They come through us as if we were doors.
They open us up, they eat and kill, and then they’re gone. Just like that.
We’re left to pick up the pieces.
It’s turning out to be a long dream, same time every time, they walk in the hedge park and she says she’s cold. It’s the air, it’s nearly winter. The clouds hold all the snow. She can’t wait. He takes off his coat for her shoulders. But she’s gone. High up, held by a shadow with wild limbs. She screams. He can’t catch her, his arms are dead weight. The pavement catches her instead. Gone is the shadow as the first snowflake falls.
We’re all victims.
He’s waking up, four years out of prison. A trembling loathsome clock on his nightstand gets taken and smashed. Cold sweat dabs the shirt he picks up off the floor and he showers off the stench. This is the August heat of Apollonia. This is the season of empty neon bottles and clearer glass bottles decorating the kitchen table like a lost city. If it’s the lurid sounds of traffic or the lights bleeding through the Venetians, or his own revolting soul, he can’t decide and the room is plunged into darkness either way. A darkness he crawls through, searching for his gun. It’s magazine loaded with blessed bullets. This is a real place, he thinks, this is a real place.
Click. Click. The safety is on, in his dreams it’s never on. In his dreams, he’s dying or watching death. Experiencing it from a womb of sleep. The gun, an M1911 with it’s grip taped, he places among the ruins on the table for now. He puts on his black clothes. It’s close to 11pm.
This wretched man in his mirror has oily black hair which he smooths back. He’s got a wide, lofty brow that shadows his shadowy eyes. Frowning, ever frowning, he flicks the bullet around his neck. This one is for him. If ever he succumbs. This one is for him.
He catches sight of it, standing in the dismal unlight, just over his shoulder. It’s a stain on the wall moving side to side against the dry boards. Rusted water leaks taking odd shapes; the shapes of men, the shapes of upside down teardrops. There’s thirteen of them side-by-side, reminding him of paper dolls held between a child’s hands.
This council of moisture observes him with faceless consideration. He heeds it’s call. He always does when they call. He owes them, the paper dolls, the faceless men. A year ago he remembers, half-mad on crystal Christine, the lot lizard splattered over the toilet stall between Austin and San Antonio, the thing that did it coming for him next, disjointedly carried on a cruel air with wide mouth and grinding teeth.
He ran, ran delirious from two desperate pasts to Apollonia and collapsed mostly dead outside the double doors of the Pentecostal House of the Chanting Angels. Right there, they gathered around him, the Venerated. The old men in white suits. They healed his sick veins, they made him sweat and die again and again until he rose sober, damaged, and thirsty.
They said they had work for him. That he needn’t fear the things in the dark. Money, shelter, and satisfaction were his nightly as he held vigil, as his candle burned in the empty room, as they directed his wrinkled mind to greater violence; holy violence.
So the stain did not surprise him, a soldier always waiting on his orders, but he couldn’t leave without a small shot of courage and two pills to stave the whirling, illusionary world and his instincts which hiss and prime in the dark corners of his mind.
This night feels different.
A gun in his waistband, a wooden oblong box tucked under his arm, these are his instruments. The box’s surface is indented by an iron cross, the first gift of the Venerated. He coddles it like a baby and tenses when, as he locked the apartment door, someone steps from the dingy hall shadows behind him. The vexation in his nerves dreams death row visions. An old black man with glinting wire frames rubs his hands and looks up, walleyed with a bible clutched to him. A downdraft of vodka in each word to follow:
“Husher,” the old man says, “I’ve seen it emerge from the seams of that television of mine, scripts between the splintered pictures. All thirteen. They’re sending a Chant. You must not go.” His nervous voice put the man on edge.
“It’s what we arranged, Pastor Burnham. When they call for a hunt, I must hunt. I’m a man of the field.” This name, Husher, came to him from the Venerated. Ascribed on an envelope in his mailbox. HUSHER. Producer of silence.
“Let them be scattered.” Burnham makes the sign of the cross. The scars on his leathery skin, on his arms, writhe strangely like the snakes what caused them.
“What do you mean I shouldn’t go?”
“You shouldn’t hunt tonight. No, not tonight. A second vision reached me. I woke to a distant screaming.” His eyes roll to the sides of their sockets, he turns a little into a toad. Husher blinks and pinches his nose.
“I didn’t hear any screaming, old timer.”
“These aching liturgies, they woke me I tell you. They grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me from a dream. Only when I saw you did I realize the dream that follows you, all the sublime dreams…”
“You better start making sense, you old fuck. This sounds like blasphemy and you’re going to get yourself snatched and thrown in Supplicant House.” The mad tongues of those warped by the Chant serve their lives in that musty abode, the salvation of the old men in white. The final gift.
This warning makes Burnham look over his shoulder and maybe they both see the disfigured shape behind the storm glass door leading outside. Maybe. Neither of them say. But the two men stare at each other afterward with a kind of silent caution. It only ends when a restrained Husher leans close to catch the dribbling auguries of the pastor.
“Where did the screams come from?”
Burnham clutches at Husher’s black coat and squeezes his knuckles till they pop, the words rise to a burst from his stained breath, a nauseous prophecy that makes the lights in the hall flicker, fainting to darkness.
“The stars,” his toad features growing more vivid up close till each breath expands to transparency the thick jowl below his neck. “They were screaming. Screaming for release.”
“Jesus Christ.” His wrung out guts belie him. “Enough. I’m expected. You don’t tell anyone any of this, got it?” He brushes the man aside and heads down to the warped door, disoriented lights passing by its window. But Husher looks back, seeing the toad face peering at him through the railing bars.
“I heard the call of the Sublime, tossing those stars like helpless ships on the black sea, an infinity of sweet torment. Husher, understand me. There is nothing that is buried that will not rise,” Burnham whispers this final message before slinking away.
That’s all behind him. The man of the field stands on the beating streets of Apollonia. The hunt and the night are waiting.
He stares up and sees a few stars, some fading phantoms behind sylphs of grey tone clouds all ships and shadows under a moon turned on its back, turned to a pale smile. Smiling at him.
The heat sucks air from his lungs, boiling the alcohol in his blood. Time in Apollonia is measured in gasps between drowning benders. A long time ago he kicked the hard stuff, the killer stuff, and now addicted to violence and liquor he brews like a murder of clouds between each storm; each hunt.
Medication lets him see past the fog, to the creatures that live among us. Pharma Cocktails impregnate his brain with the portents of seer-worms. His little prophets. When the abominations are near, they squirm in his thoughts. His eyes are open, open inside and out.
The people of Apollonia are night people. He wades through their illicit steps. Some call him from dark alleys. Others avoid the deeper pits of his eyes. Husher pushes the oblong box to his chest, letting it hear his heartbeat, and surveys each bystander for the wolves among them. The creatures, in human tones, feast and hide from the man and what he carries.
At the end of the road there’s a highway which for miles nothing lives but weeds, nameless stalks, and the distant rolling forests where deeper mysteries sleep. The border between Apollonia and this highway is divided by the ruins of an old gas station, festooned with decay under an awning of debris, and a grimy glass box. The last payphone in Apollonia. Maybe America. Connected, somehow, to the Chant of the Venerated. This subtle place, he goes to hear their commands, formulating the next pattern of their unending crusade.
When they threw him out of San Quentin, four years since she fell from the sky, he stumbled high and abused, mange ridden and deviant, across an expanse of dark places. Every stitch given to him inside that cell he unfurled tenfold again on himself and others in the civilized world. Addicted as much to degradation as to the meth which made it easy, which lost his soul in a swamp in the bowl of a burnt spoon, he roared like a foul wind through many lives. Until Apollonia. Until his revelation.
The phone rings on the metal hooks and the past he wipes away like breath mist on glass. Instantly the familiar static splits his brain, forcibly expanding its valleys, leaving blood to run like rivers between the cracks. It makes his ears wet, trickling into the unruly black hairs down his neck. You can’t cook such a sensation, second to the ruptures of the voice of God. It’s what makes them dance with snakes, this serene bliss they call the Chant.
“I am the man of the field.” He replies. “Let them be scattered.”
The transmission comes in through the utterance of a Turning Wheel, through 99 Choirs, twisting flesh and wings, through the old men in white suits who speak to him. This is beyond his reason so he listens without comprehending.
In the Chant you see the veins of your eyes sprawl together, clots filled with transcended wisdom. The secrets of the saints and the babbling chorus of angels. What lies in the roots of the Bodhi Tree. In the cave of Hira. And what Christ found in the desert. Through it like snow he seeks an ominous message.
It’s fabric on a kitchen table, rustled by something underneath. The light’s flash in and out of darkness while seated at each chair at this table are mannequins, plates of old moldy rotten food, and the buzzing of flies gather around them. One the mannequins, white and faceless and naked, starts making a clicking sound. Clicking from inside. Its growing. The flickering lights hide subtle movements, it’s turning it’s head left and right, hands coming up and smacking the tabletop with silent agony, before at last it smashes its face on the putrid meats plated in front of it. Everything falls silent as the clicking stops, silence falls over the room. Then without warning the fallen mannequin’s skull erupts, letting loose of black horde of spiders which endlessly pour from the pit. They cover everything like a hungry, skittering cloud. The other mannequins, unable to move, muffle screams as they’re entirely devoured. The Chant reveals then fades in a flash of hot white.
It’s always a risk to hear it for in each word the cosmic revelation threatens the mind of the listener, but Husher didn’t plan to end up like Burnham or the others. The bedridden, congregation of idiots in Supplicant House. He closes his eyes and takes out a pencil and paper, scratching down an address quickly before his brain drowns in its own blood. 1289 LaVey Rd, the Suburbs of Apollonia. This paper, this message, is crumbled and slipped into his pocket as the Chant begins to die down and he can safely wipe the blood from his ears. He can safely walk away, mind in its unstable normalcy. But they don’t release him yet–they wish to know things.
“No,” he replies to their sudden question regarding Burnham, “He’s just a drunk. Once he sleeps it off he’ll be fine.”
“Yes, Your Eminence.” As Husher listens, he sees, near the old gas station someone is watching. He stares them down, but they don’t move. They aren’t afraid. They just watch him from the dark. Him in his little glass box with the dirty windows. Him on the phone. Him with the bleeding ears. The worms in his brain begin to squirm, the blood pushes them up from the dirt like rain. He grits his teeth.
He claps the phone down on the hook and goes out, making a beeline for the watcher. They turn away, moving behind the building. When he finally reaches them, they’re gone. He keeps his gun down at his side, eight blessed bullets sleeping. But there’s nothing. Even the sky is clear from the twisting shadows. The pale moon smiles.
Only an old place surrounds him, a place without memory, maybe that’s all it is in the end. Not the sites of prophets but just another fading memory of Apollonia. Soon overrun by nature, knotting bad metal into rust into flakes into nothing.
This thought he regrets and makes the hunter deeply afraid, holding that oblong box again to his chest. Of all the nights, this one is different, he feels it. Everything seems different. He looks up at the quivering stars, wide eyed. He looks and he sees that the night is…