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Translated from Serbian by
Nada & Ana Đorđević
Copyright 2015 Svetlana Seferović
Translation copyright 2015 Svetlana Seferović
Copyright for digital English edition 2015 Agencija TEA BOOKS
All rights reserved.
Gail Gavin Durr
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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
“There is no need to thank me,” he said. But I was thankful nevertheless. “You were the logical choice,” he said. “I will do my best,” I responded. “This will suffice,” he said. And he left the book with me, to fill it out.
How am I supposed to make a record of finer, less obvious things, having been blinded by the Light? The Gate materialized around me, and vanished soon after. I never got to see what it looked like. “Exactly the way you imagined it,” said the voice. Everything was the way I’d imagined it would be. And that was reassuring.
… I made a record of the blessed ones in their Heavenly Garden of Light. I had hoped that one day, I would be entitled to it as well. But God had other plans for me—
(An Extract from the records of The Archive of Souls, Summer, 2070)
§ § § § §
It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do. But, having died was stupid, in a way. It is true that I had worked my way towards it for many years. Just like everyone else. Still, it was somehow sudden. And very palpable.
The pain was palpable as well. And the darkness, that engulfed me completely. The cold that crept into my nonexistent bones was also palpable. There was nothing physically palpable about me having turned into a dazed spiritual emanation. Being ethereal was the dumbest trip I had ever had. And it wasn’t going to stop.
And then—the river. I hadn’t seen a river in 20 years. I wasn’t able to make out the opposite bank. In fact, I couldn’t see much farther from the bank. It was dark. And that was all.
Eventually, a boat appeared; and the ferryman. He extended an emaciated hand under a thin sleeve of his frayed robes. I shrugged the slight shadow that used to be my shoulders. I had nothing to give him. He reminded me of the homeless bums that rummage the dumpsters behind the supermarkets. The lowest in the hierarchy. No one even considered them living beings any more. And they themselves had nothing to show for it being any other way. It was so dark, I could barely see what I used to remember as my finger right in front of the spot where my nose used to be. But I was pretty sure I had seen two white eyeballs roll under his hood. The bony hand shook with determination. Whatever took the place of my brain finally realized, I was supposed to take his hand in order get into the boat.
I couldn’t hear the oars break the surface of the water. I couldn’t hear the water splash against the boat. Not that I had spent my life near a river—by the time I was born, most of them had been turned into tiny sewage drains, filled with garbage, with enormous embankments—but it seemed to me that you could always hear something in the movies! Like some quiet, rhythmical sloshing… Crazy. If by crazy, you meant a fit of deep depression in a snail’s cerebellum on a rainy day.
So, we reached the opposite shore. A barren wasteland. It fit my naval chauffeur perfectly. He moved on as soon as I climbed out of the boat. Honestly, for years I had longed for peace and solitude. This is probably how I’d pictured that perfect isolation. Being there, however, was something entirely different. The discomfort of the feeling that the essence of the ego-tripping wouldn’t cease when I wanted it to, never left me. I could go wherever. But there was nothing. I turned around to call after the ferryman to return. But he was already far from the bank.
I stayed at the bank. I felt slightly better near the water. Besides, who knows when I would get another chance to see a river. Or anything else, while we’re at it.
“Good day to you, young lady!”
The spleen of loneliness was instantly replaced by panic. The thing that had faltered so many times was about to spring out of the nothingness that was my mouth. Looking around frantically and groping in the dark couldn’t help me. My fingers disintegrated into the darkness around me, so completely and so perfectly, that we had become one.
“Fear not, my lady, I am here—”
Really, under my fingers, I began to feel, more and more intensely the molecules of something else… Someone else. As cold as this land… A small bunch of sharp hairs… The curve of the chest… And a cold, wet nose. Rudely, I blurted out, “A dog?”
“Ab imo pectore. At your service, my lady. Gaius Lucius Stolon, of the famous master Gaius Lucius Stolon of the Licinius family, the honorable Consul of the Roman Republic.”
“Hmm… Nice to meet you—”
What else was I supposed to say? I thought my name was Lucia, and the rest I don’t remember?! And to a rugged dog with a middle name? The pleasant voice was soon followed by the apparition of a shadowy silhouette of a dog… Nice dog, it was. Somewhat like a mastiff, perhaps. I wasn’t sure. We only had one dog and a tom cat; and they didn’t usually have a middle name; or the ability to actually pronounce it.
“I have not had the pleasure of hearing your name, my lady—”
Nor could they ask questions in a polite manner.
“But that is splendid! And completely logical! Perfect!”
Nor did they confuse me in such a way that it couldn’t be resolved by a brief beating.
“Stop! Stop! Oooh, he got away—”
Suddenly an apparition sprung out nearby, carrying a pile of papers in its hands. After it, there was a whole bunch of similar distressed spirits. They seemed a little scatterbrained. Not likely to finish whatever job they had to do, not in that state. I asked politely, “Is there any way I could help?”
They turned to look at me and the dog; looking us over from head to toe, indifferently.
“Good day, Lucius. And you are—?”
“Lucia, I think—”
The tall man, who appeared to be the leader of the group, laughed condescendingly, “Is it possible that you don’t even know your name?!”
He turned to the others, “Unbelievable! The kind we’re placed with!”
The herd murmured in agreement.
“And when I say that we don’t belong here, and that there must have been some stupid mistake with the paperwork—maybe a document was left without a seal, or someone forgot to sign it, or it got lost in the mail—no one listens!”
The herd cheered.
“I demand that someone of authority hear the voices of the oppressed and the lost!”
The herd went wild.
I lifted up Lucius’ dangling ear and whispered, “What is this Mr. Fix-it saying—?”
Lucius motioned with his paw, inviting me to ignore them, but they had nevertheless heard my derisive question.
“For you, miss, it must be a stroke of luck to find yourself here. But, for honorable people like myself and these esteemed ladies and gentlemen, sitting in this… this… NOTHINGNESS… with… with the likes of you… is pure torture! That’s what I’m talking about! And I am no Mr. Fix-it. I’ll have you know that in life, I used to be a respectable bank clerk!”
This last sentence struck a chord, and not because I was wildly impressed by his former social status. They left, turning their noses up, sniggering in our direction from time to time. I was left staring after them, wide-eyed.
“At your service, my lady?”
“Are we dead?”
“I prefer to call it a state of enhanced consciousness, but, technically—yes—I have been dead for two and a half thousand years, and you, I would estimate, for about two days.”
He grinned widely, and tapped me on the shoulder, “Welcome!”
It’s a good thing that I was previously, savagely, doped up on D2O. Otherwise, I would have fainted. Anyway, that distinction between my consciousness and the rest of me no longer existed. Actually, there was no way I could fall down at all. Falling down required a body. Something I was no longer subscribed to.
I tried to think of all the good sides of bodiless existence. At first, I realized that the losing battle I had been fighting, called “what are we having for lunch today” just ended in my victory. No more indigestion and stomach acid medication. No more outdated clothes. No more crowded subways. No need for D2O, alcohol, cigarettes… Lucius tried to explain as practically as possible.
“My lady, let us just say we’re in some kind of a Waiting Room, where everyone ends up, and the only ones that stay are the ones no one knows what to do with, if you know what I mean.”
He looked at me sideways and yanked his lower eye lid a couple of times. It had already been hanging. Both of them were, actually.
“You would think there weren’t many such cases, but the first impression can be wrong. Anyway, I cannot give you more insight into the entire situation for technical reasons, because you and I would immediately receive a one way ticket for the tour Get to Know Hell So You’d Love It More—if you know what I mean.”
For someone who has spent an eternity here—and he reproached me for using the term too loosely—he seemed pretty cheerful. Though, nothing else existed anyway…
§ § § § §
I have to stop writing. The pain in my right arm has become unbearable. And the disgusted butler, of rather untraditional sexual orientation, brings me something that I drink, equally disgusted. Though he doesn’t slam the door while walking out.
In the past few days it was with certain difficulty that I coordinated my body and its functions. The muscle pain in my arms is just a small part of it. It happens that I start out yawning and I end up burping like a pig. Epic! My nurse silently disapproves.
I walk around the apartment with my sunglasses on, wrapped in a filthy blanket. With the sunglasses and the essential earplugs, I strive to avoid every source of sound or light, which is not always that simple. The apartment is cluttered with all kinds of gadgets for emitting TV programs and lights of different frequencies that switch on every time a different room is entered. My stitches have already ripped open twice, because I was startled, so I spent most of my time in the basement. On top of this, I had to try not to offend the butler-nurse; which was far from a simple task.
I don’t really know what to do. Nor whether to think at all. I wasn’t exactly in any danger of committing suicide as a result of those disturbing thoughts, but it was difficult. Still. I find it hard to shape my words. I’m afraid that things that recently occurred will quickly slip my mind. It’s a good thing that I can still type this with two fingers…
§ § § § §
Where was I…
… I remember that, soon after I met Lucius in the Waiting Room, a real swarm of ethereal bores formed around us. Those were the spirits of the people who wronged unintentionally, or sustained themselves from doing wrong only out of sheer vanity. In one word, the unfulfilled. Or in other words, the offended. All of them were waiting for some ‘stupid administrative mistake’ to be put right. My remark, that in that case they were in fact in the right place, the Waiting Room, wasn’t exactly met with a cheer. As the only official who visited the Waiting Room, fairly regularly, was the Ferryman, they were trying to get him to fix their issues. They ignored me. Sometimes they would cast a disapproving glance towards Lucius, but he remained standing on my left, quietly. He was being my guardian, I guess. Or he had nothing better to do.
“Say, Lucius, what are you doing here?”
“Just like everyone else, they didn’t know what to do with me—”
The ancient mutt would keep watch while his master had his nightly visits with a young Vestal Virgin, as a result of which they could both have ended up buried alive. But they hadn’t, thanks to Lucius’ faithfulness.
The master knew that it was best that no one else knew anything, except for the dog. Lucius was sure that the goddess Vesta would forgive everything, since his master’s feelings were honest and pure. They had dated since childhood, even before her parents promised her to the Temple. This went on until both of the Luciuses died in battle, after which both of them got what was coming to them.
“So where is your master now?”
“The floor above. The Vestal Virgin pulled some strings—”
He put his head down. I stroked it.
“That’s human gratitude for you—” I began, but stopped, so as not to add insult to injury.
There were also those who, although with the best of intentions, accidentally got involved in certain activities that ended up hurting their loved ones. For example, there was one old man who, in an attempt to protect his daughter from his abusive son-in-law, performed a nice little ritual of sympathetic magic, as a result of which the bully suddenly died. The daughter was so unhappy after her husband’s death that she began doing the drug of oblivion, the popular D2O, and ended up on the street. The old man was deeply hurt, and soon died of heart problems, but not even in this enlightened condition could he understand why the death of a man, who abused her constantly for five years, had hurt her so badly. I guess what was flowing out of his eyes was that salty water, called tears.
Those others were generally quieter, but nicer to be around. They mostly passed eternity by playing board games. And they were, along with Lucius, very pleasant company.
My legendary hangover that lasted for years had still not entirely left me, when out of this crowd of blurred faces who had something important to tell me, appeared one that called my name. And last name, apparently.
“Lucia! Lucia Librovich!”
An old woman… No, she was only dressed like an old woman. As had been fashionable thirty or more years ago. But she possessed the face of a woman barely older than me. And red hair, that looked wildly aflame, framed her face. She watched me with bestially-green eyes, and an expression as worn out as an old woman’s, as if I was supposed to know who she was. No use.
The dog, unlike me, recognized her. He approached her, wagging his tail. All the same, it was a little easier now that I knew my last name. But, my empty stare was not met with approval, judging by the slap she promptly planted on my left cheek. It was not exactly a slap in its usual form, as most people would expect. It was similar to a slow numbing sensation between the molecules, of what used to cover my cheek bones, and the molecules of her palm, which was surprisingly warm. I almost wished she’d keep on slapping me a little while longer. And it seemed my wish would come true.
“You don’t know who I am, do you? Here’s a hint, I’m the woman whose ring you wanted to pawn in order to buy that garbage that fried what little brain you had, and that my son was desperately trying to mould for years! Though, better to pawn the ring than yourself—”
The claim that my brain was thoroughly fried was true. These cause-consequence relationships required most of its strength. Out of the dark depths of its derelict caves, a name spontaneously formed.
“Grandma Lucia—” I pronounced confusedly.
“Finis vitae sed non amoris—” she replied mildly and stroked my head.
“Splendid! We all share the name of my master, Gaius Lucius Stolon, the honorable consul—”
Just about then, he became the target of one of Grandma’s hearty slaps. Ceremonially. And Lucius took it honorably. The way the dog of Gaius Lucius Stolon, the honorable consul, is supposed to… Blah, blah, blah.
To make her point, Grandma added sharply, “Lucius, you should read something else except Roman The Annals!”
Lucius shivered, but stoically endured Grandma’s short temper. And feisty solutions. He was willing to be better next time. After all, he was no cat.
She led me to her cave. She introduced me to the neighbors, Vitomir and Sofia, an elderly couple who harmoniously, and in accordance with their vows, had shared in life, their passion for Tarot cards. And, thereafter, a tiny cave in the Waiting Room. Vitomir was a master in chess. Sofia was a master of crochet. One could tell by her three-tier collar on the plaid dress she wore. Just like Lucius wore his name.
And he followed us obediently, dog-like. He listened to Grandma without blinking, admiring the finesse with which she quoted Latin proverbs. When he found out, like me—for the second time!—that she used to teach Latin, she was forgiven for every future slap that might come. She would be forgiven even if she called Gaius Lucius Stolon a mere Caligula. She met Grandpa and they got married; she gave birth to my father, and they all lived comfortably. Maybe a little better than that. The progress of medicine promised longevity. That is why she was immensely surprised when she died, very suddenly, at the age of thirty-three, from a stroke. So, on the other side, she tried to enquire how that was possible, but received no plausible answer, except for the usual, that her life on Earth went according to plan and that it was now time for something else. Her practising of Cabala in life, had placed her in the Waiting Room. And there, she had spent the last 30 years. She last saw Grandpa on his way to the other place. She loved him, but she still didn’t see what he had done to deserve it. At least she didn’t have to worry about it anymore. The last five years, she’d been wondering when I’d show up. I had no idea what Cabala was. But there was something in the way that she addressed me that made me listen, unblinking. The color of her eyes put me at ease. I think it was the color of that stone… Jade… It seemed that it was while I was with her that I became aware, for the first time, that the fear that I hadn’t been able to get rid of, even in dreams, had disappeared. Maybe it was because now “the fate worse than death”, didn’t exist for me anymore. Maybe, because I was with my Grandma. We pretended we could sleep. Me in my Grandma’s arms. Lucius at my feet. No fear…
§ § § § §
… The hand—again. As I was writing the previous lines, a large piece of skin fell off from my left calf. The tom cat, who claimed his name was Hannibal, ate it. And licked his paws afterwards. Typical of Lucius, he disapproved of the lack of loyalty among cats. Like the world depended on it. If it were so, the history of mankind would have ended on the sixth day. But it didn’t. And that well fed feline could also sleep the sleep of the righteous.
§ § § § §
Lucia Senior, Lucius and I spent much of our time in the Waiting Room talking, quoting Latin proverbs, and being supremely wise. And playing an occasional card game, with Sofia and Vitomir, that we all pretended was a secret. The commotion that occurred as a result of the Ferryman appearing during my arrival didn’t happen again. The Ferryman didn’t appear again at all; it was as simple as that. Consequently, the ancient solicitor of the oppressed, by errors in bureaucracy, didn’t appear again. As I recounted my impressions to Grandma, she just sighed heavily.
“Come,” she said briefly, and took my hand. We descended to the river bank.
“This used to be a lively place. The Ferryman worked so hard, he had to split himself in several hundreds of thousands of spiritual emanations. The Waiting Room is a harbor everyone enters, sooner or later. Everyone floats through here and the only ones that remain are the ones who haven’t done enough to end up in either extreme. And that means the vast majority, my child. It’s no wonder. In life, people are prone to overestimating their actions, good, as well as bad. That keeps them from messing up even more, since the mess they’ve already made seems bad enough. But it also prevents them from doing great things—”
It didn’t seem to me that this place held so many souls. Grandma continued, as if she’d read my mind, “Lately, there haven’t been any newcomers. Charon’s timetable has been remarkably bare. And he’s got only that one ragged form. He doesn’t need more. That’s why those rebels missed him, for no reason whatsoever. They’d stopped hoping he’d ever show up.”
“I didn’t notice people had stopped dying all of a sudden.”
“Of course they do die. But their souls don’t come here.”
“But, where do they go?”
“Who knows. Everywhere. Word has it about a certain Stock Market of Souls organized by some Church leaders, in cooperation with who knows who, where the souls are exchanged through bets, sold for money and sold off out of boredom. Which disturbs the frail balance, but no one, except the Keeper of the Waiting Room, cares too much about that, since it doesn’t affect anyone directly—”
I looked at her, surprised.
“The Keeper of the Waiting Room?”
She sighed, but continued to gaze calmly, at the water, as if reciting a sauerkraut soup recipe.
“Yes, The Keeper of the Waiting Room. Since creation, there has always been a chosen one among mortals to keep order here, which can prove quite difficult. There are all kinds of people, with all kinds of habits, from different time periods. It’s hard to settle those differences… In time, there was a crowd created on this side, beyond anything imaginable on the outside. Overpopulation on Earth, like hell! Do you know what it means to remember the name of every soul that has ever lived, even for a day, on Earth, since its creation, until today’s date? The ones chosen to be Keepers were usually the people who died young and deserved to stay in the Waiting Room, by possessing certain skills and not passivity or ignorance.”
My attempt at guessing was halted by the designated wave of her hand, and finally dismissed by a disgruntled snort.
“Yeah, right, angels! They do a similar job at one end as demons do at the other… If you ask me, it’s all one and the same—”
She stopped abruptly and looked around with apprehension. And then she leaned in closer and whispered, “In order to lessen the workload for themselves, they raised the criteria for ending up on either side so much, that the majority of the people stayed here! Do you know what kind of chaos that turned out to be?! It hasn’t been boring not having anyone new come in, the old ones are not easy to deal with as it is, but something huge is happening, something monstrous! An idiocy, like the Stock Market of Souls, could have been created only by those who already had the contact to this side. And that means large church corporations, who are probably abusing something that has been there since the dawn of time—the large metaphysical fields populated by special kinds of souls, simply called the Metasphere. From here, we have no control over those fields; neither do we have access to them. We never have had. Between you and me, it was one of the rare rules that made sense. The problem is that now, rumor has it that those fields are being increasingly defiled by the souls of ordinary mortals and also, that those souls now fulfill the clients’ demands, incessantly switching roles, making up the artificial content of the moronic subconsciousness of a contemporary man, who has no knowledge of books, movies, or anything!”
And then, she fell silent, and went back to gazing at the water. I stared at her straight profile as if in a daze. At that moment, I was released of every suffering in the world; except, for the weight of the words.
“I tried to find a solution, but I couldn’t do anything without the help from the other side. I tried with an honest policeman, but he got killed shortly after. Then, I tried an elderly, well-to-do witch; but she betrayed me. I was almost done for. I never liked Vlach magic, to be honest… And now—”
She sighed heavily. And then her green eyes widened, and her gaze reflected a spark of hope.
She turned to me, smiling. It was the sign for me to beat it. I stayed.
“And now, with you, I have a new chance!”
I didn’t really want to know—why me? Or how? I knew I was doomed. Did the way how really matter?
§ § § § §
This time, Grandma had been away for longer than usual. I couldn’t bear to hear another cycle of Vitomir and Sofia’s family incidents. I excused myself on the grounds of Lucius’ non-existent need to do his business outside, at which Vitomir and Sofia raised their eyebrows, but said nothing and left. We walked through the nothing, encountered the nothing, watched the nothing. I felt nothing; Lucius said nothing… Not until caves emerged from the darkness in front of us…
“Shhhhh,” whispered Lucius, looking about in a way that suggested rigid covertness.
“Could someone even be here?!”
In my already-epic manner of making the “right” choices, I walked myself and the dog to the caves that everyone in the Waiting Room had avoided. But not just them. There dwelled the ones who had lived in utter confidence they had the ability to help anyone. And nothing even similar to common sense could stop them. They couldn’t get to the first place, since thanks to them, many people ended up in the second one. And that place couldn’t take them because their intentions were not premeditated. It was a part of the new regulations. The ones in the Waiting Room, unable to change a thing, avoided them like the plague. Therefore, they could hardly wait for someone to come along. They were in need of company, but the frustration the isolation had caused was powerful.
“There’s that dog—” someone whispered.
“Good day!” yelled someone from the crowd already only a few feet away. One could tell they weren’t doing well together. They were staring at me hungrily, ready to do anything in their power, and more to help me. I imagined them giving each other advice all day long. They had no idea how lucky they were that in here, there was absolutely no way for them to actually help each other. This was hinted to me by my partially regained memory.
“Good day to you too, good people!” I replied.
I felt chills of panic down my spine, filling me with familiar anxiety. At that moment, it was the only thing I’d known from earlier. They seemed to share the feeling with me. Lucius’ ears were twisting and turning in all directions. His nose grew longer.
The stupidity of my question hit me even as I was saying it, in the form of a sharp pain beneath my ribs on my left side. What could possibly be up when no one wants anything to do with you—forever and ever? The pain made me bend over. As I was pulling myself together, they were already forming a circle around us, no more than 1.5 meters in diameter. And Lucius stopped flapping his ears.
“Are you alright, miss?”
A soft echo of a hoarse female voice.
An echo of a baritone.
“You seem a bit pale—”
“I have an excellent remedy for nausea—you boil a bit of sugar with some water and add sage and mint—”
“And how do you know she’s feeling nauseous? Maybe she’s caught a virus! Listen, every morning on an empty stomach, you take a spoonful of honey with pollen and royal jelly and propolis. That’s the stuff!”
“Listen,” I attempted to cut off something that threatened to turn into a stream of unnecessary advice on healthy living. “I’m not feeling nauseous. I’m not sick. And although I’m not going through an abstinence crisis, I probably wouldn’t look much worse even with—”
“Abstinence crisis?! Oh, my, miss, you’re a drug addict!”
Lucius’ floating baritone. Whispering.
“Don’t argue with them, you’ll only make things worse.”
An echo of some screeching.
“How could things get any worse than this? I couldn’t stand this even—”
If I’d had a forehead, there would be cold sweat all over it. And these bores would have robbed me of the last ounce of air. Luckily, I had no forehead. And there was no air here. And I didn’t need any.
“I used to be and addict, but not any more—”
The baritone, again.
“That’s what they all say and then they relapse. Have you tried the blockers? There’s a doctor in Russia who has a 100% success rate. It’s the stuff I’m telling you!”
“Yeah, right, blockers! What you should do is get hypnotized, you know, deeply and discover whatever it is that’s making you take opiates, you know?”
Lucius instinctively pressed against my left leg which was weak at the knee at this point, since this was turning out to be a bad day. I looked at them sideways, breathing heavily.
“Maybe in the next life.”
They were astounded by my retort. A tenor.
“You don’t mean to give up on yourself, do you?”
He was really starting to get on my nerves. In my dissolved mind, there were strings of images of all the possible ways for me to turn him into a “castrato”. The dissolution just added to their baroque manner. I started to laugh hysterically. It sounded like even the unspoiled part of my consciousness was starting to wonder—
“Poor thing, she’s not herself—”
“Should we take her inside to warm up?”
And then it began.
“You people are out of your mind! Even the Ferryman has forgotten when it was that he brought you here, that’s how long ago it was and you’re still making wise remarks!”
They took a step back and shut up for a millisecond. Almost. Then, the baritone, threateningly.
“Miss, I’m warning you, watch your language. No one insulted you!”
That was it. I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“Trying to make an ape out of someone is not insulting?! No, this is just the opportunity, for you to demonstrate how smart and righteous you are! By the way, you are the paradigm of being average! Ninety percent of people act like you do and all of you are convinced you’re always right! Have you ever wondered what people around you really need? Some silk rope to hang themselves, that’s what!”
A part of the sopranos began to weep bitterly and another part assimilated with the altos, throwing insults. The tenors squeaked with outrage, while the baritones, along with the few basses, made a rhythmical escort to mine and Lucius’ downfall. Their fury was growing. I felt it in the emptiness of my gut. They stirred threateningly. They began waving their translucent limbs at Lucius and me, when Grandma suddenly popped up out of nowhere. Strikes were landing on me from every side. When I managed to open my eyes, I saw that Grandma had carried us to a nearby hill, far above the hysterical vortex of the angry righteous. And that it was she who had been hitting me the entire time. The rhythm of her blows was interrupted only as much as she needed to get to Lucius as well. When she decided that we had had enough, she said, “Don’t you ever again, in any world, try to do something as stupid as this, you understand?”
I nodded dumbly, dizzy from the warmth of her slapping me. Lucius was quiet as a mouse, his head hung low.
“Fine,” she said, after a short silence, shooting a few enraged glances at us. “We have to hurry. Lucia, you’re going back into your old body or whatever’s left of it. You, punk, are going with her. Don’t you let her out of your sight and—”
“Hold on a second, I’m going back?! Where?”
“Exactly where you came from. This was just temporary. I pulled strings, possible and impossible. You have some business to attend to.”
She winked impishly at me. Above us there was a whirlwind of whitish powder. Which whirled faster every second. My hairs stood on end from its force. Although, they would have done all the same after what Grandma said next, “When you go back, don’t do anything before I contact you. And anything you see, just pretend you can’t see.”
Instructions understandable only to James Bond, maybe. Lucius and I were being lifted by the immense whirlwind which was growing larger by the second.
“Let’s go Toto—” I said.
Lucius looked at me confused, while his ears and his cheeks flapped around his head like a set of hummingbird wings.
“But, my lady, it’s me, Lucius.”
The last I saw of the Waiting Room was a miniature figure with flaming red hair that waved goodbye from a hill that rose above the stirring mass of bodies of the Eternally Pissed. And Lucius’ weary gaze between his flapping ears.And then, TV static followed.
§ § § § §
The TV program continued live, but not without certain disturbances. First, I couldn’t see or hear a thing. All I had to rely on about the outside world was the feeling of a cold, flat surface. And being stung by a needle. It hurt like hell, but I could not move an inch. Except maybe with dynamite. Only a bit later, the directing crew seemed to be playing sound as well. Though this was quite unprofessionally done, since the sounds were all distorted, as if my ears were full of water. When the water was finally gone from my ears, it seemed like somebody switched on the distortion-effect button on all the sounds. A male voice sang from time to time. I couldn’t make out the lyrics, otherwise I would have joined him. But I couldn’t be bothered to move my mouth. And if I’d actually known that language of his. If it was a language at all. From time to time, I could hear a clear and sharp order, “Pull, Igor!”
And I could make out the laments, that mostly revolved around the bad quality of the rakia, fruit brandy, and the charlatan who’d sold them fake stones. The words were always muttered and immediately followed by timid chanting.
Otherwise, everything was quiet. Had I been able to fall asleep, this would’ve been ideal. But I wasn’t. I was awake and very bored in a body that reeked of blood, and weight that I’d shed, when stepping into the Waiting Room. It was a pity we didn’t evolve into some transcendental forms. Maybe that was the solution for all the existential woes. I wondered what happened to my long-eared companion. But that wasn’t my only concern. The trouble was, that I knew I would have to open my eyes sooner or later, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I was in for a mission, quite literally larger than life, and my main assistant in this was supposed to be a good, but mostly useless ghost of a dog. On the other hand, except for the needle stings and from time to time being covered in something that stuck to my skin like silicone rubber, at that moment I felt perfectly fine. And, when the voice was joined by the scent of flowers and the rhythm of some percussions, it was almost pleasant. An unusual warmth was flowing through my body and its entire weight was gone.
Then in one moment, everything fell silent. The feeling of a dead weight found its way back into my body, followed by a sensation of dejection. As the anticipated progress of events failed to happen, I discreetly opened one eye. I saw two white orbs that were trying to reach the cortex of my cerebellum through the narrow slit of my eyelid. At the moment, it felt like a thick goo spread out on a flat surface.
The white orbs swiftly retracted, followed by a joyous cry, “It’s alive, Igor! It’s alive!”
A sleazy voice reached my ears, “Bravo! Though, to say it’s ‘alive’, hmm… That’s relative—”
It seemed that Igor was relishing the joy of his companion about as much as he would have if he’d been expressing condolences at a funeral. I could no more fake sleeping. It is what it is, there was no way around it. I opened both of my eyes, wide. The two white orbs belonged to the head of a very withered black man with graying hair. His mouth and his bush of gray-white hair were the only things that seemed to have some life left in them. The two white orbs watched my ocular movements with awe. Soon, beside him stood a short, slim man, half-dressed as a woman, with an apron around his waist, and a curler above his forehead. The Adam’s apple that betrayed his manhood, quivered nervously in his throat.
As I cast a glance at the rest my new body, I realized I was lying on a metal plate completely naked. This wasn’t a silent film after all. It felt stupid to be the only one naked in my current surroundings and weird not to feel the cold at the same time.
“Finally!” yelled the old guy, raising his gaze and palms to the ceiling.
I cast a glance toward the ceiling, too. It was clouded with spider webs and riddled with mouse holes at the corners and looked about as stable as the nervous system of a neurasthenic. And then he looked down at me. He brought his face close to mine. It was a good thing I was lying down, since I would have definitely been anaesthetized by the alcohol on his breath.
“I finally did it! My own zombie!”
A zombie? How was I supposed to fulfill the task my Grandma had given me if I walked as if I had metal implants in both of my knees and run around chasing for brains on offer?! As far as I remember from my past life, that won’t be a very filling meal, since the weight of the brains with the people surrounding me could be measured only with apothecary scales.
The old guy bellowed, “Rise, my child!”
The wide gaze and the dramatic posture, followed by the theatrical raise of the right arm, were only further proof that my meals as a zombie would be meager. In this case, I’d be very much disturbed by a salad of the thick curly hair on his head. And in the case of the half-woman with Adam’s apple—the curler. I decided to go cold turkey, for the first time in my life.
I answered shortly, “Can’t be bothered.”
He looked at me confused.
“How do you mean—can’t be bothered?! You’re a zombie, and I’m your master, you should be doing—”
I turned to the side and made myself comfortable.
“Master, I’ll get up tomorrow. I don’t feel like it right now.”
And then the old guy lowered his gaze and hung his shoulders, put on a funny black hat and, mumbling about rotten luck, broken stones and Jamaican bastards—I wondered where he came across them in our polis—went outside and upstairs. Igor, with his curler, came up to the table and carefully placed a white sheet over me.
He addressed me sharply, “Thank you. He’s back to normal now.”
He looked at me, completely disinterested. Under a thick layer of self-tanning cream, there was a busy network of tiny wrinkles around his tender, watery eyes and his thin, impeccable lips. Maybe we could be friends. But not now.
I yelled, as my face contorted, “Boo!”
He started towards the cellar door, not clicking his high heels too much. Next to the door, he retorted spitefully, “That won’t do you any good, girl! I’m not the believing kind.”
I must say that the encounter with utter nihilism caught me somewhat unprepared. Especially after my most recent experience. I had forgotten life, as if I’d been dead for thousands of years. As Igor shut the door, I was left to lie there in peace and quiet—finally—which couldn’t last.
“Psssst, my lady!”
The familiar voice, I pretended not to acknowledge.
“My lady! Open the window! I’m here!”
As I remained persistent in ignoring Lucius’ calls, he left. I decided not to move, whatever happened. He was back soon.
“My lady, pssst! Open the window!”
He was even more persistent than a minute ago. It seemed to be in vain this time as well, but then, the sound of the scratching on glass reached me from the same direction. It was, to put it mildly, and that’s a huge euphemism—absolutely unbearable. The core of my cerebellum hurt. But that something was able to hurt inside my head was good news. I guess.
I rolled around to see what it was. Instead of a dog, on the windowsill of the tiny basement window sat a regular yellow cat. Above its pointy ears, there was Lucius’ desperate, exasperated gaze. And a pair of ears that hung low. The totem of the tribe of the Completely Insane. The cat was cleaning the claw that she’d likely used to scratch at the glass. It looked at me significantly to confirm my theory and briefly scratched once more. I jumped off the table and hurriedly opened the window.
“My lady, I’ve been looking everywhere for you—”
“At your service, my lady—”
It wasn’t fair, but I couldn’t help myself. Holding myself back was never in my nature anyway.
“A dog trapped in a cat’s body… Hahahaha—!”
I was interrupted by the presence of an entirely unfamiliar baritone. I almost choked.
“I am a cat. And my name is Hannibal. Your friend usurped my own body. And won’t come out. And that makes me mildly irritable. Get it, pretty girl?”
In order to be sure that I’d grasped all about the property ownership rights that concerned his body, the cat, as soon as he jumped in through the window and with the background of Lucius’ constant blabbing about where he’d been until he found me, jumped on the table where I’d been happily lying before the two of them showed up, and took a shit. Probably in an attempt to get rid of Lucius.
“What are you doing?! Now, where am I supposed to lie—?”
Hannibal licked his tail and replied dryly, “Get dressed. If I take one more look at you, I’ll lose my appetite for the entire week.”
The voices also attracted the attention of my new stepfather. I stuffed Hannibal-Lucius under the table a split second before the cellar door was thrown open, “You need anything—?”
And then my aged creator, standing at the top of the stairs, noticed the cat dung lying on the table; which melted his initial smile. I’m not sure why, since he could be more than satisfied with his vision at his age.
“Well, since the miss won’t get up!”
He was so pissed off that he didn’t even bother to cover his nose before descending. The lit-up top of the colorful little stick, that he was holding in his right hand, bent slightly. As I shrugged, playing shittily dumb, someone could not keep their mouth shut.
“Seriously, disgusting! What have you been eating, cat?”
“Oh, like you don’t know what I’ve been eating, dog?!”
“Some foulness, that’s what!”
“Well, they don’t exactly serve liver pate in dumpsters and garbage cans. Unless it’s outdated, of course—”
The two white orbs observed me, surprised. I shrugged, honestly feeling like crap. The old man peeped under the table and saw a cat arguing with himself. He looked as if he’d seen a ghost. Truth be told, we weren’t far from it. But it wasn’t too bad. At least from my point of view. The old man’s hair stood on end in its disheveled state.
“My lady, what’s wrong with him—”
“You idiot! He can hear you!”
Hannibal’s little addition to the situation only screwed it up further.
“Shut up, both of you!”
I half screamed and half whispered, adding insult to an already pretty deep injury. A move worthy of a master butcher. Right after that, I laughed as if everything was completely fine. A move worthy only of—I’m fucking-emphasizing—a moron! The old man pulled out the colorful stick from under the table and started to wave it around, singing along in his unintelligible, but quite melodic language.
“Master… Hmm… I can explain… You know, this cat that’s sitting under your… err… Table… he is hosting a ghost of a dog in his body, a dog so old, one could also say antique… and… it prompted the cat to start talking… it seems… and normally he’s just an ordinary cat… well, was… Now he’s like ‘two in one’—”
I was interrupted by Lucius’ horrified shriek.
“My lady, I can’t move!”
“Me neither! This is all your fault, dog!”
Hannibal-Lucius supported himself with nothing more than his drawn out claws and was rolling his eyes in panic. The old guy was drawing dangerously close.
“And now… What do we have here—”
I stood between him and Hannibal-Lucius.
“Look, Grandpa, leave him… them… alone! I told you what was going on, and now kindly fuck off with your voodoo bullshit!”
As I started towards him, he took a step back.
“This doesn’t work on you?!” he asked.
“You obviously haven’t cracked my code, old fellow. How about you try another magic wand?”
We stayed opposite each other for half a minute, eyeing each other and predicting the other person’s next move.
“What’s your name?”
He roared in his aged voice. He sounded like an asthma-sufferer attempting to sing Siegfried’s aria—during an asthma attack.
“Lucia. And feel free to turn down the volume, I’m not deaf.”
“Who sends you?”
He could barely breathe.
“I was sent by infernal forces of the dark intent on destroying the Association of Voodoo Priests of The Belgrade Polis, better known as AVPTBP,” I replied dryly. “And my first mission is to destroy you and then all of the Extreme cigarettes that I come across. And maybe also the Cosmos chewing gums.”
His voice dried up as well.
“You’re screwing with me, huh?”
His breathing was returning to normal. Hannibal-Lucius was squealing in double vocals behind me.
“And how about you set my little friends free?” I asked.
“Oh, right, right—” he said absentmindedly. He places the stiff cat-dog onto the operating table and walked thrice around him, briefly waving his stick and chanting something.
“Concordia parvae res crescunt—” Lucius’ voice was still drawn out. Just like every time he pronounced Latin sayings.
“Whatever,” muttered the Grandpa complacently, dragging his feet towards a closet, so old that every atom of its unbeing confirmed the proverb about ashes to ashes.
“Want something to drink, doll?”
He held up a bottle with yellow liquor in his hand.
“No, gramps. My doctor forbids it.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“You’re the first zombie to refuse a swig in the past fifty years. If you are a zombie—”
He looked at me, offended. I shrugged my shoulders.
“And how do you measure the level of zombification?”
He took me by the chin and pulled at my lower right eyelid. He then studied what there was to see with great interest.
“Well… first, voodoo should definitely work on you. It’s what created you, with my insignificant assistance. But it doesn’t work. And yet, you got back into your body with the help of voodoo… But I couldn’t locate the source of your soul and isolate a part of it… I don’t know what to think—”
He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, poured himself another tot and began talking about his origin. His origin, unlike mine, was a little bit clearer. As his father, Obafemi, came to Belgrade some eighty plus years ago, from Nigeria to study, he met his mother Mila and she soon became pregnant and gave birth to a son, whom his father named Ayotunde, which freely translated, is “the joy has returned”. Completely unjustified. He showed me some ancient images on a rundown laptop. He, a two-year old, between his mother and father at Kalemegdan fortress, wearing a small green shirt with white flowers printed on it. Even then, the beads on the braids around his round neck hung as if all hope had left them.
As soon as he was finished with his studies, Obafemi returned to Nigeria. Ayotunde was raised by his mother and grandmother. Everyone called him Aca. No one even remembered his real name any more. As a cocky teenager, he went off to look for his father. He found only a grave. And a grandmother, who made his life a misery by recognizing in him a talent for channeling energies between the two worlds. She’d taught him all of the ancient techniques quite well. But, she hadn’t prepared him for the consequences. The dead haunted him day and night, ruining his every attempt at love or career. In desperation, he returned to Serbia. But his friends wouldn’t leave him.
“They laugh at me when I snore! I’ve been working at putting spirits to rest day and night for half a century and no one shows even a little respect!” he said.
In an attempt to solve his “little issue,” he in time started increasing the amount of alcohol and his basic hygiene decreased by default. So, his love problems were soon gone, as well as the career-related ones. Someone who was living through his 125th summer could expect neither any more. He was probably scared by the mere thought of having any expectation whatsoever.
I was well aware of the problems of the fourth age. The Fourthagers made up one third of the total number of people in the polis of Belgrade and one could see them everywhere. Medicine had extended the life expectancy of the people and their overall vitality, as a part of the project to increase the retirement age, but it turned out to be very impractical, since most of the citizens weren’t able to perform their duties efficiently enough after the age of 70. This evaluation error caused exactly what was supposed to be avoided in the first place—a huge number of people on social support, most of whom wouldn’t die before the age of 150. The working-age population wasn’t able to generate enough money to cover all the paychecks and the pensions.
And then, there was the crisis. And then there was the war. And again, the old ones prevailed and the working-age population was diminished. Everyone that had survived was divided into “polises” or mega-cities, the conflicts of which couldn’t have caused shit of larger proportions. The Polis of Belgrade had become one of the largest in the Balkans. After the war, work force was imported from the poorer Asian cities. With the sufficient supply of water and renewable energy sources, the Polis of Belgrade wasn’t such a bad place to live, compared with some other ones, so there was hardly enough working positions for everyone who was interested. So we spiraled downwards to poverty yet again. But the old ones remained. And amongst them, this great-great step-father of mine.
When his mother died a couple of years ago, Ayotunde opened a cigarette and knick-knack shop in the corner of his apartment facing the street. Actually, a cover up for smuggling homemade rakia. That way, he’d ensured himself a relatively easy, minimum income until death. Since his generation died in poverty, but in good health nevertheless, that agony was known to last in some cases. Our old neighbor had been in the process of dying for so long that, when my parents moved in, they’d actually had the time to save her. They helped her for the next 15 years, until she died of old age at 165, grateful she hadn’t spent her last years in solitude.
Ayotunde quickly showed me around the shop which looked like a store, that in reality sold nothing. There he spent most of his day. He moved vigorously, dragging the soles of his worn-out slippers across the floor. The sound of which I’d find soothing in the next few days. Unlike the headlines which kept alternating on the large holoscreen to the right of the shop entrance, which seemed surreal to say the least. The New Economy gets new results… Leaders in new negotiations concerning new borders… Dara has a new boyfriend…
One headline I found especially interesting—The Universal Pope proclaims: The Redemption of all sins is our goal!
Interesting. Especially regarding the other headlines. Especially regarding the new millennium. And another apocalypse that was expected in 2100. Luckily, I never got to see it.
“Come on, Igor will lend you some of his clothes. And you can also take a look at your new… hmm… accommodation. I suppose you’ve got nowhere to go—”
True story. I felt I belonged here anyway. There were a few other rooms in the back, a tiny bathroom and a kitchen, which looked as horrible as a crime scene, with cigarette butts, dirty laundry, and greasy dust. Igor’s room was borderline-pleasant and arranged in such a way that the central spot was occupied by a large holo-television. All of the rooms were miniscule and darkened. And had been painted long before Ayotunde was born.
“You’re gonna have to sleep in the basement, tough luck.”
That was fine by me. It was dark and spacious enough. The basements were the privilege of us from the Ground Floor. The ones from the Middle Floor and the Upper Floor, saw the Ground Floor as the Basement. To the ones from the Roof, everywhere else was a garbage disposal.
Between the bathroom and Igor’s room there was a big mirror. The image I saw made me back track and take another look at myself. I was back in my old body. Even my right boob was still bigger that the left. Actually, I looked like I’d been put together by a maker of Renaissance armors after having been hit by a bullet train, and that with a large, dull needle. I was covered in bruises, dry blood and a few big pieces of something I could not quite identify. It looked like a scaly tattoo, but one could tell it had been sewn onto the flesh, with the same amount of subtlety as everything else. It was soft and gentle under my fingers, like…
“Snake skin. I didn’t have anything else. But just so you know, it’s a valuable relic I brought from Africa—”
“It smells funny—”
He opened up Igor’s closet and in a split second, chose something random. It was a romantic pink dress. He turned his back on me so I could put it on in privacy and then walked off to the kitchen.
“What can you do, I’m not a plastic surgeon. I’m just a regular voodoo magician, soon to be retired.”
When you’re dead, a piece of clothing is not exactly a necessity. Oh, well, at least it was my own body. And when I came to think of it—
“And where did you get my old body?!”
Ayotunde, already in the kitchen, muttered something under his breath.
I yelled from the door, “Excuse me?”
“I said, you look good in Igor’s dress.”
“It’s not a dress it’s a night gown! And next time you want to borrow something, you need to ask.”
Igor appeared out of nowhere behind me, entered the kitchen and looked me over from head to toe.
Finally, he voiced his opinion, „It doesn’t fit you on the bust. These stitches are disgusting!”
I looked down at the dress.
“Looks fine to me—” I said.
“Not the stitches on the dress, but on you!”
Ayotunde retorted angrily, “If you’re so skillful, why don’t you open a sewing shop for leather clothes! Make yourself useful!”
Igor began screeching softly, “And I would, if I didn’t have to look after a senile old man!”