That night when we all found out she was dying (some of us knew / found out beforehand) I received a valuable key to my past. I really did. Which seems callous to say, but we weren’t ever really that close. Sure, it was tragic what happened, really sad. But it wasn’t something any of us could help. It is what it is, people love to say, and while I really and truly hate that saying, there really is a kernel of truth to that.
Phyllis pulled me aside on the steps. They were inside, celebrating cancer girl, though why they would do that I’ll never know. She was on her way out, we all knew that, from the country and from this earth. Why even pretend like there’s something to celebrate? Sure, it’s to preserve a sense of normalcy, one last get- together. But in all honesty, what’s the use of that? Everyone’s just trying to pretend like they’re happy, like they’re having a blast, like nothing is really happening. It’s so fucking fake, slitting your wrists is way better. We know she’s dying, She definitely knows that she’s dying, and still we’re all acting out this incredibly stupid charade. Where we pretend it’s all fine and Dandy.
The ancients were much more honest about that. They fattened their victims up before they sliced them open and threw them into the fire or the abyss. One year before they were offered up like the prize that they were. Sure, it was brutal, but it was honest. You want to know how I know About this? It’s because I was there.
That’s right, I was there. It was another place and another Time – it sure as hell wasn’t as cold as what we were experiencing where we are now every summer – and I remembered on the day of the party of that wretched girl.
It was Phyllis who gave me the means to go there. Phyllis, who knew exactly how I felt, because I’m guessing she felt the same. Phyllis had traveled to interesting places, where they prepared plants to better connect you to the earth. And she brought something back. Despite all the repercussions that entailed. Oh, I’m not talking about the obvious ones, when you’ve traveled as much as Phyllis and I have, you learn a thing or two, I mean the so-called spiritual repercussions. I always scoffed at that, and at the supposed closeness you’re meant to feel to the earth, so I told phyllis I’d try that shit when I really despaired at the human race.
I wasn’t that tight with phyllis, she wasn’t a close friend, but we were from the same region back home, so that kind of tied us together. And she knew how to party, or rather, when the party was called for. So while they were all forcefully laughing and chatting, like the birthday girl hadn’t already crossed the threshold of Death, Phyllis’ and my eyes met over someone’s head, and she nodded towards the side entrance. We both got up at the same time and headed that way. No one took any notice of our chairs scraping across the linoleum floor.
It wasn’t a pill, it was a plant. Part of a plant. An ordinary leaf I was sure she’d plucked on her way to the Celebration, so when she asked if I wanted to take it, I was sure she was messing with me. My eyes were tiny slits, barely visible, as I lit up a cigarette, even as she taunted me that I’d never dare and I accepted.
“Munch the leaves slowly,” she said. “Let them dissolve in your mouth.”
She didn’t ask me for money. She said my soul was enough, at which I laughed. Phyllis was what we kindly referred to as an old hag. Impossible to tell her age, even though I’d been around people like her all my life. She was what my mother’s people had warned us kids against. That if we talked to strangers, they might be nice, and they might be asking for help, but they could just as easily convince us to give them our souls, and we wouldn’t even know it. Phyllis being from where I was and of the same background, I knew why she was making a joke of that. It was one of the reasons why we’d escaped. Old people, steeped in superstition, exerting control over others under the guise of passing on our ancestors’ myths and legends. When you have no money, and no real standing in the community, fear is all that is left.
They tasted like nothing, those leaves I was munching, even as I let them dissolve slowly in my mouth, like she’d instructed. Inside they were still partying, talking, pretending. Theirs wasn’t a culture of being constantly outside when the sun was warm and the weather was hot. Summer nights most of us barely saw the insides of our apartments, except when we quickly ran inside because we got thirsty, or we had to pee. Most of us learned to hold it in, and try and wheedle a drink out of someone when our throats became really parched. Parents needed privacy, too, in those long summer days that offset the winter with the scorching sun we all craved when the snow got too much and everything around you was frozen solid. Their wrath wasn’t worth the reward of the immediate relief of ice water.
I used to love those long summers when I was a kid. Phyllis and I hadn’t met then – which wasn’t at all strange in a city that housed more people than most countries had citizens – but I knew what her childhood was like, how she’d craved those same sprinklers I danced under, how she’d cowered from the voices of her parents. How no one really feared that anything bad would happen to us because the old ladies whose husbands and lovers had died, watched us from their own stoops, and we knew better than to run to our parents crying when they raised their voices, or sometimes even their hands. As long as we didn’t talk to the old crones who never stepped off the sidewalk and asked us to help them – while promising us the world in return – we remained safe. I loved how Phyllis had made that part of our old lives the one thing she’d brought over with her. People need their stories and legends, especially when they’re far away from those who tell them, and know what they say.
The people inside knew none of that. They worshipped their idols with cans of beer and fists in the air. But the dancing was the same, wild, manic, deliberate. I half wondered why they were getting up to do it in there, a crowded bar, before remembering that this was the whole point. I wanted to look at Phyllis so I could roll my eyes at her, but my neck wouldn’t obey me, instead I was transfixed by the scene taking place inside. The few men who’d come to celebrate Cancer Girl (I’d overheard someone say it, and while it was a horrible nickname, it was the most honest thing about their interaction with her), had now gathered around something in the middle of the room and were dancing. A person as it turned out, when I caught a glimpse through the dancing masses, a man. Lying on an altar. Kept in place by four others, while their leader chanted. Watching them carry on like that, I could understand why they were so drawn to the music they listened to, which was all growls and wailing. The same lament the woman holding the long obsidian knife would emit from her lips after she had plunged it into the chest of the man held down by the four men at his side. Before she offered his heart to the leader.
It would take her a while to lament, and she would not do it in front of them – for whom she had sacrificed the only man she had ever cared for with all her heart and soul. She would wait until the ceremony ended – her heart bleeding with his every second – though her bloodshed was not as visible as his – when all the men and their leader had returned to their beds. And in the darkness she would cry alone for the love that was taken away from her, the love she could never have. In her anguish she silently howled at the moon, begging him to help her forget, offering her soul to the god of darkness if he could help her forget. And the god answered, and told her he would help her forget throughout lifetimes until the day he would send a messenger to give him her soul.
It hit me then, all those stories our elders had told us. The old crones who never stepped off the sidewalk and asked us for help. That was how Phyllis and I had met. When we’d all been together for the first time, and she asked me when we’d been on that summer terrace if I knew where the bathroom was, where she might wash her hands. I never did see her go inside that day. Such an easy question, and that’s when I got it. They didn’t take your soul right away, they asked for your help and then waited. She’d looked like the old crone she was then, but now she was beautiful, her long hair bouncing against her shoulders and then her waist. I could see it grow longer, thicker right there in front of my eyes, as it struck me. They didn’t play that kind of music in that particular bar. And they never had.
Those men I’d seen dancing, they were not ours. They were her faithfuls, come to take what her master had told me one day he would make me remember. On the day he would come for what I had promised him in my dismay.
Stories of love and darkness – this is a hashtag.