona-Ode grabs a thick vine slung across the trail and cleaves it aside with his machete. ‘In my village, there was a stone they used to worship Shango. No one was supposed to touch it. There are stories in the Corpus that say the old gods went into the ground and became immortal.’ He grins at me. ‘Is it not true that you would call this idolatry? This worship of stones?’

I smile; Ona-Ode knows I am a practitioner. His question is both a test and a jibe. ‘We don’t worship stones,’ I say. ‘The stones are only vessels, a place for the spirits to rest when we call them to consult with us.’

Ona-Ode nods. ‘This is so. This stone was in my village since before. One boy, he was the son of the babalawo. He saw the stone when he was initiated by his father. He went and told his mates about it, and they all wanted to see it. This boy, he was stubborn. He took the stone from its place and showed it to them. His father hears of it and goes to consult Shango and make ebo, so that his son would not be killed. Shango now tells him that his son will die; but because of the ebo, he will not kill all the boys that saw the stone. The boy was killed by lightning. Some of the boys who saw the stone went blind, and others went deaf because of the thunder. Now the others in the village, the fathers of the boys who were blinded and made deaf, they now gather against him. “How can you be our babalawo when you allow this to happen?” They are too hot against him; it was Shango, you understand, who caused them to be so hot. They killed him and burned his body.’

I look at him. He grins and says, ‘This place is not like where you come from.’

‘What about the black?’ I ask.

He frowns. ‘The black,’ he begins hesitantly, ‘is dangerous. Unpredictable. Like death. You never know from which direction death will come. Black is like that. They say that the black deities cannot be invoked or summoned. They do not listen to human beings. Others say that they respond to human sacrifice.’

‘Why would anyone want to work with gods that demand human blood?’

‘They are extremely powerful,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘They will do anything for the one who sacrifices to them. They can kill anyone, anywhere in the world. They can bring wealth, children, abundance. But the black deities are somehow. They say that no one who has sacrificed to them has ever lived long enough to enjoy their blessings. They are greedy and deceitful.’

‘But there are those who still sacrifice to them,’ I say.

‘Yes. My senior brother, Awo-Iku. You do not know the kind of man you must become in order to sacrifice to the hidden gods,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘If not for Olumide, I would not be coming here. You say that he was killed by magic. That the Odu foretold his death, and that he refused to offer the prescribed sacrifice.’

‘Of course he did! Can you imagine Olumide offering human sacrifice? Even for his own sake?’

Ona-Ode motions for us to stop. He looks intently ahead; the trail goes on for a few steps and then vanishes. While he scours the terrain, I look around. The sun shines over a dense forest, a lush, green, breathing organism unrolled like a carpet over the stepped hills. In the far distance I can see a radio tower and the rusty corrugated metal roofs of a small town. Someone is burning a tire; a column of thick, choking smoke pillars into the blue sky.

‘No, he wouldn’t do that,’ Ona-Ode says, answering my earlier question. ‘So what are you looking for? Revenge? There is nothing you can do unless you are willing to go further than your teacher.’

I shake my head. ‘It’s not that. Olumide knew Tokunbo. They were rivals long before I came to Nigeria. Olumide didn’t expect that Tokunbo would go so far…the kind of blood that he needed to spill, to do what he did…I don’t want anything to do with that. No, this is about something Olumide said to me before they came for him. “You are my student,” he told me, “initiated into my lineage. A part of my spirit, a part of my ori will always be with you.” You know what that means, don’t you?’

Ona-Ode looks at me. ‘Tokunbo killed everyone he could find,’ I say. ‘He intends to utterly destroy Olumide’s lineage. I am the last living heir to his teachings. Oyinbo or not, I am the only person to whom Olumide entrusted his knowledge. Tokunbo and his people will come after me, now.’

Ona-Ode thinks about this for a second. ‘It is good that we are going see my senior brother, then. If you mean to defend yourself against this kind of magic, Awo-Iku well tell you how to do it.’ He shoulders his pack and sets off further up the slope. I don’t see the trail, but he moves with certainty, the clack of his machete resounding in the moist, heavy air.

‘Awo-Iku was initiated by “Reed Mat Covers Deadfall,” an itinerant diviner from a little village just over these mountains.’ Ona-Ode points in the direction we are going. ‘The village is empty now.’

We pause on a small outcropping of dark stone overlooking a rushing cascade.  The trees here are ancient, prehistoric monsters that must have witnessed the birth of humankind and the movement of tribes across the Continent. We are mercifully shaded from the baking sun; our ascent had been exposed, and by now my shirt is soaked through with rapidly cooling sweat. From here on out we descend into the small, densely forested valleys of the mountains. There are no roads here, no wide trails; just imperceptible windings.

I have the sense that I am standing between worlds. Behind me is the patchwork reality that is Nigeria, filled with torrents of modernity intermingled with blood and tradition. Ahead is darkness and wisdom and the courts of the old gods.

‘Ready?’ Ona-Ode asks.

Not at all, I think. ‘Let’s go,’ I say. He nods and starts on the descent, picking his way down a tumble of piled boulders. I smile and look out over the hills of northern Oyo State.

 

* * * *

One year ago on the road from Lokoja to Ibadan. The bus was rickety and hot and filthy. Four hours out of Abuja and my head was spinning brokenly around an epicenter of nausea. We were driving behind a truck, its back painted in bright, garish designs—what looked like swans entwined around a collage of Christian symbols. The truck was trembling and sputtering towards a bottleneck in Okene. A single, narrow, broken road squeezed between ramshackle shops and concrete buildings, filled with jalopies, motorcycles, and transports. It was a disastrous, breathing wreak that sucked in lives and machines and coughed exhaust fumes over the cries of hawkers standing precariously between lines of traffic.

Olumide had sent me to meet a man named Norman Westwood, a British expat who worked with an NGO out of Abeokuta. He was doing business in Okene and agreed to meet with whomever Olumide sent. Olumide had performed a service for Mr. Westwood and had chosen not to ask for money. Norman could have paid him a small fortune. He offered 5K in Pounds, a sum that would have gone a long way. Instead, my teacher had asked him for a favor. When I questioned him, Olumide answered, ‘A favor from a powerful man is worth more than his money.’

I called a stop, shouldered my backpack, and stepped down from the bus. Okene was a loud place; loud enough to be uncomfortable. Behind me and down a rocky embankment shadowed by trees, a group of women were washing clothes in the stream. It was the middle of the rainy season, and the small river rushed along between the boulders while the women kneaded and twisted the colorful fabrics. There was a line of dusty shops on the other side of the narrow road; I was supposed to meet Westwood in a small restaurant. I jogged through a standstill of trucks and cars, dodging motorbikes and hawkers.

Westwood was waiting for me by a Baobab tree next to the place. We exchanged greetings and went inside. ‘You know they don’t serve good coffee outside of cities filled with foreigners or businessmen,’ he said. We waited while a woman cleaned off a wooden table for us. We sat down and asked for egusi soup with goat meat and peppered snails; soft pounded yam and two bottles of Star beer. ‘It’s good that you enjoy Nigerian food. I couldn’t handle the peppers when I first came here. I know they say British food tastes bland, but it most certainly does to me now. So,’ he said, looking me over, ‘you’re Olumide’s new apprentice? An oyinbo? Then it’s true what he tells me; that none of his children are interested in learning the tradition.’

‘He has only one son. You know the story; he refuses to teach any of his three daughters. He loves them to death, of course, and dotes on them endlessly…but he won’t teach them. Osunlana is keen on it, and she keeps asking and asking. She’s going to become a priestess of Osun.’ The food came and we started on it, exchanging snippets of conversation as we ate.

‘How did you get into…all this?’

I dip a piece of the pounded yam into the soup. ‘I came to Nigeria as a graduate student. I was working on my dissertation. Some nonsense about development. Don’t ask me about it now. Anyway, I was staying at Obafemi Awolowo University. I met some people who knew about…all this…and it wasn’t long before I started asking the right questions.’ I didn’t want to say anything else about it, at least not to him. I shifted the conversation to the business at hand. ‘What about you? What did Olumide help you with?’

He took a swig of beer, smacked his lips, and shrugged. ‘I was fresh out of Manchester with some work…some nonsense about development,’ he smiled. ‘You know how it is for expats, right? This was my first time out of the country. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and Nigeria is not an easy place. It’s not an easy place at all. I ended up getting into some business I shouldn’t have. Now in England, something like this happens and the local boys come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, drag you outside and give you the beating of your life.’

‘That happens here too,’ I said.

‘Sure does,’ Westwood agreed. ‘but something else happens here too. Sometimes they decide they’re not going to risk getting into trouble for coming after a white man the old fashioned way. They decide they’re going to resort to juju.’

I frowned at the word. ‘Witchcraft?’

He nodded. ‘The worst kind. I had a fondness for palm wine, and there was a little shanty I would go to. There was a woman who sold freshly tapped palm wine there, and she ran a popular little business. Late afternoon, towards evening, you could find a few people enjoying a cup of palm wine and exchanging gossip. One night I drove out there and the shanty was empty. I don’t know why, but I got out of the car and approached the place. There was a little path that ran through a field and into the jungle. I was standing there waiting for the woman to appear when I saw a man walk out of the jungle and towards the shanty. He was wearing a cap, black on one side and red on the other.

‘When he came near he stopped and went over to the barrel. He opened it and took a cup from the table nearby. He looked at me and motioned for me to sit down on one of the wooden benches, saying nothing all the while. I must have been aware that it was all quite strange, but it was like a dream; I couldn’t do anything about it. I sat down and watched this man lower the cup into the barrel. When he handed it to me I saw that the liquid was red. I knew that the woman served only clear palm wine. I drank it anyway,’ Westwood whispered over the table. He shook his head and frowned at the peppered snail in his bowl. I had already finished mine. I wondered whether he wanted his own.

‘I don’t really know what happened next,’ he continued. ‘I can drink quite a few cups of palm wine, but that wasn’t like any palm wine I’d tasted before. It wasn’t like anything I’d tasted before. I slipped in and out of consciousness, as if I were nodding off right there on the bench. Every time I opened my eyes I saw something different. I saw that man, only he kept changing. At one point he seemed to have a face divided between black and albino; then he seemed older, far older, stooped over a cane. Then I heard him laughing at me, standing over me, and his laughter became a ruckus of cawing as the sky was suddenly filled with crows—so many it seemed that night had fallen.’ He finished his beer and gestured for another, handing back the empty bottle.

‘When I woke up I was sick and my car was gone. I had to walk, hoping someone would pick me up and take me back. I must have passed out a half-dozen times on the side of the road. Given the way they drive here, it’s a bloody miracle I didn’t get run over. No one would have noticed. When someone finally rescued me they took me to the local hospital. I had a raging fever and the doctors diagnosed me with malaria. They gave me medicine but it didn’t work. It just kept getting worse. I kept going back to the hospital and each time they would tell me something different and prescribe different medicine. Nothing. Finally someone told me I should see a babalawo. They pointed me in the direction of your teacher, Olumide. You know what happened next.’

‘Olumide told you that you had been cursed,’ I said, ‘that you had to offer sacrifice and make restitution.’ I cleansed my hands in a large metal bowl and passed it over to Westwood. ‘Olumide gathered the materials, performed the sacrifice, and sucked the curse out of you. What you don’t know is that I saw him struggling with whatever he took from you.’ Norman stopped what he was doing and stared at me. ‘That’s right; he suffered for a week after that, caught in the grips of an intense spiritual battle. He would lie sweating on the reed mat in the temple, his head moving back and forth; sometimes he would get up and thrash around. At one point I thought he would die. Wracked with pain, he fought with whatever had been sent after you; in his dreams, in his waking life, it went on. At last he won over it, and it was finished. He was exhausted as hell, but he was healthy.’ I looked at him. ‘That was some nasty business.’

Norman nodded. ‘Yes, it was. You know what I offered to pay him. More than I needed to pay off those buggers I fell in with. I tell you—after all that—the world became a different place. This work in Abeokuta is lucrative, but I can’t wait to get out of here. Once you get past the sheen of the cities, the bush is hard, ancient and unforgiving.’ He paid the bill and we left the restaurant. We stood by the tree and he lit a Dunhill cigarette. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what is it your teacher wants from me?’

‘The man who put the curse on you, his name is Tokunbo. Olumide knows him. It took him a while to figure it out, but it seems that each of the traditions, each of the lineages, works in a different way. To an outsider, these differences may seem slight—in one tradition, Olorun or Oludumare is the supreme deity; in another, it is Orishala. But it’s more than just mythology. Each of the lineages invokes different aspects of the deities; the Orishas have many faces, many dimensions. Some are so bipolar that you would think them entirely different spirits…’ I scanned his face to make sure he was still following me. ‘Each of the lineages leaves a specific mark on the magic.’ Westwood nodded and took a drag of the cigarette. ‘Olumide was able to trace the curse back to its caster. But there’s a problem. This Tokunbo is from a rival lineage, and he knows that it was Olumide who turned back his spirit. We believe that he wants to start a war. A spiritual war.’

Westwood threw down the cigarette. ‘What in the bloody hell do you think I can do?’

‘Olumide isn’t asking for something he knows you can’t do,’ I said.

‘That would be a first in this country,’ Westwood muttered.

‘My teacher knows what you did,’ I said, cutting to the heart of it. He inhaled sharply and looked at me. ‘He knows what kind of business you got into. African artifacts. You thought you could fetch a pretty penny by selling genuine West African antiques back in the UK.’ He stared at me, mechanically lighting another cigarette. ‘When you didn’t find anyone willing to deal wholesale, you decided to ask around; seems the local area boys were willing to get their hands dirty for a few stacks. They said they could find what you were looking for, and you didn’t ask any questions. Does that sound about right? You stole the wrong artifacts from the wrong people, Mr. Westwood. When you made restitution, you gave most of it back, didn’t you?’ He nodded. ‘But not all of it. You paid for a few items in cash and claimed that you had already sold them. You still have them.’

Westwood said nothing, looking out over the busy street to where the women were still washing clothing in the stream. Taking his silence as confirmation, I continued, ‘Olumide needs something you took from Tokunbo; a piece of fulgurite, shaped in the likeness of a man holding a pouch and carrying a fly-whisk. Do you still have it?’

Westwood gritted his teeth and nodded reluctantly. ‘A favor is a favor, Mr. Westwood. That stone is very important to my teacher, and fitting repayment for your life. It also has more value as a ritual instrument than it does as an art object.’ I wanted to add a threat, but I guessed that it wasn’t necessary. We arranged to meet again a week after that; I had a few more errands to run for Olumide in Lagos.

When I returned to Okene, a week to the day, there were no women washing clothes in the river. There were no trucks rumbling down the narrow street; no motorbikes, no hawkers. There were a few pedestrians hurrying up and down the road, a few people half-glimpsed in dark windows. A car drove up a quiet junction street.

Westwood wasn’t there. Instead, there was an old woman waiting by the tree at the entrance to the restaurant. A wind started to blow; it looked like a storm was coming in from the southeast. Lightning flashed near the horizon. I crossed the empty street and walked up to her.

‘You are far from the gods of your homeland, oyinbo,’ she said.

It was a riddle; fortunately, my teacher had prepared me with a proper answer. ‘Tí a bá wí fún ni, tí a bá gbó, ayé a má a ye ni.’ It was part of an Odu verse, a snippet of divinatory prediction passed down from practitioner to practitioner. Roughly translated, it meant: life is easy and comfortable for the one who listens to and accepts a warning. ‘I hear what you say. What do you have to tell me?’

‘There was a taboo on the man you came to see. He broke it. The cost of breaking this taboo was death. Didn’t your teacher warn you? There is always a condition. Go back to Olumide and tell him that the stone has been reclaimed. Tell him that he should consult Ifa. He will not like what the Odu tell him.’

‘You would leave Olumide defenseless against Tokunbo?’

The woman smiled. ‘Olumide cannot be defenseless. What has begun will find its end far from here.’

 

* * * *

We pass through a curtain of reeds into a clearing. The small house in the center of the clearing is surrounded by shrines. A collection of artifacts and trinkets favored by the orishas decorates each shrine; here an iron railroad spike consecrated to Ogun, there a laterite half-buried in the ground, doused in red palm oil. Streaks of blood discolor the stone. The heat is oppressive, magnified by an almost visible humidity. The trees seem pressed in conference over the house; brightly colored birds flit musically across the gap in the canopy.

I remember Olumide’s response when I returned from my trip to Lagos and Okene. ‘Reclaimed!’ he had bitterly cursed. ‘Those foolish witches! Would they rather Tokunbo surpass me in power? He is wicked!’ That piece of lightning-carved fulgarite would have made all the difference in the upcoming battle. It would have given my teacher access to spirits of such blinding whiteness that Tokunbo and his people would have run wailing back to their jungle hovels. Instead, Olumide became despondent; the Odu seemed to have abandoned him. There was no ebo  he could perform that would stay death’s march towards his door.

Ona-Ode and I stand in front of the temple house. I can feel the power pulsating from it, like a giant heart half-buried in the forest, pumping raw power into the air and through the ground. The trees shake and I look up; white-throated monkeys swing into sight from hidden perches and chatter at one another. A storm is coming in; thunder rumbles in the southwest. An image flashes across my mind—of a man, clad in a warrior’s dress and wielding a vicious club, striding across miles of forest. Shango, spirit of thunder and lightning.

When I look down again I see the same woman who was in Okene. I should be surprised but I’m not. Ona-Ode greets the woman in Yoruba. She returns his greeting and looks at me. ‘I am sorry for Olumide,’ she offers. ‘Sometimes, this is what happens. You are the heir of his lineage; Tokunbo will not agree to let you live. The matter must be settled.’

‘I don’t even know how their rivalry started!’ Now that I’ve heard the words Tokunbo will not agree to let you live, the reality of this long sojourn sinks in with all the terrible finality of a dial tone after a desperate phone call to a jilted lover in the middle of the night. I’m not handling it well. I am conscious of Ona-Ode looking at me, but I just go on. ‘He never told me this was happening! Why does this have anything to do with me? This isn’t fair!’ The old woman stares at me the way a grandmother would stare at a petulant child throwing a tantrum, waiting until I exhaust my supply of protests. I cut them short, snapping my mouth shut.

I get it. This was always part of the bargain, always part of the sacrifice. The consequences of the choice I had made come rushing through my brain like a comet trailing a tidal wave of emotion. My stomach turns, my head pounds with pressure. So this is what it means to learn Ifa. ‘Ok,’ I hear myself saying, ‘ok.’

I look up, composing myself. ‘We’re here to see Awo-Iku,’ I say.

The woman nods and grins at me. ‘He is inside.’

We take off our shoes and enter in through an anteroom. The entrance to the inner chamber is covered by a beaded curtain. In the dark recesses of this room I can see someone else sitting there. A chill runs up my spine. I look at Ona-Ode and he is frozen in awe, staring at the man.

He is dressed in white, bent over a mortar, grinding herbs into fine powder. Behind him is an iron crossbow and three arrows set against a small mirror. A stag’s horn lies on the reed mat beside him. He reaches over without looking up and gathers another bunch of herbs into his palm; he throws them into the mortar and grinds them up with the others. When he is finished he produces a small glass decanter of liquid and pours it into the mortar. He sets to grinding again until he is left with a paste. He takes one arrow after another and daubs their pointed tips into the paste.

I look at the mirror behind him again. In the mirror, he is dressed in red.

The old woman steps in front of me and ushers us into the inner chamber. Awo-Iku is reclined against the far wall. There are shrines and statues all around us, shrouded in shadow and colored cloth, adorned in the blood of sacrifices and palm oil. My vision trembles. They seem to be moving; now growing larger and rising from their places, now turning to one another, slowly and ponderously, as if to utter some terrible word that would send the universe careening from its foundations.

Ona-Ode’s brother is dressed in black; he is holding some kind of curved bone in his right hand. His eyes look suspended in the recesses of his face, long and smoothed in conformity to the shape of the skull beneath. His dark skin is etched rather than wrinkled, as if an artist went to work with a scalpel and a delicate hand, just grazing the surface, laying down an intricate cartography of lines.

Êgbön Ôkùnrin,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘It is good to see you.’

Awo-Iku smiles, and he seems for all the world like a normal man; but something else dances behind his skin, smiling in mimicry. The brothers exchange words in Yoruba, catching up as if we just happened to be passing through and dropped in.

Then Awo-Iku turns to me and says, ‘Oyinbo, I have thought of a name to give you: A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road. The Odu have spoken well of you, but there is still something you must do.’ He turns to Ona-Ode. ‘Go and have words with your friend outside. There is something I would say to A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road.’

Ona-Ode nods and steps into the antechamber. His senior brother bids me sit down and I do. He gathers his black robes and makes himself comfortable opposite me. I see something in his left hand. It looks like a divining chain, but like none I’ve ever seen before. Instead of the dried halves of kola nuts, the beads are strung together through tiny skulls. He taps the curved bone against the ground between us, whispering under his breath. He does this three times before reaching for a bottle of schnapps. He pours a shot-glass, offers an oblation and recites a prayer. ‘Asé’ he says after every phrase. He takes the shot, pours another, and hands it to me. I do the same.

‘You have inherited an enemy from your teacher,’ Awo-Iku says. ‘I have consulted Ifa on your behalf, and I will now tell you the ese that the Odu revealed to me.’ I nod—the ese Ifa are the stories that form the bulk of the mythological Corpus of the tradition. To an outsider, they are just stories; narratives involving gods, humans, and anthropomorphized creatures of all kinds. Some stories have the expected moral lesson, while others are more…opaque. To a practitioner, however, the ese are far more than just stories: they are encoded with a wealth of information, secrets to harm or heal, to kill or bless.

Awo-Iku begins the narrative, changing his tone in way that I’ve heard Olumide do countless times before. It is a tone that brooks no interruption and commands complete attention. ‘A Long Journey Does Not End With Death divined for King Efòn.

‘King Efòn inherited a calabash from his father, sealed with a lid.

‘He wanted to see what was inside, but he could not open the lid. He called his warriors and they could not do it.

‘He then said, “let me consult a diviner.” They called for A Long Journey Does Not End With Death. He said, “is this one a diviner?” His advisors said, “yes, he is a diviner.”

‘A Long Journey Does End With Death came and inquired into the matter of the sealed calabash. He now returned with an answer and said to King Efòn:

‘“you must gather 28,000 cowries, a giant rat, a black cloth, and a woven net. Make a sacrifice of these items. Then you will be able to open the calabash; only be warned, as there is one taboo you must observe: when the calabash is opened, you must be ready to trap whatever is inside when it comes out. You must wrap it in the black cloth, and you must never unravel it. It should remain wrapped in the black cloth.”

‘King Efòn gathered the materials and performed the sacrifice. He opened the calabash with his left hand, holding the woven net in his right hand; with the lid removed there now came a snake from the calabash. King Efòn cast the net over the snake and seized it. He then wrapped it in the black cloth, wondering all the while why his father would have kept a snake hidden away in a sealed calabash.

‘The snake now said to him, “Let me go and I will help you. The people of your father’s kingdom are plotting against you. Let me go and I will tell you who they are and how to deal with them.” King Efòn said to himself, “what? If I let this one go, I may never know who is plotting against me!” So he unwrapped the snake and set him free.

‘The snake now went and bit King Efòn’s wife and firstborn son; the snake went and bit them. Desperate to save them, the King summoned A Long Journey Does Not End With Death, who said to him, “I told you not to unwrap whatever came out of the calabash! Now see what has happened to you. If you would overturn your misfortune, you must allow the snake to bite you. When it bites you, strike its head and kill it. When the snake is dead, make a sacrifice of it by mixing your envenomed blood with that of the snake.”

‘“Won’t I die?” asked King Efòn. A Long Journey Does Not End With Death, divined for King Efòn. Do you understand?’ Awo-Iku stares at me.

‘Do I understand what? The story has no ending!’

Awo-Iku smiles enigmatically. ‘No,’ he says, ‘not yet. The story is here, now. The story ends with a question that you must answer. Now go outside—the snake is waiting for you.’

‘What?’ I stand up and rush out of the temple, through the empty antechamber and out into the clearing. Ona-Ode is already outside, but he looks—different somehow. He is dressed in white robes, holding the bow and poison-tipped arrows. Where is the other man?

Tokunbo is here.

He looks past Ona-Ode and meets my eyes. ‘Oyinbo!’ he calls out. ‘You have come far into the bush! The gods here do not recognize you!’

I assess him; he is younger than I, dressed in red robes. His eyes are wide and feverish. He radiates power without presence. Why did Olumide fear him so? ‘Why do you hide behind Ochosi?’ he calls out.

Ochosi? What is he talking about?

Ona-Ode starts forward, and I see that it is not just Ona-Ode but Ochosi also, Orisha of hunters and of medicine. Ona-Ode notches an arrow, raises the bow, and lets the arrow fly. Tokunbo just stands there, watching him—I hold my breath—

I would have thought it impossible for a man to move so quickly. He darts underneath the arrow and charges forward. Ona-Ode notches another arrow, but he is too late. Tokunbo roars and the sound is like a shockwave. The black sheets flutter wildly on their lines; the trees bend and sigh above us. Ona-Ode tries to discard the bow and raise an arrow to defend himself, but Tokunbo is on him—he strikes with a blow that is like lightning splitting a tree down the middle. Ona-Ode falls to the ground and rolls away, his hands covering his face.

Tokunbo stands, and it seems as if his entire body is vibrating in place. His attention slowly focuses on me. If I don’t figure out a way to defend myself, he will strike me down as easily as he did Ona-Ode. My mind goes frantically after an answer. I remember what Awo-Iku said: the snake is waiting for you.

I remember something Olumide told me on the day he first cast the diving chain for me: ‘When you come to a far place, you will know it for your home.’ I know what I need to do. I am A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road.

I stare at Tokunbo and whisper under my breath, calling out a name I couldn’t possibly know, a name that was never taught to me, a name that rips out of my throat like a barbed arrowhead from a wounded animal.

It is the name of a hidden god.

I move toward Tokunbo and he falters. I can see doubt in his eyes; he did not expect that I would stand against him. The trees whisper to one another in hushed tones and the tall grasses surrounding the clearing bend and wave. Tokunbo steps backward. I chant at him, calling out the names of diviners and spirits in a thunderous litany. All the verses taught to me by Olumide come pouring out distorted, as if I were somehow retelling them from another, darker perspective. I weave narratives of terrible magic around my enemy, strangling him with a power that creeps out of the black earth like some writhing vine. He shouts at me but I hear nothing.

Ona-Ode tries to tell me something, but it is too late. I have it: the end of Awo-Iku’s story, left incomplete so that I could use it as a weapon. ‘“You will not die.” A Long Journey Does Not End With Death. Divined for King Efòn. King Efòn let the snake bite him; the snake bit him. He struck it down—’ I raise my hand. Tokunbo wavers and cowers before me.

‘The snake died at his hands; the power of the snake belonged to him. He was dancing,’ I snap forward and strike Tokunbo down; he falls to his knees. ‘He was rejoicing—’ I strike him again and he falls onto his back. ‘He praised his diviner, A Long Journey Does Not End With Death!’

I roar down at him and the shadows that have been crawling along the edges of my vision lunge forward, focused to a point aimed directly into the center of Tokunbo’s forehead. He tries to rise and resist, but at the moment of my exclamation his head snaps back and strikes the ground. I can almost see something leave him, some red spirit of wrath and rage and bloodthirst; and then it is gone, snaking away through the tall grasses.

Ona-Ode inches closer to me. ‘You shouldn’t have invoked that Odu,’ he whispers. ‘Look at what you’ve done…’ Tokunbo lies dead at my feet. I stare down at my hands. I shouldn’t have been able to do that. I am bleeding from an unknown wound in my belly; I am holding an unfamiliar knife in my left hand. A memory flashes across my mind—of Awo-Iku handing me the knife during his recitation of the ese. I was holding the knife when I ran outside.

I used it to make a sacrifice of myself. Human blood. I used human blood.

I stare at Tokunbo’s body. There is no discernible wound on him. His eyes are rolled back in his head, his mouth gaping open. How did I kill him? What terrible power could fell a man without physically wounding him?

Awo-Iku appears outside the temple. He comes forward and smiles at me. ‘Long have I pitted Olumide and Tokunbo against one another; the white against the red. Long have I cultivated this moment. Now you are mine, A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road. You have invoked a spirit known only to my lineage. You have stained your white robes black. You are bound to a different destiny, now.’

‘No…’

Oyinbo! You are mine-o!’ he cackles at his junior brother. ‘You have brought me a fine gift, Ona-Ode; an apprentice of uncommon power to reinvigorate the tradition. Olumide thought himself the highest among us, and Tokunbo thought himself a worthy successor to a throne of ancient power. Now both are slain and what was hidden shall be honored again.’

‘I am sorry,’ Ona-Ode says to me.

And just like that, I know. I will not leave here. It is as Tokunbo said; I have come far into the bush. But he was wrong—the gods here do recognize me.

I am at home among them.

 

Spirituality Essay Series: Religion and Politics

Religion and politics: two subjects that should never be discussed over the dinner table. It seems that people have a hard time being civil when their fundamental beliefs are questioned or subjected to debate; all the more so when the individuals engaged in that debate cannot defend their points with anything more than slogans, headlines, or endlessly recycled quotations from scripture.

Most democratic societies are based on the separation of church and state, a separation necessary to the freedom of religion enjoyed by pluralistic societies. Most people would agree that, in terms of a progressive democracy, this condition represents an ideal. Upon what is this ideal based? There are two preconditions here: 1) that people of diverse religious loyalties and views can successfully cooperate; and 2) that religion is not the foremost concern of the community in question. If it is, then that community will naturally emphasize the practice of a particular religious system, and the values of that system will influence (if not outright determine) the manner of its laws, organization, and temperament.

Before going any further, I will say that I am not talking about spirituality. Although not everyone will agree, there are fundamental differences between religion and spirituality that cannot be overlooked, and that are becoming increasingly prevalent in our day. One of the differences pertinent to our discussion here is that spirituality is anchored primarily in personal experience. On an individual level, spirituality is essentially a progression of unique experiences directed toward the attainment of a highly conceptual and transformative goal (e.g. salvation, enlightenment, etc.). The goal itself may be communal or social in nature (as in the mass awakening predicted by many disciplines of spirituality and mysticism), but the process itself is predominantly located in a matrix of personal perspectives.

Politics, on the other hand, is predominantly located in a social, communal matrix. While spiritual ideas may be generated entirely on the basis of personal experience, political ideas are only reinforced by personal perspective; they are disseminated in a public medium. Mass media, the arts, academic scholars, researchers, and theorists, political literature, propaganda, etc.—these are the instruments of politics. Religion, (which incorporates spirituality to a certain extent), is also located in a social, communal matrix. While spirituality may generate certain ideas about God, the heavens, other dimensions and beings, the medium of disseminating, codifying, and standardizing those ideas is religion. What does it mean that there is a hell reserved for the wicked? Well, it means that you shouldn’t be wicked, obviously! What does it mean to be wicked? Ah, there’s the question that religion tries to answer by providing a set of guidelines to follow. If wicked people ought to be avoided, it stands to reason that anyone who does not follow those guidelines is wicked. What happens when those guidelines begin to expand, inflated by interpretation after interpretation?

While listing all the roles and functions performed by religion in the collective or personal domain would likely exceed the scope of this essay, there are a few that can be directly related to the role of politics. I am taking politics to refer to the discourse that surrounds the machinery of a social authority or government; in essence, a collection of stories told by and about a particular collective, both in relation to itself and in relation to other collectives. I will endeavor to locate the source of this conflict between religion and politics, and state wherein the difficulty lies in truly separating church and state.

First, religion is a social element. In this respect, religion is a binding agent, a type of glue that joins members of a given community together. At one point, scholars and researchers believed that archaic social structures arose first in human prehistory, and that temples and sites of religious worship were secondary to establishing a functional space for habitation. At this time, any such site would likely have been temporary, seasonal, and serviceable to a semi-nomadic or hunter-gatherer style of living. However, the discovery of the Gobekli Tepe site in Turkey by Klaus Schmidt suggests that temple worship predates pottery and metallurgy. (You can begin fact-checking me here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/gobekli-tepe.html). Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that religion predates politics, provided we insist that the roots of politics can be found in the primitive hierarchies and pecking orders of our distant ancestors. In that case, we must agree that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is as much a political statement as it is a biological one.

 

Second, religion establishes a relationship between the community (congregation, brotherhood, etc.) and a God, gods, or reality. In the past, humans communicated with the divine through sacrifices, seasonal rituals, and a host of tools designed to elicit a favorable response from deities believed to govern an often harsh and unpredictable world. Gradually, as God(s) became more distant from the mortal domain, the intellectual and abstract elements of this interaction became more pronounced. The gradual—and now exponential—expansion of humankind across the globe has pushed the very heart of religion deeper into the recesses of the extremes that define our universe: the microcosmic play of imperceptible energies and particles, to the macrocosm of time and space. Here, right here, we have the mystery of the mind and heart, veils to obscure the intangible possibility that a spirit of some kind animates our flesh and bone. In our attempt to defend ourselves against mortality, to fulfill the promises of our imagination, to transcend as we insist that we can—for this we hold onto religion, hoping that at some point our Creator will meet us halfway.

Third, religion serves as the bearer of a moral compass and guide to what is right and wrong. This is where many of the religions disagree on some of the finer points. Most people would say that the basics are similar; that compassion, honesty, temperance, justice, and mercy are virtues held in high esteem across the world’s faiths. Unfortunately, these basics have not proven enough to counteract the tendency of certain members of a given faith to manipulate its influence for personal gain. One might even say political gain. Living in Nigeria has provided me with a glimpse into just how dangerous that can be, and how prevalent it is. If you ask many Nigerians, whether Hausa, Igbo, or Yoruba, what they think about the connection between religion and politics, many will tell you that politicians openly use religion to manipulate the people, secure their office, misappropriate public funds, and foment violence along ethnic fault lines. Morality, of course, would dictate that this shouldn’t be allowed to happen; compassion and mercy would certainly advise against it.

Still, it is curious that belief outweighs virtue. Out of this terrible paradox came humanism, a 15th Century response to the tyranny of the Church in Western Europe. Humanists sought to reclaim the wisdom of the Greeks absent their mysticism; to a certain extent presupposing that Greek philosophy could be split asunder and the more practical elements sifted out from the mythic and spiritual chaff. That is why students are exposed to Plato’s Republic more often than to his Timaeus or Dialogues, writings in part responsible for the Neo-Platonism so influential to Christianity in the First Century. This is not to say that students do not come across the Dialogues in core curricula; but I do not remember learning in school that Isaac Newton was a mystic, or that the roots of modern science are entwined with astrology, alchemy, phrenology, and may yet meet again in the often mystical musings of metaphysics.

Fourth: some thinkers have suggested that human beings are inherently selfish—or, more correctly, self-interested. Consequently, without a moral guide enforced by the social order (which acts for the good of the many over the good of the few), many individuals will behave in a manner potentially disruptive to the community. The true state of anarchy, however, is fleeting; as social animals, humans naturally fall into patterns of organization. In their most primitive state, these patterns are genuinely Darwinist—the strong openly prey on the weak, the environment culls the maladjusted. However, human organizations change, becoming increasingly complex, stifling certain tendencies and nourishing others, cultivating subservience when necessary and shattering when the needs of the many can no longer be met.

Religions differ in how they approach “inherent human nature.” Christianity considers us tainted by Original Sin; Buddhism considers us fettered to the Wheel of Birth and Death; to many traditional religions we are precariously balanced between good and evil, success and misfortune, life and death. However, most religions accept that we can become more powerful, better; that we can be transformed.

Traditional religions offer transcendence to the individual-as-representative (i.e. the medicine-man, shaman, babalawo, etc.) with the understanding that he or she relinquishes a portion of himself or herself to the service of the community. That, at least, is the understanding; the reality is that many of these figures use their influence to aggrandize themselves. Other religions do offer transcendence to the community, particularly the aggressive, conversion-based religions; to the chosen they offer paradise, to the awakened they offer perfection, etc. Religions that follow this model also feature a fairly strict set of conditions requisite to the transcendence that they offer. However, many of these visions are otherworldly (with the exception of many indigenous religions), in that they emphasize liberation or salvation over material prosperity. Students of anthropology know that this is not a universal; many religious practices aim at ensuring an entirely worldly brand of success. Still, this is in itself a misunderstanding. Even in the oldest traditions still practiced today, the material world never stopped being a reflection of its spiritual counterpart, and the boundaries between the two remain as permeable as ever. The gods walk among us; we are surrounded by the forces of ever-present creation. The worldly/spirit dichotomy does not exist.

So what does this have to do with politics? Well, for that we have to remember that many societies once depended on a narrative of divine sanction. In fact, given the entire multi-narrative of human history, it is only a fairly recent development that religion was taken out of the political equation. This is not to say that human beings were not always aware that their leaders were flesh and blood; rather, I say that older societies and civilizations could not imagine a world where the complex fabric of interrelations that compose a human collective could cohere in a universe absent a higher meaning. Looking back, it is not an unreasonable desire; that there should be meaning behind a gathering of people—some common purpose. Go ahead: look at the rhetoric binding your collective, be it national or local, and consider whether there is not some promise embedded in it, some progress, some hope of attaining a higher goal. Some would say that the free market has advanced technology to the point where human societies can finally advance in tangible steps toward a peaceful, poverty and crime-free state of contented equilibrium. When has anything ever attained a state of contented equilibrium? Even our solar system is decaying on the millennial scale.

The political arena also offers a version of transcendence embedded in the rhetoric of its character. The question is whether the vision of transcendence promised by a given system of political authority (democratic, socialist, etc.) is compatible with the vision promised by a given religious system. Obviously, the two can be made to correspond, as in the case of fundamentalist of theocratic systems of government; in those models, political authority rests directly on scriptural or religious authority. In other models, as in traditional Marxist communism, for example, the State cannot abide any challenge to its authority over the populace; religion is considered an “opiate of the masses,” interfering with the productivity of its citizens.

In a democratic model based on a pluralistic society that espouses the ideals of freedom, we start running into some difficulty. What happens to our promises of transcendence, if they are found incompatible with the prevalent temperament of our collective? What happens to our societies, when the meaning that sustains their progress is supplanted by another that we cannot understand? What happens when the society that surrounds us changes faster than we can adapt our own mythologies to support it? What happens to those mythologies when they become “just stories?” If these questions sound familiar, they should—they are expressions of fear.

Ask yourself how much of political rhetoric is dominated by fear. A good story needs a good villain, after all, and the hero must fear the villain if their conflict is to be appreciated. Religion and politics both need their villains. Without them, our heroes would have nothing to do. They would seem like so many lonely people, trying to descry a meaning in the wilderness. Give them a companion, give them an enemy—and there you have a story with meaning.

Of course it’s not just a story!

The story is not so simple anymore; neither the heroes nor the villains are as transparent as they used to be—neither in religion nor in politics. Can an individual be asked to make a choice between the two? How, when in his or her mind they are conjoined? When one gives meaning to the other? When leaders are still sanctioned by the greater narrative, and are themselves but actors on an old stage? We fault others when the story doesn’t turn out the way they expect—when they are proven wrong by the progress of the times.

It would be better to be compassionate. We choose from among the meanings we are given; our social rhetoric is one among many expressions of the choices we collectively make to act on those meanings. But here’s the rub: there are competing stories, competing meanings. This always was a life-or-death game, and each move on the board—each controversy, each issue—is a turn in the story, a progression of the narrative. We’ve chosen to tell our stories in terms of good vs. evil, them vs. us, the many vs. the few. Can we choose to tell our stories differently?

 

Spirituality Essay Series: In Defense of Mysticism

Those familiar with the Major Arcana of the Tarot Deck know that the Magician follows the Fool. The Fool may remain a fool forever, or take the first step on a most dangerous and winding journey. The Magician, as a student of Jungian philosophy might say, is an archetype. An archetype is more than the common usage of the word suggests: it is not only a recurring, universal image that is essentially the same in character if not in appearance. It is an abstract concept that is beyond language and yet surrounded by language, a complex web of associations, images, and words. Take the prime archetype of the Mother, for instance. If I asked you to explain what a Mother is, you would be obligated to provide the general definition. But an archetype is more than a general definition; it is an experience. More than a sensation or feeling, it is something that can elicit emotion on a collective level as well as on a personal one. Two individuals may define the Mother in the same way, and yet experience motherhood, or their relationships to their mothers, in radically different ways. Both the similarities and differences in these experiences are important: the differences because they are a testament to the uniqueness of individual human experience (subjectivity) as well as a shared, human language of symbols and concepts based on collective human experience (universality). Both the subjective and universal are important to the practice of mysticism.

The Magician is also an archetype. The experience of the magician—or of magick—can only be described, and generally after the fact. If, during the experience itself, one were to utter speech, there is a good chance it would be indecipherable as language…something that the mystics and prophets of the world have known for thousands of years. However, the experience is consciously temporary. Afterward, the mind fervently tries to explain it, to narrate it, to categorize it—to piece it out and rearrange the picture into something that can be communicated. This is a natural impulse. The earliest forms of communication were likely simple and pictorial. With increasingly complex forms of vocalization and representation, the messages became encoded in myths, histories, and stories. Central to these stories are figures that started as anthropomorphized representations of concepts and ideas. Even today, we have images of Father Time, Chronos, personification of the human experience of time. The transcendent experience of boundless time is another concept—and more complicated—represented by Aion, associated with the turning of the Zodiac Wheel and the serpent devouring its own tale, the Ouroboros, likely familiar to the practitioners of Ayahuasca and Yage in South America as the Father of the Vine of Souls, otherwise known as banisteriopsis caapi. The associations are virtually limitless in form and context, but they can be traced back to an original experience.

The medicine-man, shaman, sorcerer, wizard, wise-man—magician—is an archetype of human culture, of a human being who can communicate and journey between the Unseen world of spirits, gods, ancestors, and powers, and also of a human being who is eminently knowledgeable in matters obscure to many others, including the use of medicinal plants and the calculated observation of the heavens. The roots of what we know as Astrology are bound up with the origins of the magician, who marked the passage of time according to seasons and stars. However, according to this definition, the magician is more of a character than a concept; we have to look further to find the truly archetypal.

Looking at the magician as an experience, we come across two possible branches of experience: the experience of those who interact with the magician and the experience of the magician himself or herself. Common to both is the sense, or concept, of a bridge (which is only a symbolic description) between the spirit world and the human world. In practice, in experience, the shaman or magician becomes that bridge, and that is how it is experienced by those who participate in the ritual expression of that experience. Most bridges span a distance of some kind—rivers, canyons, roads—and this distance is also significant to the symbolism of the magician. But more on that later.

The practitioner must demonstrate that he or she is more than a subjective, individual entity. He or she is the representative of an archetypal concept rooted in the most primordial experiences of humankind. This is only one part of it, however; the practitioner must also demonstrate intent. Of all the elements fundamental to successful practice, intention is absolutely crucial. It is the heart; it is what is seen in the heart irrespective of the chaos of the mind and deceits of the tongue.

“What is your intention?” The answer calls for a statement of purpose, and purpose requires a reason. A reason implies that there is meaning. Without meaning, there can be no purpose aside from randomness and chaos. The answer also suggests that this meaning has been transformed into action, a process that requires a very specific type of energy: will. Without will, meaning remains inert, purely intellectual rather than experiential. Going back to the archetypes for a moment, meaning is limited to the representation of the archetype, in however many forms, while the will of the archetype itself—its influence or numinosity—is based in the experience of the archetype.

There is little doubt that experience precedes language. A child experiences his or her birth (a no doubt traumatic process) long before he or she utters his or her first intelligible syllable. So too with humankind; experience must have preceded any sustained attempt to communicate. Otherwise, a single experience—of pain, fear, hunger—necessitated the first attempt to express this experience. In either case, language, however immensely powerful, is still a product of experience and an expression of it. So, once the event of the experience has taken place, some attempt is made to understand it—to give it meaning. Hunger is just one sensation among others until the mind learns to interpret it as a sign that the body requires sustenance. Pain is just one sensation among many until the mind learns to interpret it as a warning. Without this process of interpretation, experience is fleeting and undifferentiated. Once given meaning, however, experience becomes part of a larger picture—but the picture is still chaotic and disassociated. Some commonality must be found to tie all these experiences together—and the first commonality is that they are part of human life.

Still, life on its own seeks out deeper meaning. Why are we alive at all? Why are we conscious of our being alive? These questions are similar to the one asked earlier, “What is your intention?” What, indeed, is the intention of life? Again we can see that neither part of this first challenge is simple—for even the second part demands a holistic picture supported by an underlying meaning, transformed by the will into a statement of purpose.

Most, if not all, disciplines of mysticism involve progress and a journey of some kind. Moreover, there are stages on this journey that are radically different from one to another—in just the same way The Tower is radically different from The Emperor, or The World. One can conceptualize this space as a road, a camino; a vast castle with many chambers; even a wilderness with varied geographic features. One of the most common and useful representations, however, is that of the Path. Among the greatest of all paths is known to practitioners of Taoism as the Tao, or the Way, the Path of Harmony with the tempestuous forces of existence.

Arguably, there are as many paths as there are individuals—one can easily say that every man and woman walks his or her own path. While this is indeed true, we also know that, in nature, quantities are finite; our own natures impose further limitations, as does the nature of ordered society, as do all the disciplines of labor within that society. There is a tendency to reach towards the limitless in human imagination and thought, and one can see that in this we long to return home. There is reason that many mystical paths yearn towards the infinite, and insist that we—our spirits, souls, consciousness—originated from that source. Created by God and to God we return. Or, seeking liberation from the Wheel of Birth and Death (samsara), after a potentially infinite succession of mortal lives, we realize nirvana, the transcendent state of dissolution into the infinite. All this is true; but not every path leads to enlightenment, or perfection, or fulfillment—and while there may be as many paths leading to this as there are individuals to walk them, we must not forget that many individuals walk the same path—bonded in common course, purpose, and destination. No two will experience this path in the same way, any more than two individuals experience a certain color in the same way; but there have been sufficient agreements throughout human history that suggest a certain constancy of practice.

The paths of mysticism nearly all suggest some kind of destination—not always as literal as “heaven,” but a singularity of perfect achievement just the same. While they can go on forever, conceivably, there is nonetheless an understanding that a certain state is to be attained after a progression of some kind. So, the intention of a practitioner is to reach, or realize, or earn this state. This intention is the result of a value that is placed on that state, a value that encourages an investment of will in all the challenges and difficulties in making this long and arduous journey. To say that this state is “desirable,” may not be entirely accurate, inasmuch as few individuals may readily consider “dissolution into the infinite,” to be desirable at all—people value enjoyment, happiness, and success quite a bit more, generally, than they value the high abstract of enlightenment.

Indeed, there are many paths of mysticism that do not lead towards enlightenment. Many lead towards power. The power to manipulate reality itself by virtue of the individual will; to literally manifest circumstances not as a result of direct action, but by influencing those mysterious forces that connect every aspect of reality. The desired result—wealth, love, success—may appear better achieved through these means than through more conventional means. People have gone to magicians to secure their fortune and discern the threats aligned against them, and magicians have practiced their craft for the same reasons. Every spell should have an intent, and there are many, many spells designed to hurt enemies, promote good fortune, ward evil, and add an element of fortuity to a difficult task.

The archetype of the magician accepts good, evil, selfish, ecstatic, hermetic, and social individuals. The primary distinguishing characteristic is not valuated ethically, but spiritually.

That is a difficult quality to define, but we can start by suggesting that spirituality involves the belief in a non-physical dimension that may adjoined to, bound up within, dependent on, or transcending perceptual reality. This dimension may be conceived of as a soul, or spirit (or both), a subtle body, an energy cocoon, another plan of existence, an afterlife—any number of things. There are some who are spiritual and yet do not believe in the existence of the individual consciousness after death; there are some who believe that the spirit reincarnates, entering one mortal life after another whether on this world or another. These are all beliefs that arise from following a particular path, and regardless of how many people believe similarly, it does not change the fact that beliefs themselves are mental objects, created by the mind to answer certain questions, explain phenomena, and justify the emotional content of human experience. One could go further and say that many beliefs are lingual expressions of natural processes, and that beliefs provide these processes with meaning. Meaning, as aforementioned, is necessary to purpose. Human beings cannot abide a purposeless life—even though an individual be a wastrel and lay-about, still he or she will resist the imposition of a social meaning or purpose that is clearly perceived. True purposelessness, however, does not lend itself well to the application of will in any regard; indeed, why suffer when there is no reason to? Of course, the prevention of suffering is in itself a reason for many, as is its counterpart: seeking pleasure. But we are not here concerned with the pursuit of pleasure in its bodily or worldly form, base and carnal as it is (there is a mystical Path of the same name); we are concerned with the paths of mysticism, and all well begin with a few basic premises:

  1. There is an unseen, non-physical dimension.
  2. This dimension can be accessed from the physical world.
  3. This dimension can be influence by actions in the physical world during and from this point of access.
  4. Necessary to creating this access-point is will, which requires understanding and purpose.

These 4 principles (each one of them can be expanded, of course) allow a prospective practitioner to approach the practice of a spiritual or mystical tradition. A Christian mystic will approach from another way, a Buddhist mystic from another, a Peruvian medicine-man from another, and a Siberian shaman from another. But they will all, in their own way, maintain these principles, and they will all answer the challenge in their own way. Both their intention and their identity will be informed by what they believe, what language they speak, and many other things that are important on social, national, global, and individual levels. Success, however, is dependent on whether or not the challenge is answered—and in order for that to happen, the practitioner cannot afford to doubt his or her purpose.

There is another issue. One must have spiritual endurance as well as volition. Simply put, there are varying qualities of practitioner as there are of sportsmen, and there are those who can sustain a deeper and more powerful connection to the spiritual dimension than others. Just as there are those with varying talents, there are magicians with varying skills. You will find grouped together with spirituality those who can commune with the dead, or perceive the history of an object, discern the unspoken thoughts of others, or see what cannot otherwise be seen by normal sight. Not all of these are magicians—magicians are distinguished primarily by their choice to walk a Path of mysticism.

Most belief systems require faith, a quality that is often cited and just as often misunderstood. Most people would define it as a belief in something that cannot be proven—and by this definition set up a duality (and an often contentious one) between what this “something” is, and everything “else” that can be proven. In the past, things were proven if they are perceptible to the bodily senses. Since the advancement of science (which we will discuss in a moment), things are proven through experimentation, accomplished with a host of technological innovations that can “see” both the microcosm and macrocosm. We have images of the smallest known particles as well as distant galaxies. Given this power and the tools at our disposal, it is no surprise that many believe there is very little that cannot be proven or discovered in this way. If this other spiritual dimension did exist, we should have been able to detect some trace of it. Yet there is no evidence that consciousness is the seat of anything other than complex biochemical reactions. There is no evidence that anything survives the decay of the mortal body that can rightly be called a ghost or spirit. And there is no evidence of a God or gods. Our ancestors ascribed many things to the gods, including natural phenomena, and so many of these—nearly all, by the estimation of many—have revealed their workings to be part of a vast mechanism that demonstrates no consciousness of any detectable or understandable kind.

Still, in the face of all that can be proven, faith asks that an individual nonetheless believe in whatever remains that has not yet been, or cannot be, proven by extant means. Into this category fall many things, depending on the belief system, ranging from what many would call superstitions (omens, charms and talismans, spirits) to only the most fundamental elements of a particular religion (as, for example in Islam, which requires belief in the angels, Mohammed as the Seal of the Prophets, and Allah).

I have been relying heavily on the idea of purpose as the willful aspect of meaning, but there is a dimension of faith that does not make any attempt to impose a meaning on creation or existence—content with maintaining that it “just is.” God works in mysterious ways, is another common adage, implying the futility of attempting to understand the workings of a being so far in advance of ourselves. This provides faith with a very simple escape route when subjected to critical questions—but this variety of faith is not our concern here: the paths of mysticism require constant questioning, critical examination, and a habit of thought that uncannily resembles the scientific mind (recalling, of course, that science and occultism share a common origin). The roots of science may be found in the earliest tool-making traditions of humankind, but there is a clear historical schism between the Path of the Scientist and the Path of the Mystic. This is not to say that they are always antithetical; on the contrary, inasmuch as they are rooted in the same soil, they have more in common than either would like to admit. There are those who are both scientists and mystics, as they have found a way to join two paths that have often collided in the most extreme of ways.