Heaven? Can’t Wait.

by Mark Lawton

Frank lost his job at Safeway right before he suffocated his three-year old daughter. But we’re not supposed to say murder in heaven. “She passed over before God called,” is what they suggest in the manual. He did it with a pillow. She wouldn’t stop crying, Frank said, even after he gave her a bowl of Rocky-Road ice cream with extra almonds.

Frank harvests the next row over. We wave our hands over the vines and the grapes fall right into our sky-blue baskets. If one or two grapes get stuck we just point at them from a distance and they drop in like they’re walking the plank. We don’t talk much but every once in a while he says “How you holding up today bud?” Or, “Another beautiful day in paradise, ain’t it Brad.”

By the time they sent Frank to join me in the vineyard there was barely any anger left when he described the murder. It just came out like he was giving me directions to the freezer aisle. “The Haagen Daz and dead children are in aisle twelve. Can I walk you there?”

Donna was the angel assigned to Frank and me. She’s blond. All the angels are. She said that it’s going to take a while for us to work through our deaths. Frank got the electric chair. I jumped from a two hundred foot cliff over La Jolla cove. That’s why I’m working the vineyard now. They say harvesting grapes is a sure bet to get us through our issues and onto eternal bliss. We don’t see Donna much anymore because it’s not part of the vineyard program to get counseling. Harvesting grapes calms the mind all by itself.

It was steaming hot at my funeral. I would have liked an open casket. But Rachel didn’t want to spend the extra eight hundred dollars to get my face reconstructed. I wasn’t around to watch Rachel make the final arrangements because I had to go to an orientation for new arrivals in heaven. The angels started the orientations a few centuries ago because the slain knights were having trouble adjusting. They didn’t know what to do with their time. Chivalry doesn’t go too far in heaven. It gets you a few winks from the former madams of the brothels but that’s about it. Most of the knights end up working as a valet. They like opening the passenger door. Everybody gets to use a valet in heaven.

Rachel wore a black sweater with an aqua stripe around the collar at my funeral. She sat alone in the first pew fanning herself with the crimson funeral program. My youngest sister loves crimson and decided I would want it at the funeral. The whole extended family sat across the aisle away from Rachel. Rachel’s program got a crease because she fanned herself too hard. She stopped when the preacher gave her a look. Picked his head up quick and she laid that program right down on her knee. She may have cheated on me real bad and real often but the preacher wasn’t going to let her cheat my mourners out of some legitimate tears.

I asked about swearing at the orientation. Donna said “Swearing really just isn’t an issue up here.” Before she was dead, Donna worked in customer relations at Nordstrom’s. I didn’t swear once while I waited in heaven for my funeral. I probably would have stayed straight through if Jack hadn’t said “Dude you gotta go to your own funeral. If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your dead life.” He was right, of course. Everybody wants to get one last look. Anyway, how could I miss the eulogies. My sister read one of her poems. She’s written the same basic poem since she was thirteen. Year after year of couplets rhyming with breath, rose, and sip.

I always tried to get sis to take a poetry class at the community college but she was too busy. “Besides Brad,” she said. “I’m happy with my poetry.” Then she sent me one. My poems make me smile like a rose. They make me want to laugh and pose.

I’m the only suicide victim who has to work the vineyard. Donna said most suicides are ready for eternal bliss right after her the orientation session called Voluntary Passers – Pathways For Those With Special Issues. Donna said they don’t call it suicide because “It presents a bump in the path to serenity.” Donna works in Paths and Pathways.

The orientation materials came in a manila folder. The cover page was written in seventeen different languages with English third after Latin and Russian. So many Romans passed voluntarily after the collapse of the empire that Latin’s been at the top of the list ever since.

Rachel checked her crimson program and her watch every five minutes during the funeral. Her boyfriend was parked out back behind the mausoleum waiting in his black Ford-750 pick-up. It has fog lights and those mud flaps with the metallic playboy bunnies. He smoked Kool cigarettes and listened to Van Halen’s Go Ahead and Jump. I can’t believe Rachel left a school teacher for a San Diego redneck looking for a fog bank.

But since I’ve been in the vineyards, I don’t think about rednecks anymore. That’s part of the program. The vineyards take away the pain. Every time a grape drops into my sky-blue basket a drop of anger goes with it. By the time they give you the hundredth basket from the infinite stack, you love everyone. “Do I have to fill all those baskets before I get eternal bliss?” I asked. “Don’t worry Brad,” the guy stomping the grapes said. “There’s plenty of time in eternity.” He smiled and flipped a grape from his toe into his mouth.

Rachel worried that her boyfriend would duck out from the funeral without her. But that’s what she liked about him. “He always keeps me on my toes. I need someone, Brad, to keep me stimulated.” Rachel stuck her chin out when she said stimulated.

The boyfriend littered the butts right into the parking lot. A pile of unused urns leaned against the dumpster near the crematorium. He could have at least fetched one of those.

I asked about clairvoyance at the orientation but Donna didn’t know what it meant. “You know,” I said, “Do we get to predict the future up here?” Donna floated over, touched me on the shoulder and said “Brad that’s not an issue either. Just relax. Everything’s going to be just fine.”

Between orientation sessions, Donna sent us to the library. On the way out, she gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Brad your adjustment will be a little harder than most. But trust me, it will all turn out okay.”

The library was packed. Everybody and their books floated around. One doesn’t actually read in heaven. The stories just float into your head. Only fiction. The non-fiction is stacked in the corner. If you want to read it you have to take it all the way down to the transition station. Next to the rainbow. By the time most people get there, Donna said, the facts have weighed them down and they don’t ever try again. God doesn’t believe in facts.

I asked Donna why I had to work the eternal harvest if all the other suicide victims were ready for eternal bliss right after the Session for those with Special Issues. “Because Brad,” she said. “All the other voluntary passers did it for good reasons. You did it out of spite.”

I tried to argue with her for a long time. But Nordstroms trained Donna in strategies for difficult clients like me – Gentle but Firm.

Donna was right. I did do it out of spite. Killed myself right before Rachel and the boyfriend were scheduled to leave for Las Vegas. He had just finished washing the Ford-750 in my driveway. All rednecks wash their pickups before going to Las Vegas. He wiped the playboy mud flaps down with a chamois.

The cops showed up at the door an hour after they scraped me off the rocks at La Jolla cove. Rachel had to cancel the Las Vegas trip and that stimulated her enough to slam the door on the cops.

Everything went South after the funeral. The boyfriend heard that somebody won five and half million dollars on the super-sized slot machine at Caesar’s Palace the day they were supposed to arrive. He chewed Rachel out and kicked the back tire of the pickup with his steel-toed cowboy boot. Said that if wasn’t for that god damned dead school teacher asshole husband of hers, he would have won the god damned five and a half million himself. She bawled and he left right then to Las Vegas. They haven’t seen each other since.

Rachel moped around for six months. That’s when I took my own turn South. But heading South in heaven is the closest thing to hell one is ever going to find.

Rachel was down there in our old apartment and missed me real bad. Every five minutes, she picked up the picture of her and me overlooking La Jolla cove. She kept saying, “Brad, I made a terrible mistake.” She cried and cried and could barely get herself out of bed to her job at Burger Mart.

I tried to cry along with Rachel but they take your tear ducts away in heaven. They do it right after they melt the muscles that make you frown. It’s all non-surgical of course. No anesthetic required. In kind of tickled. Donna said they used to just plug up the tear ducts but some people picked at them when they went down for their funerals.

I couldn’t stand looking down on Rachel crying. I missed her so much and she missed me so much and now that she was all alone I figured that we should be back together again. That’s when I did it.

I floated over to the dining hall. The one where the midget waiters balance trays of hors devours on their heads. I walked right into the kitchen and grabbed the four foot serrated knife they use to cut the French bread. They call it Bread Domestique in heaven. On the way to the smoked salmon pond out back, the maitre’de midget tried to stop me. But midgets can’t keep up.

I slit my wrist eighteen times. No blood. No blood. No blood.

God caught me and boy was he pissed. He hauled my dead school teacher ass up to in his condo above the counseling docks. God has hundreds of condos but is exempt from the association fees. He told me that it was a long God damned time since anybody was stupid enough to try killing themselves in heaven.

I told him that I killed myself to get to heaven so I should be able to kill myself to get back down with Rachel.

It’s a drag being around God when he’s fuming mad. His beard turns moldy green and it reeks above all seven continents. He yanked the Persian rug out from below me and I somersaulted a half-dozen before I landed on the top shelf above his chair. I thumped down between a knick-knack of a sphinx and one of those black jockeys holding a lantern.

“Jesus Christ,” God said. “Where the hell did you get that idea?” He was below me behind his big mahogany desk. God has a bald spot.

“I figured that since Jesus traveled in both directions, I could too.”

Then God somersaulted himself a half-dozen times up to the shelf across from me. He leaned toward me and looked me right in the eye. I plugged my nose.

“That bum,” he said. “I sent Jesus down to earth to get things straight with the live people so I could concentrate on keeping all you dead fools happy. There’s a lot more dead people, you know.” God’s breath smelled like an attic. “You think it’s easy satisfying cave men and Elvis at the same time.”

“Jesus was supposed to make my life easier but he just went down to the promise land to party and do tricks. Christ, how hard is it to walk on water – he could do that when he was three.” God took out a three by five of Jesus on the cross. “You know what he said when they nailed him up,” God said. I shook my head and tried not to gag. ‘Hey Dad, guess what… I can see Jerusalem.’

When Jesus got back to heaven, God bought him his own condo but Jesus said he hates condos and he’s been living at home ever since.

“I expect more from you, Brad. Until I sort this mess out, you’re grounded.” I couldn’t float anymore. I spent the first three years of eternity trying to walk. But there’s no traction and the first layer of heaven is so thick that it’s like trudging up a sand dune.

That’s when Donna finally floated over. “Brad, we gotta get you some help. Otherwise you’re going waste the rest of eternity being miserable.” Donna was right. I couldn’t go through heaven dying to get back with Rachel. Death’s too short for that.

So now they’ve got me harvesting vines. Dropping grapes one after another into my sky-blue basket on my way towards eternal bliss.

Brad died a terrible death. We love him today with his final breath.

END

Out Late

by Janet Shell Anderson

It’s so dark I can’t see my hand before my face.

Midsummer night. Late. Clouds black as oil roll across the moon. I can hear someone behind me in the dark street, but I can’t see him. I hear his heavy footsteps.

There’s not a car on the street; no one comes out of the bars. Leftover rain, like spilled mercury, pools on cobblestones. I hear him. Ten steps behind. Nine. Closer.

The brick buildings tilt in the night, lean away. This is the Haymarket, a century old, jammed with brick buildings, cobble alleys, loading docks.

She comes out of an alley. I can’t believe it. I know it’s her the way you know who someone is in a dream, but this is no dream.

“Lynn.”

She was always fearless, when we were teenagers, when we were young women, when she was sick, when she was dying. In the hospital they told her, “You’ll die today.” She shrugged, talked about horses, went to sleep in that white room. I prayed for her, although it meant nothing to me and I knew if she heard, she would have hated it. I just didn’t know what else to say when she began to sleep the sleep that would never end. Nunc et hora mortis nostrae. Now and at the hour of our death. Then I sat there and listened to her breathe half the night until at three a.m. there was no more breathing.

I always thought she would live longer than me.

Black leather jacket on her, black leather pants, boots, she looks like trouble, like she always did. My sister, my flesh and blood, I can feel the shape of her walking without seeing it.

“Jen,” she says.

She knows I am afraid. It’s so black here; where are we? How can she be here?

The railroad tracks are close; we move toward them. I want to go down the tracks, go somewhere. I want to hear music, want to party, want this to be a dream. The tracks are silences, a shape of darkness in the night with a ton of empty train sitting there. No stars. Our childhood, our husbands, our children, our lives, where are they? What happened?

Behind us, footsteps. What is tracking us?

He comes so close, so close. Lynn is not afraid. She has been in the white room; she has fallen asleep dreaming of horses. She went away forever listening to me babble about horses we rode as teenagers, triple jumps we jumped, races we won, hearing me pray old prayers neither of us believe in.

“Out late?” he asks.

The night is so dark. What am I doing walking with Lynn through the Haymarket at this hour?

Someone is talking over us. Muttering. Nunc et hora mortis nostrae. Now and at the hour of our death. Over and over. What are they talking about?

It’s so dark I can’t see my hand before my face.

Four Parties

by R. J. Astruc

Dionysius, god of wine, is working in his studio when the doorbell rings. For a second he stands frozen, an arm outstretched, the tip of his brush touching the canvas, a sigh hissing out between his clenched teeth like a winter’s draft. No rest for the wicked, he thinks—a phrase that seems to suit the occasion, although he’s not completely sure why.

“Coming,” he calls to the locked door, lowering his brush. Coming—a lie, of course. He will not be hurried, refuses to be hurried through a lifetime where eternity stretches out lugubriously before him like a desert highway. Carefully he sets aside his palette, his brushes, the methyl-soaked handkerchief he uses to blot out his mistakes. Only when his things are neatly put away does Dionysius go to the door.

The bell rings again as he sights through the peep-hole at his visitor. It’s a woman, tall and plain with skin that’s not brown so much as a deep shade of red. She’s wearing a business suit and sunglasses and her hair’s hidden in an oversized scarf-wrap-thing which Dionysius understands is fashion these days. Automatically he checks her hands for legal summons, for bills, for clipboards and petitions, but she holds nothing but a cigarette, unlit, and a set of fresh-cut silver keys.

“Debt collection?” he calls.

“Business.”

“Who are you?”

“Someone who can pay.”

He wipes paint onto his vest—his hands are sticky with it—and opens the door. She smiles and slips past him into the studio.

“You like art?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “But I appreciate the unique.”

“Please,” he says. “Look around. Let me know if you see anything you like.”

In silence she moves through his studio, past a hundred dusty canvases, stacked clumsily and carelessly as old newspapers. They’re oil paintings—Dionysius has always liked the texture of oil—in a classical style. Their content is largely erotic in nature: landscapes of nudes, their smooth bodies interwoven and interlaced like the famous threads of Arachne. Most he has painted from memory. Old parties, with old friends. The deep, dark eyes of Eros stare back from one piece, beguiling as Dionysius remembers them; beside the love-god is beautiful Aphrodite, her body a sweep of white paint that seems to froth at the edges like the tide that birthed her. Dionysius himself often appears in his own paintings; sometimes singing, sometimes dancing, sometimes fucking, and always naked, a handful of grapes clutched in one hand, his olive skin stained with their livid juice.

“I suppose there’s a market for this sort of thing,” the visitor says, and laughs, tossing back her head.

Dionysius flinches.

She stands below the only window in the room, a large, square pane that overlooks the city below, the thundering loops of the motorways that twist in and out of each other like a Gorgon’s hair. The sunlight does not touch her but seems to flow around her, so that her skin seems darker still. Dionysius wants to offer her something—wine, of course, it has to be wine—but she speaks before he can grope, limply, for the liquor cabinet.

She says: “I want you to throw me a party.”

“I don’t do that any more.”

“That’s what I heard. But I’m still asking.” The visitor runs her dark fingers around the wooden frame of a painting, and her smile is a strange, wet thing—slippery, sly. “It can’t be fun to live in the past like this. You can’t want this. You were someone, once. Dionysius, god of wine, god of fun. God of getting fucked up and fucking around, that’s the story, isn’t it?”

It’s been a long time since he’s heard his true name. “Who did you hear about me from? Most of my friends are—”

“Gone,” she finishes for him. “Or impotent. Do gods die, or do they just fade away? Either way, it makes no difference. Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, they’re lost in their own age. They aren’t here in the here-and-now and maybe they never were. They never learnt to move with the times. Follow the zeitgeist, it’s always been my motto. Old gods should learn new tricks, don’t you think?”

He says nothing.

“The money’s good. Might help you with those debts.”

She touches his chin. Her eyes are yellow, rimmed with red, and in them Dionysius sees a rare fire, a bright light within a desert that seems familiar in a way he can’t explain. He feels detached, he feels light-headed. In these few short minutes since her arrival, his simple, eternal existence has spun suddenly out of control. And when his visitor smiles again, that weird, slippery smile of hers, Dionysius—who is beautiful, who is young, who is still beautiful and young all these years later—feels like the last two centuries never happened. He remembers Minos, Thermopylae, Athens, Olympus; he remembers every party held in his honor since the crushing of the first grape. Even his dusty old paintings seem flushed with colour, with new life, and he can almost—almost—believe her when she says:

“No one ever threw parties like you, Dionysius.”

He asks, hoarsely: “How much money?”

She puts a black plastic rectangle on the ledge of his easel. Dionysius picks it up. On the back of the rectangle is a number. Dionysius, infused with the current of the zeitgeist, doesn’t look at it.

“Okay,” he says.

*

The party is a show-biz deal; the invited are Hollywood starlets, models, singers, and the Beverley Hills irregulars that Dionysius’ visitor simply calls ‘industry people’. The movers and shakers. The Big Names. Spare no expense, she’s instructed him, and so Dionysius has booked the most popular nightclub in the city. He’s flown in the hottest DJs from all over the country, the finest lighting technicians, and the most talented baristas, who toss cocktails in glowing metal shakers with the practiced skill of circus jugglers. Make sure there’s plenty of liquor available, the visitor has said, but definitely no food. You know what models are like.

It’s been a while since he’s planned a party—decades, maybe even centuries. And yet as he works, making calls, organizing decorations, schmoozing his way into guest books and celebrity appointments, Dionysius feels more contented than he ever has painting away in his cramped artist’s studio. This is the life he’s meant to be leading, he realizes; this life of wild parties and orgies and disco and drugs and twenty-first century fun. This is why he, alone amongst the Greek gods, was spared the ignominy of fading into mythology. I am alive, Dionysius thinks, the zeitgeist burning in his chest; I am in my element.

In the weeks leading up to the event, Dionysius goes out into the city. He drifts from bar to bar, from club to club, from funky back-alley lounges to multilevel discos. His movie-star good looks grant him automatic access to the best rooms and audience with the coolest people. In the small hours of the morning the god drinks extravagant cocktails filled with glace fruit; he snorts coke off a glass table; he makes love in a toilet stall to two pale girls and a boy with green hair. It’s fun—it’s mad, but it’s fun too, and at the same time it’s like coming home.

Research excursions, he calls these little adventures, and chalks them down in his expense account.

“You’ve changed,” the visitor says, when she comes to collect his bill.

“I’m following the zeitgeist,” says Dionysius. “I’ll see you at the party.”

On the night, on the night of the big night, the god of wine dances with the beautiful people on a raised circular platform that’s lit up to look like the earth. Around him a thousand lithe bodies twist like ribbons in the wind, shimmering with sparkling paint and sequins and glitter. Some of them wear elegant ball gowns; some wear designer rags; some wear colorful Renaissance-styled masks inset with jewels and framed with wild feathers and silk roses. Between the flashes of the strobe lights, Dionysius glimpses Hollywood faces with high, sculpted cheekbones and somehow haunted eyes; he sees long bony fingers and hard flat stomachs and chests with visible ribs that remind him of corrugated iron.

Dancing skeletons, he thinks. This sort of extreme thinness, he knows, is fashion, too. He hears them whisper their skinny secrets amongst themselves—Atkins, Southbeach, Grapefruit, did you try? Did it work?—and sighs. The newspapers are full of stories of famine and food shortages; to starve on purpose seems almost, well, tactless.

An emaciated black teenager brushes against Dionysius’ shoulder, her prominent collarbones making him think of the photographs he’s seen of starving Third World children. Her mask, which is white and studded with diamonds, makes her look like some strange, exotic bird. As the music rises to a crescendo, the black girl stretches out her arms, and instinctively Dionysius reaches for her—he feels impulsive, compulsive, compelled by a sudden and inexplicable sense of connection. There, on the dance floor, they kiss. The black girl’s mouth is hungry, her breath stale. Dionysius finds himself thinking again of the desert, of barren things, of the red-skinned visitor-woman and her yellow eyes.

“Beautiful,” whispers the black girl. “This party.”

“Thank you,” says Dionysius, awkwardly.

“It’s mine,” says the black girl. “My party. To welcome me home. Did you know? Did she say?”

“I didn’t know. She didn’t—”

The black girl pushes him from the platform, giggling; he hits the ground awkwardly; and then the visitor is there, pulling him to his feet, her hands warm around his.

“You never told me it was a welcome home party,” Dionysius complains, rubbing a jarred elbow. “I could have arranged for personalized decorations. Although I never caught her name—or yours, for that matter.”

The visitor smiles. Around her neck is a simple silver necklace, a concave disc suspended from a chain, and she fingers it as she speaks like a good-luck charm. “I like what you did here,” she says. “I think this could be a good partnership, god of wine. I have another party that needs a planner. A little different, this one. A fundraiser, I guess you could call it. What do you think?”

“Yes,” says Dionysius.

*

The next party is in a hospital. Worse, it’s a child’s party. When Dionysius visits the ward—a reconnaissance mission, checking acoustics, space—he’s shocked by the sheer coldness of the place, the sterilized white sheets and disinfectant smell, and the long aisles of bald, stony-faced children that slump on their beds like weird, cherubic gargoyles. Around them flutter parents and family, nervous and impotent in the face of disease. He sees wilted flowers, abandoned toys, and hears the whispered diagnosis at every bedside—leukemia, kidney failure, sarcoma, heart disease, hemophilia, fatal, clinical, terminal. Dionysius remembers the diseases of his time, the pox, leprosy, and the white death, the quiet flu that came to the children of the poor. Awful, Dionysius thinks, just awful.

Outside he calls the visitor. “We’ve got to brighten up the place,” he says. “Got to brighten the place up, stat. Streamers. Paint. Get Well Soon balloons.”

“They aren’t getting well,” she says. “Why give false hope?”

“You want me to throw a kid a party in that sort of—”

But she’s hung up.

He decides to go with the balloons anyway. After all, he’s the one who throws the best parties, not the visitor. He picks a rainbow theme and finds cute, colorful bears in a gift shop in the city. He finds a niche children’s caterer and a couple of entertainers—nothing too cerebral, just magic tricks and jugglers and a guy who does balloon animals and sings nursery rhymes. Then there’s a photographer—there has to be a photographer for an event like this, someone to catch little Johnny’s pre-chemo smile. Once Dionysius is done making arrangements for the kids, he starts on the furniture, hiring a podium and some extra folding chairs just in case someone has to make a speech.

It’s got to be good, this one does, it’s got to be great. Dionysius is too aware, too bitterly aware, that his party might be the last chance any of these sad bald kids have to have fun.

Weeks roll on. The day comes. The decorators set up in the ward while the sick kids watch, their big eyes hollow. Some are wearing shiny Christmas-cracker crowns; others wear masks like Wild West gangsters. It’s so silent, too silent. Desperate, Dionysius summons his army of entertainers and sends them out into the cold white hospital room. It’s like sending them out into the Antarctic. Minutes pass before there’s a laugh, a little snort from a skinny leukemia patient in the corner, but it is a laugh, and slowly, almost shyly, the other kids start laughing too. The juggler juggles, the clowns clown, and all around, parents breathe quiet sighs of relief. In his corner, Dionysius does, too. For a short time, the grim specters of pain and death have been banished from the hospital ward.

The food comes out later, and that’s a big hit with the kids, too—cupcakes with tiny sugar teddy bears on them, star-shaped toast and dips for the diabetics, rainbow colored jelly for the kids who have trouble swallowing. And the laughter continues, grows stronger, and Dionysius’ heart grows warm as he watches them. He’ll paint this scene, one day, he decides: a hundred dying children eating party food and laughing in the face of the inevitable.

The visitor appears beside him, her hand on his sleeve. “There’s someone you should meet,” she whispers.

She leads him to the bedside of a pale boy with narrow eyes and a bullet-shaped head. He’s wearing a green crown and a white mask that’s different from the others, this one fringed with decaying lace and beads. Subtly, out of habit, Dionysius checks the boy’s medical notes, clipped to the bottom of his bed. But there’s no diagnosis there, just a single plain sheet with the letter O on it, an O or maybe a zero.

“This is the first time I have been welcomed,” says the boy. His thin hands rest on his lap. His voice is high and fluting and there’s a faint hiss of a lisp every time he breathes out. “A party. A party for me. It is unusual but not… unlikable.”

His narrow eyes shift to the visitor, who nods and smiles an encouraging and uncharacteristically maternal smile.

“On the last day all gods will come together and make anew,” the boy says. There’s no inflection to his speech, Dionysius notices, as if he’s reciting lines from a school book. “Today faith has many channels. But combined, faith is a river that floods its banks. Do you know this, Dionysius, god of wine?”

“You’re a god?” Dionysius squints.

“I was in Africa,” says the crowned boy. He sings the words like a playground rhyme. “I walked amongst the birds of Asia and slept in the blankets of the Australians. And in the Americas I made friends and enemies and—”

The visitor steers Dionysius away. “You did well,” she admits. “To be honest, I didn’t think you’d manage it. Kids like those can give you the creeps, don’t you think?”

“I like kids,” says Dionysius.

“Of course you do.” She leans back to look at him. “And I like you, Dionysius. I like you a lot. I want you to arrange another party for me. Two of them, actually. Nothing like this, no sick kids or jugglers, just a business meeting for a handful of international politicians, and then a Halloween party. What do you say?”

When he nods his agreement, she stands on her tip-toes to kiss his forehead. For a second, Dionysius imagines he feels his skin burning beneath her touch, but when he raises his hand to the place he finds nothing.

*

He doesn’t get to go to the third party.

He books out an entire conference centre, he arranges the catering, and he hires fifty security guards to stand outside every exit, checking IDs. And that’s it—he isn’t allowed in, isn’t even allowed on the premises while the big meeting is on. He can only watch from across the street as one flashy car after the next rolls into the conference centre carpark. Most of the cars have tinted windows, but Dionysius can see the occupants of a few: a woman in traditional West African clothing, another in a kimono, and an old man in the panoply of an American army general, his heavy hands wrapped around the sword in his lap as if it were a child.

Who is the visitor, Dionysius wonders, watching the procession of cars vanish behind the gates, and how does she know all these strange people? And why can’t I meet them—only, he realizes, he doesn’t want to. The first party was fun, the second party was sweet, but this party is different—there is something sinister, something obscurely threatening about the cars. Suddenly Dionysius feels dreadful; he feels dread. It burbles up inside him like the waterspout of Charybdis. Only a fool would work for a woman whose name they didn’t know, he thinks. The next party will be my last.

That night he goes back to his studio and gets drunk. It is, he thinks, the prerogative of the god of wine. He sits amongst his dusty old paintings, dustier now after months of neglect, and listens to what news his battered old radio can siphon from the polluted city air. There’s more stories of famine in the third world; food shortages in the second. War has broken out in North Africa, continues in the Middle East, and military coups have overthrown several island states in Oceania. Bird flu, the great epidemic, H5N1 or N1H5 or whatever it is, has spread from Asia to Europe. Pandemic, endemic… Shuddering, Dionysius closes his eyes and remembers the Greece of his youth. Vineyards; white temples; blue seas; crowds in the marketplace; dust rising from the hills; Ariadne’s small hands and unbalanced smile. Those old days were good, he realizes, and stumbles forward on his hands and knees. His paintings. His old friends. His old memories. Paint smears beneath his fingers. Impulsively, drunkenly, he lifts up a canvas and throws it against the window. The glass breaks. He laughs reflexively. The tenant in the room above him bangs on the ceiling. Dionysius staggers to his feet and wobbles to the window. A cold wind blows off the distant sea. Cars race around the motorway’s twisted mobius strip. Light blink intermittently in nearby buildings. In the thin light of dusk the city is a strange foreign place and Dionysius wishes he could go home.

He realizes now there is only one question he needs to ask the visitor: Where is the zeitgeist leading him?

*

It is Halloween, and Dionysius’ last party is a masque.

It’s some sort of theatrical deal and it’s being held in a cemetery, and because it’s a big party—a really big party, according to the visitor, who’s not normally given to superlatives—there are hundreds of other helpers already involved in getting things organized. The visitor hasn’t told Dionysius anything about the party, only to be there, and so he is, less a party-planner than a gate-crasher, dressed uncomfortably in a formal suit he hasn’t worn for years. Someone, a tall woman in a crude red mask, offers him a mask of his own from a bucket, and he chooses one that’s black and sleek as panther-skin.

He walks through the cemetery. It’s a huge, run down old place, the graves overgrown with grass and those loopy, tangled weeds that burst out in tiny white flowers come spring. The paths that run through it are haphazard, as if the graves came first and the paths came later, winding their way through what narrow gaps remained. Most of the headstones are old, the letters weathered down to dark channels in the rock, but there’s the odd modern, marble monstrosity with photographs of the recently dead glimmering behind glass. A large statue of an angel watches over the northern end of the cemetery, hands clasped in prayer, both its wings missing.

There aren’t many decorations up right now, nothing that says definitively that this is an actual party, but there are lots of people, all masked, most wearing fancy dress costumes. Vampires, zombies, mummies—the traditional Halloween monsters—lurk on the fringes of the party, but the majority of guests have opted for historical costumes. Vikings hold axes in one hand, Styrofoam cups of punch in the other; a Persian magician in a flowing cape lurks in the shadow of a crypt; on a bench to the east, a thick-set woman is dressed in the battle regalia of the goddess Athena. Dionysius steps closer to admire her costume, the gold helmet and bright shield topped with the gorgon Medusa’s severed head—and then stops, abruptly. There’s a familiarity about the woman’s profile, a resemblance that’s too close for comfort. Something about the proud brow, the wide nostrils, and those eyes behind her mask, eyes that seem both war-weary and war-hungry at the same time.

“Dionysius,” says the woman, rising.

“Athena. Athena.” He walks forward on the balls of his feet, a man wading through the mist of a dream. Was there bad blood between them when they last parted company? He can’t remember, the feuds of the old days were endless and impossible to follow, and anyway, he doesn’t care. When he reaches her he puts his arms around her stiff, muscular body and hugs her. “You’re here,” he says, when they part. “Why are you here? I thought you were all—“

“I was woken,” says the goddess of war. “There was a meeting I had to attend.”

“A meeting?” Dionysius asks, and as he does so the earth does something beneath his feet, hiccups maybe, a little bounce that almost sets him off balance. He stares at the ground and feels the quake again, a deep rumble in the soil, tectonic plates nudging against each other like Eskimos rubbing noses. Someone near the cemetery gates lets out a yell, either Halleluiah or Eureka, and he hears the flinty sound of a shovel striking stone. Confused–more confused—he turns back to Athena, but she’s already stalking away, sword unsheathed.

He sits down on the bench she’s vacated and watches the masked guests waltz across the shaking earth. Despite their sequined masks, he’s starting to recognize them. The old gods. Thor with his hammer, the jackal-headed Anubis, and the giant White Deev of the Persians… What was it the crowned boy had said? Combined, faith is a river that floods its banks. But what does that mean? He remembers the tsunamis in Indonesia, the floods of North America, and the steadily rising sea levels that threaten to submerge the earth. Suddenly fearful, Dionysius looks up to see fire in the distance—an apartment building? a mansion?—and long grey threads of smoke that spin toward the eye of the moon. Shouts come from the streets beyond; he hears the screeching of cars, and a strange cracking noise that sounds like concrete shattering. Overhead the sky grows darker and the clouds thicker, bubbling in preparation for a storm. Above the cemetery walls a great shape looms into view, like the long neck of some prehistoric monster, and hangs there in silhouette, a dark highway to the heavens. Inside his chest the zeitgeist burns suddenly like a poison, and Dionysius staggers to his feet even as the earth seethes again, the cracks in its surface emitting a stench of sulfur.

“Darlin’, this is one hell of a welcome party you’ve thrown me.”

The voice comes from around his elbow. Startled, Dionysius looks down into the wizened face of an old woman, an old ugly woman, whose face is as wrinkled as a sultana and whose black eyes nest in heavy pouches that hang almost to the corner of her mouth. She smells old, too, pungently old, like something rotted and dried out and dead. The crone of the fates, perhaps? Dionysius wonders.

“I don’t believe we’ve met—”

“Oh, we have, ducky,” says the old woman cheerfully, “only you never knew my face. I’m everywhere, god of wine. I’m the eldest, you see. Older than you. Older than all of my guests. Even older than Herself, though she’d be loathe to admit it.”

“Herself?”

But he knows already. The visitor, with her eyes like fire in the desert.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “I just planned some parties. I didn’t mean to start—”

He spreads his arms to intimate it all, the erupting earth, the burning city, and the masque of the old gods. Four parties, he thinks. I just did four parties. The thin girl. The crowned boy. The general. And now this ugly, ragged old woman who smells like the crypt, who smells like death, who is, Dionysius realizes, who actually is—
Four parties. Four horsemen. And an apocalypse rising like a kraken beneath his feet.

“Don’t you see, darlin’?” says the old woman. “We’re all here. We’re ready to begin.”

Dionysius runs. He doesn’t know what else to do. He runs through the cemetery and into the city streets, never stopping, never hesitating, the zeitgeist thrumming in his blood like a designer drug. He runs mindlessly, without any destination in mind—will there be any destinations left, after this?—he runs like Acteon, chased by his own hounds. About him the world he knows is imploding. Windows explode outward into the streets; people, some naked, scream amongst the rubble of broken buildings; fires leap from house to house; sulfur spits from the cracked pavement. A mad man with a gun stands on a rooftop and challenges the sky with a staccato of bullets. Head down, Dionysius runs through it all.

Later, amongst the burning wreckage of a skyscraper, the god of wine sees a familiar face. A red-brown woman in a suit, her dark hair loose in the wind. In his mind he frames this image, as he would a painting: the broken tower, a lash of flame, and the visitor standing like some proud champion over the fallen. All things have come together, all things have fallen apart. Dionysius goes to her, weeping, saying: “What is this? What have you done?”

Softly, softly, the visitor takes his hand.

She whispers: “Come and see.”

Deianira

by J. M. McDermott

Jealous woman, they say she bathed her husband’s shirt in the poisoned blood of a centaur. Maybe she poisoned him on purpose. Maybe she didn’t know it was poison. Maybe she didn’t care what it was, as long as it hurt the man that hurt her so much.


By our new house, at the edge of the city, there’s a park with a long, paved trail that cuts into the forest like a concrete river. From off the side of it there’s a strange concrete marker along a river. It’s narrow as a pipe, but square. It isn’t shaped like a tombstone, exactly. Written top to bottom, in plain block letters, is TESCOROW. I don’t know what it means, or what it’s for. My husband, Alcaeous, says it’s something to do with oil or gas companies, marking their lines for future workmen. He’s an oil man, and knows about these things. He says its nothing.

I don’t know, though. I’ve seen the plates his company, Juno, puts on roads and access ports. There’s nothing familiar about the TESCOROW marker. That it is far from the side of the road, near a river that touches paths along the paved trail makes me wonder how workmen would ever reach this place, before the trail was laid down through the scrub grass and trees. I’ve seen bobcats on this trail, and coiled copperheads the size of bike tires. The snakes love the heat on the concrete. They crawl up from the river to rest upon the artificial stones. I’ve seen dogs off leashes running ahead, gregarious and wild. This isn’t a place of the oil and gas men. This is a place the animals hold down against the press of the city, and maybe the trail will keep the developers from cutting down all the trees along the river.

That no one knew the meaning of the marker in the woods along the river, I loved. Let there be mystery in the world. Let there be shadows in the trees, and shambling mounds of fallen leaves that might be shamble men.

Of all the mysteries of the world, the one I like the least was where my husband went when he flew around the world to tour his pipelines and wells. He called me from hotel lobbies, never hotel rooms. He called me from airports. He rarely called me when he was alone in a room, lonely in the dark. He says he just read reports, watched TV, or slept once he went upstairs. If he got really bored he’d go to the gym, or the bar to watch sports. He never mentioned the possibility of a woman in his room. Alcaeous was the son of oil barons, shipping magnates, and the topless fashion models that clung to the deck of their ships. Of course he was cheating on me. Why wouldn’t he be cheating on me? I had a house in the suburbs big enough to fit three or four large houses inside of it. I could take a car in to the city whenever I liked to shop at expensive stores. I could drink fine wine alone on the large balcony overlooking the woods at sunset while my husband traveled the world, touring his pipelines and refineries. This is the way things worked. Marriage was a contract, like a business arrangement. And, at least when he was home, he was only with me.

When he was home.

I saw children on the trail, with paper sailboats leaning out over the water, placing their vessels into the gentle current, and then running along the sides to watch them go. The winner was the one whose ship went the farthest. I raced behind them a while, jogging to keep up with their boats. I wanted to see whose ship would sail the farthest. A fallen tree caught one of them in its branches. The boy whose ship it was, for a moment, thought of crawling out along the log, and releasing his boat. He came to his senses when the log shifted. It was a monster in the shape of a log. I saw it, and he did, too. Its branches were the heads of a small hydra. It opened one of its eyes and looked back at the boy, and at me.

The boy screamed and ran away to his friend, and the other ship.

I didn’t run. I stopped and stared. It had an ancient eye, and some of its branches were tentacles. It was camouflaged as a fallen tree, but it was something older than a tree.

“Hello,” I said.

It blinked at me.

“Are you the mighty Tescorow?”

It looked away from me, closed its single eye, and pulled all its branches together into a single trunk, like an alligator’s tail. It slipped under the water. The black moss along its back made it look like a chunk of river stones.

On the phone, Alceous said that I saw an alligator, nothing more. It must have swum upstream with the warm weather. Farther down the river, hundreds of miles away, the alligators are natives to the water. Perhaps someone had released an alligator there, hoping the creature would swim downstream to its brothers and sisters. I tried to explain about the branching tentacle eyes, heads, and the transformation into stones below the water. My husband surrendered to me. He said, “Maybe you’re right, dear.” I knew he didn’t believe me, and he wasn’t going to fight me about it from a hotel lobby in the middle of Brazil when he had a woman waiting upstairs.

There is still a mystery in the world, but my husband is no longer one of them. When we were young, I thought he was fascinating and mysterious, a vast interior country to be discovered and named and conquered. Now, I’m nearly fifty. My children are grown. I wonder what happened to the sense of mystery in my husband. I wonder what happened to the sense of mystery I held over him like an Oracle’s incense.

When he comes home, I’ll take him for a walk along this trail, and see if we can find it again. I’ll bring paper sailboats of my own. I’ll make him place one in the water next to mine, where the boys placed theirs. We will search for the transforming creature again with paper ships.

I can feel it in the house when he is home. There’s a low television hum, somewhere, or the sound of the weight machines clanking against each other. He’s older than me, and he still lifts weights every day. He still runs three miles before he has coffee in the morning. When he hunts with younger men from his company, they are often surprised at his vigor. I am, too. I lean into him at night, and it’s like leaning into a tree. I wonder at the roots of him, digging into me, and how gentle he is that I come out unbruised. When he was a young man, his first family died in a car accident. It was his fault. He was drunk. He did ten years of probation for it. He couldn’t keep any pictures of her out in the house. There’s a box of them somewhere in the attic. I’ve never walked in on him up there, with the pictures spread out before him of his lost wife. It’s like her pictures might as well be her ashes in a mausoleum. How can he treat her memory like that? It’s just as dismissive as when he agrees with me to drop an issue.

Another day along the river, I see horse riders in the woods on the other side of the river from the trail. They’re riding slowly through the thick underbrush. They are dressed like cowboys, with chaps and spurs. They don’t have pistols, but they seem to be carrying bottles of Gatorade in the holsters. One of the men was whistling something, but he was gone and out of earshot before I could pick out the tune. I should ask my husband for horses. His mother kept horses when he was young. I didn’t see the monster in the water that day, but I did see someone had pushed a rotten tree over to cross the river on foot, along the rotten wood. It didn’t look safe. I thought about doing it, just to see what was on the other side of the river, but whatever I expected I’d find was not enough of a temptation to lead me over the blackened bark and branches. I could see the kids with their sailboats running over, laughing at each other.

Then, I had a thought: what else would the monster eat. I studied the bridge carefully. I threw a rock at it, and watched it for signs of motion. There were no squirrels, here, and no sounds of people playing. Bicyclists flew past, paying me no attention at all.

The stones did nothing. I touched the log bridge with my hand. If it was the monster, it did not move. I looked up and down the river. One of the cowboys was visible, through the packed trees. He was drinking Gatorade and resting a moment. The way he sat on the saddle, and the way the horse stood, and the angle of it, I realized it could be a trick. The horse’s head could be stuffed and lifeless. The cowboy, riding in a saddle just a little too high on the animal’s back, could be a centaur in disguise, with false legs hanging off the sides of his own back.

He saw me looking at him. He smiled. He took the brim of his hat and bowed a little, like a gentleman. When the horse took up again, I looked closely at the animal’s face. It seemed stiff, like it’s neck was moving a little wrong. It wasn’t in balance with the rest of the animal.

So, there are still centaurs in the world, out past the trees, where there are no roads or travelers to bother them, anymore. With the invention of the automobile, I imagine it became easy to be a wild creature. People didn’t really go into the trees except at state parks anymore.

I didn’t tell my husband about it, because he would call it a silly whim, and then, when pressed, he would agree with me. He is a very agreeable man, my husband. He does not want to fight with me.

The next day, I stop someone on the trail, a runner who is stretching his legs against the trunk of a tree. “Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” he says.

“It’s a nice day.”

“Sure is. Good day for a run.”

“Yes. Do you come here much?”

“Oh, when I can. My wife likes me to get out of the house and get some exercise now and then. I used to be on the track team in college.”

“Have you ever seen anything strange on the trail?”

“What?”

“You know, strange things. I thought I saw an alligator the other day, but I’m not sure what I saw. Maybe it was an alligator.”

“Oh, I haven’t seen anything but snakes. Have to watch out for those.”

“Well, keep an eye out. It was something big.”

“Yeah, I will,” he said. He took off then, waving at me. The farther away he got, the more I wondered if I was going crazy, or if he thought I was going crazy. I spend too much time alone, with my husband away. I should join a book club, or a church, or a church book club. I should take classes. Rich wives are supposed to take classes.

I walked along the path, searching for signs and portents and strange things. The only weird thing was, I was there for over an hour, walking along the path, and I never saw the jogging man, again. He had either kept on into the woods, down to the end of the trail deep in the woods, or he had been intercepted along the way.

Going home, there seemed to be many signs for lost pets. Too many.

I’m making myself crazy, thinking about it.

I think I want to find the centaurs, and talk to them, and find out what is happening here, at the edge of the city. I want to see the mysteries of this world with my own eyes.

My husband flew in late at night. I heard his key on the lock downstairs. I heard him entering his security code. I felt his weight in the bed, lying down beside me, and his huge hands on my arm in the night. I leaned into him, half-asleep. I wondered if I could ever keep him here. I wondered if there was ever a way to keep him here, forever. My husband, in my bed.

In the morning, we made slow love, and ate a long breakfast. His phone kept ringing, but he turned it off. He looked tired.

“How were the pipes?”

He smiled. He took a long sip of his coffee. “It is as if the oil will never end. There is so much of it. As soon as it starts to run down, it becomes cost effective to burn sand to melt the oil out of it. The pipes are fine. Better than fine. I should retire.”

“You would get bored.”

“I would,” he said. He put his coffee down. “But not because of you.”

“Do you want to go for a walk today?”

“Your mythical alligator? Yes. Let me get my gun.”

It wasn’t unusual for him to carry a gun. It isn’t a shocking thing to say. We were wealthy beyond many people’s wildest dreams, and there was always risks associated with that. Kidnappers. Thieves. Protestors and activists that go too far. I do not carry a gun, but he does. He carries it everywhere it’s legal. It’s a normal thing for us, and without it he would feel like he had no wallet or watch. He’d feel a little naked without it concealed in his belt.

So, he carries a gun.

We walk to the trail. It’s a nice day. The sun was bright. The wind was gentle and cool. We walk to the trail, and I peer over the edge constantly, holding my husband’s hand, searching for signs of the unknown things of the world. I showed my husband the strange marker, TESCOROW.

“It could be an oil or gas line. I’m sure of it.”

“Weird, though, isn’t it? I mean, look at where it’s placed. Right along the river, by this trail. It’s not old, either.”

“It is strange. Perhaps it is a cemetery marker. Perhaps it is a dog who died, and he liked this trail. The owner loved the dog, and buried it here.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I said. It was my turn to dismissively agree.

“Is dog,” he said, very Greek for a moment.

Nothing else was on the trail but grass and breeze and joggers and dogs. We didn’t even see a snake or a bobcat. Perhaps the dogs had chased them all back deeper into the woods.

And home again in the sort of comfortable silence that comes from thirty years of marriage. We did not need to tell each other what we were doing in the house. We wandered into the kitchen to make paella. I wandered into the bedroom to shower and put on a house dress and water plants.

While he was cooking, his cellphone rang more. He wandered into the backyard to answer it, because he still believed his signal was stronger in the yard, even though it wasn’t any stronger anywhere. He had a good cellphone. It had a good connection anywhere in the world.

A late lunch on the balcony, I lit candles. I smiled and sipped white wine. The paella was like eating a tidepool. All the lost sea creatures trapped in the drawn away tide, boiled in the sun with rice the color of golden sand and sunlight.

“Tell me about your first wife. Tell me anything about her.”

He choked on his rice. “What is this? What?”

“Tell me about her. I want to know about her.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m your wife, and I want to know about her.”

“It was many years ago. Many years. Long time. Eat paella. Do not concern yourself with the past. It hurts too much. Please.”

“Then hurt. You can cry in front of me. I’m your wife, Allie. You’re supposed to cry with me sometimes.”

“I cry all the time.”

“I know, and it doesn’t bother you to cry a little about the television and the news and all the people that died in that Tsunami you didn’t know. You never cry about someone close to your heart. Tell me about Meg. You never cry about her. You never cry about me. You wouldn’t cry about me if I was gone.”

He threw his fork over the balcony. He stood up from the table and stormed inside the house.

I waited. Nothing happened. I stood up gingerly, and walked into the house.

“Tears are nothing.” he said. He was holding a bottle of whiskey like it was a gun and he was shooting himself in the mouth with it. He was drinking from it. His anger came from nowhere I understood. I’m his wife. I’m supposed to know his moods. Did he lose workers he knew? Accidents happen on oil lines. Did people die and I didn’t hear about it?

“I don’t want to see you drunk,” I said.

“It was an accident. I’ve paid for my sins. I held their broken bodies in my hands. How dare you talk to me like this.”

“I’m going for a walk,” I said. “I don’t want to be here if you’re just going to get drunk.”

“I pay for this house. Is good house. I pay for it. I work hard for it.” He sat down in a chair. He wasn’t shouting. He was talking to himself, falling softer. If it was his house, why wasn’t he ever here for any length of time? His house was just another hotel, with another woman inside of it to comfort him.

I put on tennis shoes. I took keys with me so he couldn’t lock me out of the house.

When I closed the door, I locked it. I whispered into the door. I want a divorce.

It was his house. It was in his name. I didn’t want it. I never wanted big houses, fancy cars, a business spread out all over the world like a hydra. I just wanted a man to love me. I just wanted to be loved. Real love, and that’s all. I didn’t want to be alone all the time.

I walked down to the trail, then. TESCOROW was still there, a marker without meaning, in the woods beside a river. The log bridge was there, now, beside the marker. It had migrated to the marker.

“Hello?” I said. “Are you the creature I saw, or a log bridge?”

The leaves on the branches fluttered into life. Flower buds like hundreds of tiny heads yawned open, curled into glorious red, and curled back into the blackened stem as if never there.

“Do you want me to cross you?”

It did nothing. I heard the sound of horseman riding at a gentle clip along the trail across the river. One of them slowed and smiled at me. His saddle was so high up the horse’s back, I knew.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Hey, what’s wrong with your horse?”

“What?”

“It’s head looks funny!”

He smacked the side of it. “So it does. That log looks pretty flimsy if you’re thinking of crossing.”

“I don’t trust it, myself,” I said. “But, I’d love to cross.”

“Well, now, I might be able to help you with that. If you’re up for it.”

He turned his stiff-faced animal towards the water. He kicked the sides of the beast.

He was a centaur, I knew. He was going to carry me over the river, and away from the house and the oil company and the whole, boring mess I had made with my husband. I’d live in the woods with him, eating wild roots and hunted game. He would have a penis so large it would make me scream in pain, like being destroyed. It would be so hard, and so wonderful. It would be more brutal than anything my husband had ever done to me. I’d be tied to a tree, and hung there, with my arms braced with ropes, and some bench or bar to take the huge weight of him. I’d be unable to walk. I’d be broken like a horse. When he was done with me, he’d feed me to the river.

He smiled, and picked his way across the rocky water. The river was deeper than I expected, going all the way up to the knees on the fake body that draped below the saddle. He looked so friendly, with such a broad, wide smile. Maybe we’d only be good friends. Maybe he’d let me ride him like a horse, and he could take me to the top of the mountains where the eagles still flew wild. He didn’t leave the water to hold his hand out to me, next to the log bridge.

“Hop on,” he said. He winked at me.

I was doomed, and I knew it. But, this was the only way to know anything more about the mysteries of the world. I took his hand. I took my place upon the false saddle, in front of him, where his strong arms held me like a damsel in distress. Across, then, to the other side of the water, and his powerful animal body below me, stronger than a ship, thrusting through the black water.

At the other side, I heard my name shouted out, and a man so angry he could kill me.

The gun, my husband’s gun.

Was he aiming for me? Was he aiming for the centaur?

We fell, the beast and I, on the rocky shore on the far side of the river from the man that fired a single bullet.

The monstrous bridge, an alligator now with a hundred heads, tried to stop my husband from running to us.

There’s blood. Someone is screaming. It’s me. I feel no pain. Someone is not screaming. He is trembling. His back leg is lamed.

The thrashing waves, and the monster of the water, and I saw my husband grappling all its heads at once in a powerful squeeze, upon its back like riding the hydra.

The horse is dead. The man on the horse is dying. He ‘s crushed under the weight of the false head. He’s bleeding all over me.

Was the bullet for me, or for him?

The hydra screamed in death, like a thousand songbirds flying away in fear.

My husband grabbing at me, muttering some in Greek and some in English.

He pulled me from the back of the beast. The blood is not mine. The horse and rider, a bullet passed through the leg, and into the beast. It had bled out. It was still bleeding. His arm was moving.

My husband fired a bullet through the horse’s brain. Sawdust shot out from it. He fired again, this time through the rider. The whole animal stilled.

I had never seen so much blood.

My husband, the slayer of horses and slayer of men, killer of the hydra and the Nemean Lion, the man who wrestled death and won, and did so many great and glorious things I could not count them all, dragged me by the hair into the woods on the other side of the river. He struck me with the gun so hard the world spun away from me, and I could barely think. He took me, there, with the centaur’s blood all over my disheveled clothes.

“Mine,” he said. “My wife!”

I’ll never leave him. I knew that then. I would be his until I was dead. I would never know anything but that, until I was dead, and I could leave him.

When the centaur’s blood made him sick, I lit candles on the alter to pray for his death.

When he died, I wondered if it was my fault or his. I wondered what I would do in that huge house, all alone, and he was gone to a world more mysterious than the oil wells, and a darkness blacker than the oil.

I lived a long time, then, by myself.

I was lonely for a while, but then I got used to it, and my children came to visit sometimes.

I sold the house. I live in a small house to be close to by my granddaughter.

I tell them stories about a happy dragon named Tescorow, who helps the children of the world play games and trick their parents.

My sons and daughters don’t understand what happened to their father.

Nobody really talks to me anymore except my grandchildren.

When I pull Megara’s pictures down from the attic, with her children, I arrange them all around me and look at them. She had bruises on her arms in most of them. Her children always seemed to have bruises, too. There’s one where the boy has a black eye and he’s standing in his father’s shadow, staring at the camera as if afraid it will reach out and bite him.

The obituaries for my husband ran all over the world. He was a glorious man. He was well-respected among the leaders of men. My husband, the glory of Juno.