Phantasmacore

fiction gallery

Four Parties

January 21st, 2012

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.”

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